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Busy old night

As Election Night dawned, if a night can dawn, only one question throbbed in the mind of the tension-fraught viewer. Was the BBC on its way out of power? Was it ITN’s turn to rule? All right, two questions.

By 11 p.m. both campaigns are in full swing. The BBC team is full of comfortably familiar faces. Perhaps too familiar. Their leader, David Dimbleby, looks increasingly like his father. David Butler is still the psephologist. As of yore, Robin Day is all set to interview aggressively. Nobody pretends that Robert McKenzie and his Swingometer have not got whiskers on them. Angela Rippon, though she has not done this sort of thing before, looks as if she has been doing it all her life. Perfectly relaxed, she is backed up by a £200,000 computer called Rover, as if to prove that a woman plus a £200,000 computer is the equal of any man.

Leading the ITN team, Alastair Burnet is another veteran. Nor are Peter Snow and Leonard Parkin precisely unrecognisable. But Martyn Lewis is a refreshing new face and Anna Ford, instead of being anchored to a £200,000 computer, is daringly out in the field like a female Rommel. Clearly ITN’s budget is but a fraction of the BBC’s. But there are more important things than money. Morale matters too.

For the BBC, Michael Charlton is ‘with Mrs Thatcher’. It is quickly apparent that being with Mrs Thatcher means standing outside her house at No. 19 Flood Street, Chelsea. ‘I can tell you that she’s in the small upstairs sitting-room ... possibly watching the box.’ David presses for more information. Michael penetrates the wall of the small upstairs sitting-room with his X-ray vision. ‘There’s no change in her condition ... she remains buoyant.’

For ITN, Anna Ford is also with Mrs Thatcher. Judging from the background she must be standing about three feet away from Michael Charlton, but unlike him she is not equipped with X-ray vision. First blow to the BBC, whose studio is rife with informed speculation. David: ‘It may be that we see a straight Tory victory ... but it is possible that ... there’s even an outside chance of ...’ Bob and his Swingometer: ‘I said she needs 4.5. According to the polls she’s got 4.7.’ Angela and Rover: ‘Computer ... can draw pictures never seen on screen before.’

Neither side knows which constituency will declare first. Sorting white from grey ballot slips may take time. For the BBC, Frank Bough and his raspberry-fool tie are in position at Guildford. He raises the multiple ballot slip issue. ‘One or two of the old biddies have had a little bit of trouble.’ Back in the studio, Robin Day is smoking a large cigar. ‘I shall be performing my usual humble function.’ Still no action. For ITN, Alastair says, ‘We’ll be talking to anyone who’s anyone,’ as the camera zooms in on an empty chair that will later contain Shirley Williams. ‘It’s going to be a busy old night.’

Back to Michael Charlton in front of Mrs Thatcher’s house. ‘We know that she’s in there.’ David: ‘Have you had any sign during the day or the evening of how she thinks things are going?’ ‘No.’ Michael’s X-ray vision is obviously no longer operational, and he is replaced by Martin Young. At ITN, Shirley Williams has arrived. The BBC goes back to Martin Young in front of Mrs Thatcher’s house and Anna Ford swims into shot. ITN goes back to Anna Ford in front of Mrs Thatcher’s house and Martin Young swims into shot. Anna: ‘I think the door is opening. Here she comes!’ Anna asks the front of Mrs Thatcher’s head a question. Martin Young asks the back of Mrs Thatcher’s head a question. Neither gets an answer, but once again Anna has scored a point.

The first result. ITN goes live to Glasgow Central while the BBC is still dithering back in the studio. David is on screen with someone else’s voice coming out of his mouth. Shambles. Finally Rover gets into action and produces some graphs, diagrams and statistics. The ITN computer, called VT 30 Display System, is clearly superior at all points. This could be a massacre.

At Smith Square, Mrs Thatcher gets out of her car and for 0.4 seconds speaks to Anna, woman to woman. The BBC representative is somewhere in the crowd, strangling in his own flex. The second result: Cheltenham. ITN is first again, screening the action and processing the result while on the BBC Angie is rabbiting on about a power cut causing chaos in some other constituency. At long last the Beeb screens a still of Cheltenham town hall, accompanied by silence.

But the fight is not over yet. ITN suffers a bad setback in Cardiff, where its man is caught standing in front of a doorway through which Mr Callaghan does not emerge. Back to the ITN studio, where John Pardoe and Michael Heseltine present a sharp contrast in hairstyles. Pardoe is saying that the impact of personality in politics can be immense. It is possible that he could have his own personality in mind. With the Liberal vote collapsing, he has to cling to something. He could always cling to Heseltine’s hair. By now it is after midnight and ITN is predicting a 65-seat Tory majority.

On the BBC Bob McKenzie is more cautious. Outdistanced by technology, his Swingometer stubbornly warns that the final result might be less dramatic. Peregrine Worsthorne is equally tentative. ‘We all try to be wise before the event, but I find it much easier to be wise after the event.’ Perry is a strong plus for the Beeb. Bob stands before the Battleground. ‘This is the board which I hope we’ll be coming back to very often, because it does tell the story as well as it can be told. Except by you, David.’ Could Bob and his creaking devices still have something on the ball?

ITN’s Julian Haviland catches Jim on the move. ‘Prime Minister, sorry to confront you like this.’ ‘No comment.’ A triumph for ITN. The Beeb boobs badly over the Angus South result. Rover gives the Tories 2,000 instead of 20,000. ITN has been saying that Swingometers are out of date, but the BBC is learning all over again that it can’t do without Bob. As Mrs Thatcher arrives in Finchley, the BBC has pictures, but they are pictures of Anna Ford. ‘There’s a lady from a television channel I won’t mention,’ says David, ‘I don’t know where our chap is.’

At 2.30 a.m. the BBC’s Rover is predicting a 74-seat Tory majority. But the BBC’s Bob McKenzie keeps insisting that only his steam-powered mechanisms hold the truth. At about 3.15 a.m. in Cardiff, Callaghan challenges Pat Arrowsmith to come up on the platform and repeat her abusive remarks. She comes up on the platform and repeats her abusive remarks. At 3.45 ITN is inside Tory headquarters. All night ITN has been first with the most. But for the BBC’s Bob McKenzie is has been a personal triumph. As both channels go off the air, the personnel are hollow-eyed, Rover and VT 30 are shamefacedly revising their estimates downwards, and only the Swingometer is fully alert, its cardboard arrow still pointing now where it has been pointing all night — at the right answer.

6 May, 1979