Pic: Copyright BBC
If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.
Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.
History at its best is vicarious experience.
Edmund S. Morgan
On this Easter holiday Monday, hard-core political and media anoraks were enjoying the 1966 general election re-run on the BBC’s Parliamentary Channel (three days ahead of the actual 50th anniversary – tssch!). The election resulted in one of only two decisive majorities in UK history for an avowedly Socialist party.
It has become a part of a public holiday treat for the channel to do these general election re-runs. For me and similarly nerdy/geeky types (OK, I admit it!) they provide a fascinating, indeed compelling spectacle.
The beauty and fun – yes, fun, say I! – of studying media ‘texts’ is that it involves the analysis of both form and content. In this case, we have in these few hours of archived, continuous television coverage (aside from state funerals and The Coronation about the only such television output that is available) a window on the politics of the time: the issues, the personalities, the psephology – AND on the way that BBC television at least, covered these events. How the audience and the politicians and other ‘actors’ in the drama are addressed; who is chosen for comment and reaction and how it is framed; how different demographics are incorporated into the unfolding, dramatic narrative of an election night (and following morning), and how the available technology is used. It was the last general election coverage to be in black and white.
Just a quick snapshot of the times and situation: Labour had been elected back into government in October 1964, after 13 years in opposition, with an overall Commons’ majority of just four. It was clear that such a majority would be insufficient to last the full, maximum parliamentary term of five years, without the constant risk of government defeat, and it being stymied in enacting a pretty radical programme. So, Prime Minister Harold Wilson – whose birth centenary was this March – having seen the favourable opinion polls, decided to gamble the small majority for a more secure base.
Wilson was from a modest, lower middle-class background. A clever, scholarship, grammar-school boy he went onto Oxford University and achieved great academic distinction and seemed to set to become an Oxford Don, until politics (originally he was a Young Liberal) took hold in his imagination and drive.
His main opposition was from the Conservative party, under leader Edward Heath, who was from a similar humble background, also grammar-school educated and who also ‘went up’ to Oxford. Unlike Wilson, he served with distinction in the army in World War II. Heath was the first Tory leader to be elected by his fellow MPs – all the previous ones had ‘emerged’ through what was known as ‘the Magic Circle’ of Tory grandees.
I guess if you’ve got this far in a blog like this you know all of that, and more. But it’s just worth pointing out that this election, although held in the ‘Swinging Sixties’, with The Beatles about to hit the crossover high-point between popularity and artistic achievement and England set to win the FIFA World Cup a few months later, and the country having experienced a ‘satire boom’ a few years earlier, British society was still very ‘small c’ conservative, not least amongst the working class.
The great social reforms of de-criminalising (to a very limited extent) male homosexual acts (the prospect of this was a hot topic in the election, as we shall see), of legalising abortion (again under strict terms), were still over a year ahead. The Race Relations Act had still to be passed, so signs advertising houses to let could still legally (and did) state ‘No, Irish, No Coloureds, No Dogs’. ‘Racialist’ prejudice was in common parlance and actions. Children were legally beaten in schools, and often at home, and flogging in prisons had only recently been abolished. The London theatres were still under censorship; the execution of convicted murderers had only been abolished the year earlier, and then only for an experimental period.
The British Empire still existed in a tangible form east of Suez. Most people still left school at 15 and went straight into work. University education may have been free and supplying a grant, but only a tiny proportion of school-leavers went there. Most men still worked in the tough, manual industries such as coal-mining and ship-building or on factory production lines. There was near full employment, though, and unionisation was high, as was class consciousness, with distinctions in so many ways between the social classes. Millions of homes were without central heating, or even indoor lavatories. There were hardly any women in politics, broadcasting, or on company boards.
The National Health Service and ‘cradle to the grave’ social security and insurance was less than 20 years old and millions not only had direct memories and experience of a world war, but also of the preceding great depression, with its mass unemployment, misery, insecurity, degradation, absolute poverty and humiliations.
As we’ll also see, controversy over whether the UK should or should not join the European Community – usually referred to as ‘the Common Market’ – was a huge issue in 1966. The country’s application in the previous Conservative government had been vetoed by France’s de Gaulle, as was to be the application the following year under the second Wilson administration. Heath, who was to unexpectedly lead the Conservatives to victory in the next general election in 1970, finally succeeded in this, in a move that is, of course, reverberating to this day, with a referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the now European Union in June this year.
