On the morning of 10 April 1992, Anthony Powell wrote in his diary: "The Tories elected with a majority of twenty-one," after John Major's unexpected victory. "The BBC is feeling it dreadfully."
So far as one can remember the events of 18 years ago, Powell was bang on. The corporation, whose exit polls had predicted a hung parliament, was deeply irked. The displeasure on some of its correspondents' faces as they began to interrogate newly returned Tory ministers was well-nigh tangible. Some of the interest in Friday's events, consequently, rested not so much on the results as on the BBC's angle regarding them, particularly in the light of the last three general elections, where the station's anti-Conservative bias must have struck even anti-Conservatives as excessive. The worst culprit was Peter Snow, whose caperings in front of the swingometer invariably seemed intent on putting the Tories in the worst possible light.
The historian David Kynaston, whose opinion I sought a few days ago, counselled caution. The BBC wasn't actively prejudiced against the Tories, he suggested: it was just that they liked a winning side. Thus, any swelling tide in popular opinion would have them nodding their heads on the grounds that the people had spoken. So how was it going to pan out this year? Mr Snow, alas, has retired. Jeremy Vine, though equipped with all the latest computer technology – virtual dominoes branded with the faces of vulnerable MPs, ersatz steps leading up the stairs of 10 Downing Street – is less excitable and jumps about less, and, one suspects, had probably been warned by his superiors not to overdo things. Curiously, as peculiar swing succeeded peculiar swing, it was possible to detect a growing resentment among the rows of talking heads. No attitudes could be struck and few insinuations filed, because nobody knew what was going on. In these circumstances, Jeremy Paxman's irritation was quite wonderful to behold. All he could do to mitigate the hurt was to be gratuitously rude to everyone. But perhaps this is progress of a sort.
I started off watching the BBC's coverage, helmed by the lofty, unflappable and at one point Auden-quoting David Dimbleby. Here another ancient prejudice was at work. The BBC, most neutral observers generally agree, does ceremonial, display and events of national significance better than the commercial TV companies. The ghost of Dimbleby Snr hangs over any kind of pageantry, and there is the additional benefit of grave matters not being interrupted by adverts for lavatory paper. This time round, ancient prejudice seemed to have been confirmed by newspaper previews, which forecast that ITV's Alastair Stewart and his team would lack gravitas, big-beast panellists and so on.
Strangely, as the evening wore on, I was surprised to find quite how behind-hand the BBC's coverage seemed. Whenever one changed channels, the BBC were always a dozen or so seats off the pace. At 3am, ITV had the Tories on 94 seats and Labour on 97; the BBC lagged behind with 87 and 79 seats respectively. By 3.30am ITV had the Tories on 134 and Labour on 114, while the BBC figures were, respectively, 113 and 104. After a couple of hours of watching this, I decided that ITV had somehow managed to procure the polling figures before the returning officer had made it to the podium, while the BBC continued to offer "live results" that channel-hopping viewers already knew. All this was compounded by Dimbleby's habit of ignoring breaking news that flashed on the screen beneath him, preferring instead to go over to a celebrity-strewn party on a boat moored on the Thames near Westminster, where such well-known political savants as Bruce Forsyth and Joan Collins (and, to be fair, Professors David Starkey and Simon Schama) gave us their views on the night's developments.
Naturally this gathering wasn't without its comic side. One was struck by how often, in the merciless small-hours light, famous people start to resemble ingenious waxworks of themselves. Then there was the task of trying to work out who they were and why they were there. "Is he doing an impression of someone?" I innocently inquired of my wife after half a minute or so of Alistair McGowan's vigorous cameo. All this, by the way – a point always worth making about the BBC – must have cost a great deal of money.
Dazed by five hours of analysis – much of it, as things were slow to get going, horribly repetitive – one ended up simply examining it as a spectacle and awarding points. Easily the best talking heads on offer were the constitutional experts: in fact, Professors Vernon Bogdanor and Peter Hennessy were so eloquently authoritative that you rather wondered why they hadn't been allowed to front the programme themselves. Among BBC staff dragged out of their comfort zones, Fiona Bruce looked flustered, Paxman so glacially disdainful that it was a marvel that defeated politicians agreed to be questioned by him (the highlight here was Lembit Opik, soundly rebuked by the free electors of Montgomeryshire, who told Paxman not to be so patronising and superficial). The no-nonsense lady from the Electoral Commission did a wonderful job of insisting that the difficulty thousands of people had merely in casting their vote wasn't her fault.
Among the politicians, Lord Mandelson looked so darkly sinister that it was as if his body was being worked by a series of invisible wires. Jack Dromey, who joins his wife Harriet Harman in the House, repeated the two or three sentences drilled into his head by Transport House with a kind of robotic intensity, and the Lib Dems' Lord Rennard was so masterfully unctuous that he should be signed up to play Canon Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest. On half a dozen occasions, some grand eminence turned his face benevolently to the camera and declared that it was "the people's election". In fact, the people were conspicuous by their absence. We saw them queuing in rainswept streets and quarrelling with polling station staff who were denying them the time to vote. There was a certain amount of Twittering. Genuine vox pop, on the other hand, somehow eluded the planners' radar. Rather than hob-nobbing with Mariella Frostrup and Martin Amis, Andrew Neil would have been better off asking one or two ordinary people what they thought.
As ever, election night offered a wonderful opportunity to brush up one's geography. Not only were there the fanciful renamings of the Scottish and Welsh constituencies inflicted on us by the Electoral Commission ("Na h-Eileanan an Iar" for the Western Isles, and so on), some of the newly created English constituencies have floated free from any instantly recognisable locale. "Ah," I remarked knowledgeably to my wife at about 1.30am as the TV screen heralded a result from Filton and Bradley Stoke, "one of those swing West Midlands seats at last". All this was very embarrassing, but not quite as embarrassing as a moment I recalled from the 1983 election, when a camera crew infiltrated a triumphalist election night party somewhere in Chelsea. "Darling," a languid-looking girl could be heard inquiring of her consort, as fresh evidence of the Conservative landslide flashed on to the giant screen, "where's Con Hold?"
Inevitably, a note of pathos prevailed. Occasionally this was highly misleading. The Lib Dems' Chris Huhne, awaiting the result at Eastleigh, looked exactly like Enoch Powell used to look at the counts of the 1970s: bleak, remorseful, terminally ground-down, clearly regretting the false hopes and the futile endeavours that had brought him there. As with Powell, this was a carefully staged deception: Mr Huhne increased his majority. More often, the faint scent of what it might be like to be publicly disparaged by thousands of people stole upon an air made raucous by the baying of partisans.
Whatever complaints one might have about Charles Clarke were, at least temporarily, anaesthetised by the sight of the old bruiser coming to terms with his defeat. It was the same with Jacqui Smith, cast out into the night by the electors of Redditch, and going home to what must have been a brisk conversation with her husband over the breakfast tea-cups.
There was even pathos in the sight of the ancillary rag-tag figures who so gamely infiltrate themselves into the party leaders' declarations: the surrogate hitman in dark glasses who held a clenched fist aloft for the full five minutes of Gordon Brown's acceptance speech; the amiable representative of the Monster Raving Loonies, apparently relocated from the "Dunny-on-the-Wold" by-election in Blackadder, who lurked behind David Cameron at Witney. It was an extraordinary pageant, the most exciting night on television for years, and there's a keen relish in the prospect of sitting through it all again in six months' time.