Spacehoppers, Flares and Trade Union Militancy

With UK opinion polls inclining towards the possibility of a hung parliament at the forthcoming general election (although Lenin is sceptical), BBC Parliament deemed it opportune to re-broadcast the corporation’s election night coverage from February 1974, the last election which produced no overall majority at Westminster.

I waded through all six hours at leisure, as much in a spirit of televisual archaeology as historical research. 1974 was before my time, but the Life On Mars thesis of an irreconcilably alien world was borne out to some extent. In fact, everyone was so fucking ugly and ludicrously dressed that I’m surprised the birth-rate didn’t stall altogether.

Beyond the terrifying vista of a world made entirely of beige and hair, however, lay a televisual culture both strikingly familiar and oddly dissonant. The format of the programme was pretty much the standard fare which has survived into the present day: A chief anchor, a couple of eccentric psephologists, a tech kid, a panel of interviewees, some vox pops with inarticulate punters, a few weak humorous interludes, and a band of hardy foot-soldiers doing OB from the count centres.

Nowadays, of course, the emphasis has changed somewhat. The professional psephologists have been marginalised and replaced by graphical shock ‘n’ awe, the main presenter is flanked by a row of permanent and semi-permanent panellists, and the supreme imperative of speed results in an array of reporters standing under basketball hoops and trying to find varying ways of saying that they don’t have a fucking clue what’s happening yet.

What struck me most about the ’74 coverage was the performance of Alistair Burnet under a monstrous workload. Sure, he’s a slimy, oleaginous creep, but he played a blinder. With no laptop, no in-studio interviewees (all the strangely truncated interviews were conducted by Robin Day, tucked away in a poky corner of the studio) and presumably without a torrential surge of information flooding his earpiece in the modern fashion, he kept on top of events, exhibited instant familiarity with all candidates and constituencies, dealt with a breaking news story from Belfast, and didn’t flag once in the course of a six-hour marathon.

The election itself resulted in a minority Labour government which ruled for eight months until Harold Wilson sought a working majority. It also demonstrated the inadequacy of the British first-past-the-post electoral system, as the Liberals were left with just fourteen seats to show for their six million votes (a horse Robert McKenzie flogged endlessly and in vain.)

I’ve uploaded a few highlights which give a flavour of the politics, the campaign and the coverage.

First up, some marvellously old-school striking miners in Denaby reject claims of political striking by a hostile interviewer.

Burnet sombrely interrupts coverage of the election to report multiple bombings and a fatality in Belfast (including a later update.)

David Dimbleby’s round-up of the pre-election campaign, featuring Enoch Powell acting demented, Jeremy Thorpe (whom I was surprised to discover is still alive) sounding typically sinister, and a cast of assorted clueless toffs.

A plummy punter in Trafalgar Square who appears to have been animated by more than the spirit of liberalism (incidentally, “liberalism” is evidently a word to avoid when you’re pissed.)

Desmond Wilcox interviews the original Tory Boy.



Communist Party candidate Jimmy Reid gracefully accepts defeat in Dunbartonshire Central after polling almost 6,000 votes. He was one of only two unsuccessful candidates whose speeches were broadcast that night, for some reason. He’s now a member of the SNP.

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One Response to “Spacehoppers, Flares and Trade Union Militancy”

  1. WorldbyStorm Says:

    Oddly enjoyable in parts. I’m just about old enough to remember this… I was 9. Nice find.

    Re ugly and ludicrously dressed wait until someone unearths Election 2007 in 2030 or so 🙂

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