We learned this week something of the BBC’s plans for covering the 2015 general election.
Given it’s still over a year until polling day, this was somewhat unprecedented. But then so was the announcement. 2015 will see a ceremonial passing of the indiscreet Mars bar. David Dimbleby, who has anchored every general election for the Beeb since 1979, will serve his last tour of duty behind the desk. Moreover, he won’t even helm the entire programme. Huw Edwards will take over the morning after, and will remain in place for as long as it takes to form a government. Which, given Huw’s unambiguously capable charms, will be hopefully at least a week.
Huw (one of the few people in Britain who can be referred to by one name and not as an insult) will present all future election coverage on the BBC. This isn’t really a surprise; Dimbleby (see preceding parenthesis) has been fashioning an exit for ages. The only real question is whether he’s chosen to walk through it or was pushed.
There’s a trace of a Granita-style deal about the transition. Dimbleby could, and arguably should, have bowed out in 2010. His lightness of touch and sureness of tone disappeared around the same time as Robert Kilroy-Silk’s Veritas, only with more dignity. Given Kilroy-Silk bowed out after having a hissy fit over someone squirting him with a water bottle, admittedly this was not hard.
But even the sometime host of Shafted knew better than to give the impression of wanting, to coin a phrase, to go on and on and on. One of Dimbleby’s best election night ad-libs was prompted by the toxic gales of self-delight forever swirling around the originator of that desperate quote. Asked by Robin Day during the BBC’s coverage of the 1987 election to speculate on whether she’d still be PM in 2000, Mrs Thatcher replied she could well be “twanging a harp” by then. Back in the studio, Dimbleby unleashed a zinger. “Well, she’s absolutely convinced she’s going to heaven one day!” he cracked, to knowing laughter from the studio crew.
Which brings us to this week’s other election news. It got somewhat overshadowed by David’s long goodbye day. In fact, it barely drew any comment – at least from the mainstream media. But buried down towards the bottom of the press release, sounding as half-apologetic as a Lib Dem lost deposit, was confirmation that all the BBC’s election results coverage will now be broadcast from Elstree.
Granted, part of this is expediency. Seeing as TV Centre is no more, Elstree is the closest property nearest to the capital in which the BBC can afford to take the time to plan and build an election studio. The newly-expanded Broadcasting House, in a bittersweet irony, is too small to both co-ordinate and transmit a programme. Salford, Glasgow or Birmingham were deemed presumably too far away, although the last time we looked each of those cities contains both MPs and actual voters.
Elstree has space to spare, which the BBC has the resources to fill. Whether politicians will be among them is another matter. For Elstree is not easy to get to. It’s not on the doorstep of any transport interchange. The A1 and M1 are nearby, but not easy to reach. And it’s a 10-minute walk from a small and moderately-served railway station.
These may sound like parochial observations. And sure, the Beeb has trusted ways of shuttling people to and from the site. But just how many MPs will want to pop over to Hertfordshire for a psephological natter on polling night? In the time it takes a big beast to ride up from London, a dozen backroom deals might have been done to deny the minister their chauffeured car back home.
It matters having guests in the studio on election night. In 2001 ITV decided to junk them all and speak to contributors only via outside broadcasts. It was a major error, robbing proceedings of spark and hubbub. Technology mediates the impact of a presenter starting into the whites of someone’s eyes, and not always to the good. DG Tony Hall is long enough of tooth to appreciate the value of on-the-spot diagnoses when the nation’s returning officers start clearing their throats. Hopefully a battery of politicians will be hunkered around Dimbleby doing the same.
There’ll definitely be room for them at Elstree. For history also shows that the bigger the election night set, the more bracing the coverage.
Those occasions when the Beeb shunned scale for cosiness never made for quite so irresistible television. Think of 1983 or 1987. Minus all the multi-level gantries, whirring mechanoids and thronging foot soldiers, both proved stubbornly unsatisfying viewing.
But going big isn’t itself enough. In 2001 and 2005 you had the size but not the sociability. Dimbleby and co were plonked in atriums of shimmering glass and banquettes, capacious enough to accommodate the entire of House of Commons. Yet much like the real House of Commons, few people bothered to turn up. Election studios need bodies for news to ricochet off ferociously like pinball. Instead they might as well be on an iceberg in the Arctic. At least the hot air would have tangible impact there.
Elstree has the size, but will it have the camaraderie? Both are crucial for successful election night television. While the studios complemented admirably the anticipated razzmatazz of last year’s Strictly Come Dancing, coping with the unanticipated, not to mention unending drama of an election aftermath will be tough. Even getting Jeremy Vine to clatter up and down one of Strictly’s giant staircases won’t drown out a silence begging to be filled with the hum of a hundred number-crunchers.
Election shows are ensemble affairs, not star turns. Without a supporting cast of heft and volume, it won’t matter a jot whether Dimbleby or Huw takes the lead: the first result of the night will be a landslide swing away from the Beeb.