BOB Hope memorably described the Oscars as “two hours of entertainment spread out over four hours”. You have to wonder what he’d have made of election night TV, which started when polls closed last night and is still going on.
David Dimbleby presided over his eighth election night for the BBC, holding forth in a specially built studio which was part Starship Enterprise, part provincial nightclub.
Adam Boulton did the honours for Sky, while Alistair Stewart was back on ITV despite his bizarre appearance on the broadcaster’s election debate, which made him look like an out-of-his-depth supply teacher with Tourette’s (“Mr Clegg! Mr Cameron!”).
To begin with there wasn’t much to see. Armed only with an exit poll, any scrap of detail was pounced on. David Cameron had spent the evening chopping some wood. Gordon Brown ate lamb stew and had a nap at 8.30pm.
With no substance, onto the style as the broadcasters unveiled their latest incomprehensible graphics. Julie Etchingham paraded in front of an “interactive holographic wall” while Jeremy Vine sauntered down a simulated Downing Street, presenting his box of tricks like a child on Christmas Day. Oh for the days of good old-fashioned flipchart.
Indeed, not everyone was quite so comfortable with the technology. A round-up of social media developments started with a bewildered Dimbleby announcing that Facebook had been abolished, his rather alarmist summary of the site’s security problems that had emerged yesterday.
Early excitement came as the extent of polling problems became clear. Politicians lined up to express their outrage while shellshocked local officials made stumbling apologies. While anger built from all political parties in the studios, not everyone was so sympathetic. “Students, get out of bed earlier if you want to vote”, tweeted political blogger Guido Fawkes.
Then there was the BBC’s boat on the Thames, captained by Andrew Neil. The guest list included a mix of cantankerous historians, fabled actors and daytime TV hosts. A power-cut halted the glamour, cutting Fern Britton off mid-sentence which, given her ability to wrangle the truth from politicians, could be picked over by conspiracy theorists. Thankfully we were able to return for Joan Collins’ endorsement of David Cameron. The irrepressible star, now on her fifth marriage, admired the importance he placed on the family.
Away from the celebrity air-kissing, egos clashed magnificently. Alastair Campbell took on Adam Boulton over whether the media had given Cameron an easy ride. Never one to sidestep confrontation, fellow guest Kelvin MacKenzie asked Campbell if he’d been on the “funny cigarettes”. Earlier, in an exchange straight out of the classroom, Paxman told Mandelson off for fiddling with his phone. Mandelson meekly insisted it was only his glasses.
The counts provided their own amusement. Esther Rantzen spoke in such glowing terms of Luton, I had to check this was the same place that easyJet fly into.
Meanwhile, Gordon Brown’s poignant speech on winning his constituency was somewhat undermined by the Black Power-style salute behind him from the Land is Power candidate, Derek Jackson.
At least Brown managed to upstage Ken Clarke, who suffered the indignity of being sidelined for pictures of the Prime Minister in his car. “God forbid you should cut away from me to go to a picture of Gordon Brown arriving at his count,” he grumbled.
But Clarke has gone through enough election nights to know that is their very ethos. There’s always another image, another result and nothing ever stands still. This was a night as fascinating, messy and bizarre as British politics.