The BBC-TV’s election night and following morning’s programmes (a novelty to have any TV then after midnight and in the mornings) were ‘anchored’ by the avuncular and urbane Cliff Michelmore – a former RAF Squadron Leader, who died earlier this month. Michelmore had taken over from the election coverage duties from Richard Dimbelby who had prematurely died in 1965, and whose eldest son, David, did the honours in general elections from 1979 to 2015.
What I had intended to be a few comments on the re-run of election ’66 and a couple of threads on Facebook, tuned out – I noticed to my genuine surprise – into some 30 comments and a total of some 2,000 words. In the event I had, to all intents and purposes, a live Blog. What follows is pretty much the unedited flow of these comments, with only the comments to them from other blameless Facebook friends cut. What I think (hope!) emerges is a commentary that, yes, demonstrates the huge changes in the last half century – hardly surprising – but also fascinating similarities and parallels with today.
Curiously, at the time of writing, the first part of the coverage is not online (but is promised soon) but if you are in the UK, you can watch the second part of the coverage online until the end of April, 2016
Thanks for your interest! (Note: ‘vox’ or ‘voxes’ refer to ‘vox pops’ (vox populis – the voice of the people).
- Harold Wilson just on, being his usual public self – sharp but good-humoured and self-deprecating. Observes that the majority in his own constituency (Huyton on Merseyside; think the interview will be from Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool) goes up the less time he spends there, and uses this to pay tribute his party workers. Takes a dig at newspaper political commentators who don’t have enough to do and just write one column a week for the Sundays (those were the days!) and notes they’re nearly always wrong. He simultaneously blames TV for “boring” the electorate due to all the coverage, but also concedes that, over the years, TV has helped people understand the main issues. Interesting that – presumably to reassure the middle-classes – he makes a cricket analogy as to who will be in his Cabinet and in what position (who will be ‘square-leg’ and so on). After England’s World Cup victory four months later his analogies were always football-led (who will take the penalty, et al).
Ted Heath (first Conservative leader to be elected by MPs, and just eight months before) now on – effectively concedes: Bob McKenzie says this is the closest you will ever get in a British general election to a leader conceding defeat before the majority has been won on the other side. Heath has just seen his own majority slashed in Bexley, as well as the loss of many Conservative seats. He is unrepentant about his policies and campaign – “we were ahead of public opinion”. In other words: “WE were right and YOU (the voters) are wrong – IDIOTS!”. Ha ha.
- Cliff Michelmore just mentioned his own seat in Surrey – ha! I was born in house very near his and although we left when I was barely two, we used to go back there to see friends every Easter. It became a joke that whenever we passed his house we saw him! Vividly remember going past and seeing him coming out of the front door and getting into his car. SOOO exciting! He was such a HUGE TV personality at the time and had been for years. And amazing to me that his house wasn’t that big and he drove quite a modest car – himself!
- Fascinating int’ with Conservative Humphry Berkeley, who’d been defeated in Lancaster. Widespread agreement that this was cos he had introduced private member’s bill (!) to de-criminalise homosexual acts in private. Interesting character (I read on Wikipedia!) – in 1968, he resigned from Tories over their support for US in Vietnam War and later stood unsuccessfully for Labour.
- …Barbara Castle says “we all agree” about only going into the Common Market on the right conditions – and notes approvingly that even Heath has said that!
- …just a few seconds given for result from Finchley and win by a Mrs Margaret Thatcher. Only comment is that the Labour candidate has taken over from Liberal for second place – she is clearly of not interest at all!!
- (Co-presenter) Michael Barratt saying “the Black Country is looking blacker than ever”. Bit unfortunate. In the last pre-colour election the black circles in fact represent Labour. But doubly unfortunate that he then goes straight on to talk about immigration issues! Different world.
- Oh, I was wrong about locale of previous int – that must have been from Huyton. Wilson just arrived at The Adelphi – live coverage from outside, after link broke down. Harold now not playing ball – “I’ve already given interviews to the BBC and ITN and I’ve nothing to add”. “What are you going to do now?”, asks hapless interviewer. “I’m going to get some sleep”. Interestingly, there’s a lot of boo-ing as well as cheering. Imagine that now! Whole thing would have been stage-managed to ensure only loyal, security-cleared party members there and anyone else wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere close.
- Peter Griffiths out in Smethwick – yay! Won seat on notorious “if you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour” slogan. Defeat gives Michael Foot particular pleasure, and attributes it to “the good sense and decency of the British people”.
