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Bob's wonderful machines

Made urgent by a groovy, doomy jazz soundtrack, the title sequence of the BBC’s Election 74 Thursday night spectacular flashed multiple visuals of Alastair Burnet, Robin Day and Bob McKenzie. Like the bridge of Starship Enterprise, the set crawled with purposeful minions and beeped and blooped with monitors, read-outs and displays. Alastair was Captain Kirk. Bob McKenzie was Mr Spock. David Butler was Chekhov and the lovely Sue Lawley was Lt. Uhura. Mission — to Foretell the Future.

The Harris Poll taken after voting, Alastair announced, indicated a Labour majority of one hundred-plus. ‘Bob McKenzie is already on the Battleground.’ Most sensational of all Bob’s Wonderful Machines, the Battleground is a titanic toy which only its creator can operate or indeed comprehend. Working the slider, Bob showed which Tory seats might fall if the facts followed predictions. ‘As we know well in the studio, however,’ said Alastair, ‘polls and tipsters can be wrong.’ How right he was. ‘Polls can say one thing but it’s actual results that matter.’ Right again.

Bill Miller in Glasgow brandished ‘our own little Swingometer’, and said that if the polls were right, the needle was off the dial. ‘We are all waiting for the facts,’ warned Alastair. ‘Facts which can only come from the returning officers.’ The first result would probably come from Guildford, where Esther Rantzen was in position. ‘One polling officer,’ trilled Esther vivaciously, ‘couldn’t start his car, and actually had to hitch a lift with his ballot box.’ Time to introduce the Electronic Results Computer, coyly entitled Eric — a Machine so fabulously complex that not even Bob was allowed to play with it. ‘If Eric is happy ... staggering speed ... and he’s very fussy ... within microseconds ... a matter of seconds.’ A demo run was set up to show how fast Eric worked. The groovy, doomy music played while he did his number. Cymbals crashed as he produced his results. Mere mortals were prostrate in worship. The hubris was as thick as halva; you could have cut it with a knife.

As ever, Desmond Wilcox was in Trafalgar Square, cheesed off at having once again been cast as light relief. Eliciting vox-pops in the rain is a bad trip. He was either beamed back up to the starship or eaten by the natives, since he was never heard from again. ‘It’s time for us to ask ourselves,’ said Alastair, ‘just why we are here tonight.’ A quick review of the past year. Michael Steed was introduced — an expert on Tactical Voting. As it turned out, there was to be no tactical voting, so Michael’s presence was a trifle otiose. Would Labour have a mandate? Was its majority illusory? David Butler said the predictions had been over-stated. ‘I think we might be making too much of it myself,’ Bob corroborated, tapping his nose for ‘I think’ and moving his hands apart to indicate ‘too much’. Bob’s News-for-the-Deaf hand signals are an increasingly important part of his act. Marplan in Keighley said the swing might be as low as 1.4 per cent.

We plugged in to Austria to see what they were saying about our election. ‘Der BBC und sein Erich-komputer...’ At eleven o’clock Robin Day appeared sitting at a technological-looking desk beside a mysterious blonde shrouded in shadow. He was talking to Lords Boothby and Shinwell, aged, collectively, about one hundred an sixty-nine — ‘two of the all-time political greats’. Boothby woofled and Shinwell wheezed. Who would succeed Heath? Boothby said it wouldn’t be Whitelaw. Shinwell said it ought to be Carrington, but he was in the Lords. Robin observed that Lord Shinwell seemed uncommonly impressed by peers lately.

Sue reported from ‘the Battlefront’ in London, flashing a still of Alan Watson, once a valued crewman of the starship and now standing as a Liberal. If Alan succeeded it would apparently indicate fulfilment of the Liberal Party’s dreams of a solid block of seats. Since any country which could put up with Alan could presumably put up with an oligarchy, this view was hard to refute. 11.05: Esther says that the Guildford RO is putting his jacket on. The first result must be imminent. No, not yet. Back to Bob, who unveils his New Improved Mini-Swingometer marked big party swing. This transistorised model of his immortal invention looks like being confined, he now thinks, to a tiny differential of 1 per cent. But here comes a fact at last: back to Esther at Guildford. The Tories hold it. Macro Eric ingests the micro-datum. While it is being processed, Robin entertains Lords Wigg, Beaumont and Windlesham, advising them not to worry about Alastair Burnet, who is just a parasite. Much heavy banter is fated to be lavished on the subject of what Robin might have meant by this.

At 11.27 the Tories hold Torbay, and the figures are looking dodgy. Bob warns of ‘Differential Floatback’. By midnight Margaret Jackson has beaten Dick Taverne, but the Labour majority is looking as thin as a wafer. Robin and Dick Taverne get in touch through the wonders of electronics. ‘Good morning, Dick: I can’t hear what you’re saying.’ ‘I can hear you.’ ‘I can hear you.’ ‘But now I can’t hear you.’ ‘Dick ...’ ‘I can’t hear you.’ Bob says that the opinion polls have once again fouled up, and only his Machines possess the truth. Robin gets in touch with Edward du Cann. ‘I can’t hear what you’re saying, Robin.’ ‘We’re on the air.’ ‘I can’t hear through this thing. Can I take it out of my ear?’

At 12.20 Bob is poised before the Battleground. ‘This is the area where the two big parties meet head on,’ he grits, evoking Bosworth Field and Stalingrad. ‘A total nine-pin situation’ — there are hand-signals to illustrate this — is apparently now unlikely. ‘The Liberal take-off problem’ is indicated by the Take-off Graph, which refuses to take off. The Tory victor in Sutton and Cheam strangely thanks his ‘helpers who have worked so unavailingly in these past weeks’. At 1.00 Bob wheels on a new Machine, called The Country as a Whole — a map of Britain with little monoliths standing around on it, representing gains, losses and percentages. This Machine is manifestly incomprehensible and little more is heard of it.

At 1.35 Wilson talks to Michael Charlton and promises a hard slog. David’s habit of saying ‘Conservative’ for ‘Labour’ and ‘Labour’ for ‘Conservative’ is by now worsening, but Bob shows no signs of fatigue. He promotes the Swingometer as the great success of the night, and illustrates the meaning of the word ‘precarious’ by moving his two index fingers around each other. By 3.00 he confidently predicts a ‘ten-seat majority situation’, later amplified to ‘a coming-and-going relationship very near the 1964 situation’. On ITV, the studio is equally full of terrific toys and flashing lights, but Robert Kee and his team are far too normal to compete with the BBC crew.

The long night wore on. Michael Barratt and Brian Widlake took over the bridge while Kirk and Spock got some quick sack-time. At 7.15 the beautiful Sue interviewed Tony Blackburn, who had voted Liberal ‘to break the two-party system’. David, too, was still on the bridge, predicting a Conservative — that is, Labour — majority of not less than three, not more than eleven: thank you Marplan and good night Harris. Michael Barratt interviewed Katina, the Evening Standard’s astrologer, whose predictions had been the same as Marplan. Uranus was powerful in Wilson’s horoscope, but he must watch out for Hugh Scanlon. The economy would start to recover in January.

Bob McKenzie was back at 9.00, saying that ‘the theory of swing’ had worked ‘astonishingly well’. He talked of ‘paralandings’. He fiddled once again with The Country as a Whole. In his indefatigable eye glittered the dream of new Machines.

13 October, 1974

[ This piece also appears in our Observer TV column chapter ]