Politics - it's a screen test

It's nearly 50 years since television first took a tentative hand in elections, now performance is all
Click to follow
Once, elections were fought on doorsteps, on street corners and at public meetings. Not any more: BBC Television, ITV, Channel 4 and the new Channel 5 will devote a record 500 hours to the 1997 campaign. Even when John Major hops on to the soapbox, reminding us that, until relatively recently, that was virtually all there was, he will gear his appearance to the cameras. Like Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown, he will regard his small-screen image as all-important.

In the general election of 1950, there was no coverage on television. The BBC, then the only channel, decided it would be far too risky. Partly, this was a narrow interpretation of the legal restraints imposed on broadcasters during elections by the Representation of the People Act. And partly it was a fear of becoming involved in political controversy.

There was a minor breakthrough a year later, in the 1951 general election. Although the BBC again abstained from covering the campaign, for the first time the three main parties each produced an election broadcast. The Tories made a star of Churchill's debonair heir apparent, Anthony Eden. They billed the broadcast as a spontaneous conversation between Eden and Leslie Mitchell - then the BBC's best-known interviewer. But the two rehearsed every question and answer for days in advance and had learnt their lines by heart.

"Well now, Mr Eden, with your very considerable experience of foreign affairs," began Mitchell, "it's quite obvious I should start by asking you something about the international situation today, or perhaps you would prefer to talk about home. Which is it to be?" Eden chose to begin at home, where he thought there were a number of issues not sufficiently understood by the electors. "Really, Sir, that's interesting; which are they?" prompted Mitchell.

Labour's broadcast the next evening was in the same mould. "You may be wondering," began Christopher Mayhew, the Labour MP turned television interviewer, "how it happens that someone so well dressed, well educated and well-off as Sir Hartley Shawcross [a QC and Cabinet minister] comes to be in the Labour Party. What's your answer to that, Hartley?"

"Well, my answer, Chris, is why on earth shouldn't I be? It may be unusual to find a working man in the Tory party, but there are tens of thousands of people like me in the Labour Party."

Four years later, the press dubbed the 1955 campaign "the first TV election". There was still no BBC coverage, but parties now each had three half-hour election broadcasts. "It is no exaggeration," claimed Randolph Churchill, "to state that any of the election telecasters can lose the election in five seconds." Forty years back, because there was no video-recording and studio programmes went out live, the cock-up potential was high. Labour's first 1955 election broadcast was an ambitious effort designed to show how prices had risen under the Tories. Side by side in the studio were identical portions of butter, cheese, bacon and other foods. The formidable Edith Summerskill, chairman of the Labour Party, in the guise of an ordinary housewife, was to talk about the cost of living and stick a Labour price label into one portion of food, then the Tory price into the other.

Lady Falkender, then a Transport House secretary, remembers the studio rehearsals: "Edith would say, 'Now here we have cheese which has gone up by so much', and she would plonk the marker straight into the butter. And she would then put the marker for the butter straight into the cheese. And they kept having to tell her to start again. Under the studio lights the butter was melting, the cheese was dribbling and the whole thing was a scene of utter chaos."

The broadcast was little better ontransmission: it over-ran and had to be faded off the air. The Labour Party's general secretary rang to complain it was the worst programme he had ever seen and had been "sabotaged" by the BBC. "We realised then," says Lady Falkender, "that we had to come to terms with television."

By 1959, with the arrival of ITV, television embarked timorously on campaign coverage. The BBC and ITN carried brief extracts from speeches by the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, and the Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell. But there was not a single television interview with either. The parties' own election broadcasts remained the prime electronic means of seeking to influence voters.

Labour's broadcasts were masterminded by a BBC producer turned MP, the young Anthony Wedgwood Benn. Time has lent ironic enchantment to his blueprint for the programmes. "The aim must be immedi- ately to grab the viewers' attention with strong music and pictures," wrote Benn. "Suppose we decide our theme is to be 'The Land and the People', then the opening film sequence should be an atomic power station under construction, seen across fields of waving corn, and our music 'Jerusalem' sung by a Welsh choir."

In the 1964 election, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the Tory Prime Minister, was no match on television for Harold Wilson, the youthful new Labour leader. Wilson had studied video recordings of President Kennedy and taught himself television techniques. He used Kennedy's best lines, like "the new frontier" and the promise of "a hundred days of dynamic action".

But Home dreaded the studio: "I remember being made up for a broadcast and my conversation with the young lady who was applying the powder and tan went like this. 'Can you not make me look better than I do on television? I look rather scraggy - like a ghost.' 'No.' 'Why not?' 'Because you have a head like a skull.'"

In the campaign, BBC News and ITN would go over live to the election rallies of the two party leaders to transmit an extract from their speeches. Unlike Home, Wilson recognised he was on the air the instant he saw the red light glow on top of the camera. At the last moment, the Labour leader would jump mid-sentence to a crisp, sharp paragraph for the benefit of viewers at home.

In contrast, Home had no idea when the cameras were transmitting live. He sometimes stumbled so badly through his campaign speeches that reporters joked about clubbing together to buy him the other half moon for his spectacles.

No party leader, fighting an election, was more concerned about television than Margaret Thatcher in 1979. In her early years as leader she had reacted fearfully to the cameras. "I hate them, I hate them," she said about her television appearances.

But her media guru, Gordon Reece (later knighted for his services), taught her to stop worrying and love the boom mike. He told her that recorded snippets of her conversation could make her sound in touch with voters. And he introduced the photo opportunity into British elections. No previous aspirant prime minister had given a televised press conference in a field clutching a 12-hour-old calf. (As his wife tightened her grip on the animal, Denis Thatcher muttered, "If we're not careful we'll have a dead cow on our hands.")

The Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, who had himself allowed the occasional "farmer Jim" picture in the past, responded scornfully to Mrs Thatcher's bucolic pose. "If you want to be photographed holding a calf the wrong way, she'll oblige. But ask them to discuss the issues, and all you get is a deathly silence. The truth is in this election the Tories are being sold by Saatchi and Saatchi as though they were Daz or Omo."

Labour has learnt some hard lessons over the past 18 years and can now equal anything the Saatchis can deliver. Like Wilson with Kennedy 30 years earlier, Blair has studied the techniques of the most successful transatlantic election campaigner of the age. There has been a remarkable cross-pollination between the two youthful, Oxford-educated lawyers. Consider this recent selection of TV soundbites. Clinton: "We must do it together." Blair: "We must do it together." Clinton: "New ideas for new challenges." Blair: "New challenges - new ideas." Clinton: "Opportunity and responsibility - they go hand in hand." Blair: "And in return for those opportunities - responsibility."

Meanwhile the Tories, in a refurbished - but still considerably smaller than Labour's - media centre are wrestling with the problem that voters apparently have no wish to listen to ministers who have had 18 years in office. Indeed the signs are that 500 hours of pre-digested soundbites hold little interest for anyone.

The final frontier, then, is the US-style live head-to-head studio debate which would allow leaders to move beyond the pre-digested soundbite, and inject novelty, even tension. But for the spin doctors such a confrontation represents the thing they fear most: "an uncontrolled media event".

The writer is an award-winning political documentary maker.