Essays: [Lord(?)] of the Swings [incomplete] |
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[Lord(?)] of the Swings [Election Special, incomplete]

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Observer page containing this, Clive James’s “Election Special”.
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...characters. The best reason for watching more of the BBC’s election coverage than of the ITN version was simply that the Beeb’s team were eccentrics one and all, and could thereby add to the immediacy of tho news the toothsome roundness of their personalities. Robert Kee is nowhere near kooky enough to be a true Election Night link-man. The only ITV talking head who could possibly do the job was to be found doing it for the BBC: a wise theft. Alistair Burnet Is Cliff Michelmore’s ideal successor — not so well endowed, perhaps, with crass bonhomie, but easily his predecessor’s equal in patronising snorts and chuckles.

In fact Burnet’s chuckle is a case study: a soft, slightly potty ‘herh-yerh’ unleashed exclusively at irrelevant points in the conversation. Filling out the studio team were David Butler, psephologist extraordinary, and Graham Pryatt, boffin with special responsibility for the Computer. ITV had a Computer, too, but it could boast nothing to match the star act in the Beeb’s studio line-up — Robert McKenzie and his Wonderful Machines.

The evening had barely got rolling before McKenzie was not only dusting off the faithful Swingometer but producing, as if from a holster, a brand-new toy on which the predictions of the Gallup, Harris, ORC and NOP polls were represented by little arrows pointing to a 60-seat Tory majority. As it happened, this device was fated not to come in handy, but we could be certain that a range of similar gadgets were stashed under his desk and all set to go.

Like M, Burnet had agents parked strategically in the field. Dimbleby was in Sidcup, waiting for Heath’s result; David Lomax was in Devon North for Thorpe’s; Michael Charlton was in Huyton for Wilson’s. Julian Wilson was at Ladbroke’s, Vincent Kane was in Wales, Magnus Magnusson was In Scotland. It took half an hour to ring around the circuit making sure everyone was on the case. By that time it was 10.30 and McKenzie was discussing (presciently) the possibility of a close finish. Mike Yarwood came on, did a weak Wilson number and an even weaker Heath, and went off. Burnet went ‘herh-yerh’ and introduced us to a new constituency called, marvellously, Havering.

Just after 11.0 the Guildford result was announced, featuring a swing to the Liberals. ‘The Swingometer,’ he breezed, is designed to cope with this’; and McKenzie contemplated his toy with cheery despair. ‘The Swingometer,’ he breezed, ‘is in real trouble.’ A master showman, he gave you plenty of time to be overwhelmed with disappointment before dispelling it by unveiling the Takeoff Graph (indicating the course of a possible Liberal success) and the Battleground, a blackboard-sized wall toy with a sliding vertical divider, like the window on a slide rule. The principle was different, but the result was the same: the Battleground was a Swingometer, sharing the characteristic — common to all McKenzie’s machines — of requiring an extremely elaborate explanation of its simplicity.

Des Wilcox was in Trafalgar Square. It was raining, it was cold, and no one was jumping into the fountains. At 11.53 McKenzie announced the Slidometer, a machine to keep track of what the major parties lost by Liberal penetration. Alan Watson reported in, from Tory HQ. We had all been wondering where he was. Lord Carrington, he said, had said ‘No comment’ when taxed with the Tories’ poor showing. Alan looked lonely. ‘And so,’ said Burnet, ‘Labour eyes. Are smiling. In Wolverhampton. At the moment. Let’s see. What they’re doing. In Trafalgar Square.’ Des Wilcox said nobody had jumped into the fountains. It was 12.20, and his fur coat was sodden with the rain.

Michael Charlton tried to interview Wilson In Huyton. ‘Mr Wilson, you look a very much more cheerful man than you did earlier. Mr Wilson, you look a very... MR WILSON, YOU...’ At 1.02 Wilson won. At 1.03 Thorpe won in Devon North. At 1.15 McKenzie merrily complained that the Battleground machine wasn’t telling him anything. Airily he scrapped the Takeoff Graph. At 1.24 Heath won In Sidcup and at 2.05 there was nobody in the Trafalgar Square fountains. Des looked wet. At 3.36 there was still nobody in the fountains and Des looked even wetter. At 3.37 McKenzie said the Swingometer had been right all along.

At 6.00 Michael Barrett came on. Alan Watson had been allowed back into the studio; David Butler was still there; but somehow it wasn’t the same. The star was missing. Bob McKenzie had gone back to the drawing-board.

The Observer, 3rd March 1974