- “Now over to Alan Whicker, who once again is surrounded by pretty girls!” First vox (man) is one who voted Communist. (White, ob) Rhodesian woman is depressed about result. Another man predicts new govt will increase international debt and fail to get us into the Common Market. “Yes, that’s possible”, says Whicker. Due impartiality?! Still, that guy was a better predictor than most!
- Interesting that all opinion polls had Lab majority much larger than turned out to be the case – ‘Daily Express’ poll predicted 250 Labour maj! Still shy Tories in ’66?? And of course they would vastly over-estimate Labour vote in 1970!
- Young Labour activist says hopes new increased maj’ will mean government won’t support US so much over Vietnam and claims that current attitude “is more right-wing than some American Senators”.
- Int with Edward Rowlands, first war-time baby (1940) to be elected to parliament. “I’m beginning to feel very old”, says Cliff Michelmore. Right!
- By the way, technical matter. We are clearly watching a Telecine recording, presumably taken from original VT recording. Why preserved on film? Less expensive than keeping on VT? Or thought wold survive longer than magnetic tape? Surely not for overseas, later TX? Curious!
- Michelmore: “We’ve had several appreciative calls from viewers saying the girls (women, confined to off-air roles as secretaries, result-takers, etc., natch) are much prettier this time – it’s because they’re younger this time!” Nice to get the continuity anno and the clock, closing down the overnight broadcast. Now we’re back at 0600 on Friday, April 1st. Michelmore pictured going through the studio to take his seat, like a bank manager entering in the morning. Famous bit, used in his obits earlier this month, where he blames a bird twittering at White City for depriving him of sleep even in two hours between broadcasts.
- Patrick Gordon-Walker, who had been in the forces that liberated Belsen concentration camp, and who was defeated in the racist Smethwick content in ’64, is “overjoyed” that Labour has won back the seat.
- Gerald Priestland, on phone, (still pics only to accompany report) reports from Washington. US press compare Wilson to LBJ – a giant in politics. Government there evidently pleased Labour has won as know the top team and clearly trust them. (Later, Heath was most anti-US post-war PM). However, press in France and West Germany aren’t happy – they think a Labour government means there is much less chance of UK joining the Common Market.
- David Sutch shown standing against Wilson as candidate for ‘The National Teenage Party’ – very modestly dressed compared with later incarnations, and no mention of his peerage!
- Impressive for the time live coverage from TV camera in car from Liverpool of Wilson leaving “the well-known hotel” and “into the rush-hour traffic in Liverpool”.You can see the then new Metropolitan cathedral. Then in Lime Street, and noting that Wilson’s car has to go through the one-way traffic. Michelmore is clearly knowledgeable about traffic system in the ‘pool: “he has to turn right, right , right and right again to get back to Lime Street station”. And this indeed is true! ….Amazing! We are informed of the arrangements for Wilson’s drivers and even the number of his hotel room (no.100!). Wilson gets on ‘The Shamrock Express’ – so-called cos timed to meet the Irish boats. Station-master wears a top hat: “Pretty sure the last one to wear a top-hat…the next one will wear a bowler-hat”!! Dig at BBC techies – “the engineers told us last time it was impossible to get live pictures from underneath the arches at Lime Street! Well, we did it – they told us again it was impossible but we did it again!” Wilson appears from carriage to acknowledge bag-pipers, there to play him off and out back to London!
- More impressive use of technology for time – Alan Whicker on the move walking across Waterloo Bridge whilst doing vox pops.
- Very chummy interview with the just-defeated Christopher Chataway, ex of ITN. “I’m sure you’ll be back soon”, gushes Michelmore. Indeed he was – in ’67 became Chair of the Inner London Education Authority and became an Alderman; in May 69 won a by-election to the Commons and following year in new Conservative government became (the first) Minister of Posts and Telecommunications and as such introduced independent radio to the UK. Strong opponent of apartheid and later headed charity in developing world. A good man!
- Patrick Gordon-Walker who was defeated in the racist Smethwick contest in ’64, is overjoyed that Labour won this time.
- Fyfe Robertson is on the production line at Dagenhams for voxes. Sounds like a caricature of himself! First assembly-line worker he accosts refuses to tell him how he’s voted – quite right! Very little interest from workers – and certainly not impressed – that they are on live, national TV. Just seem annoyed it’s getting in the way of their work!
- Live voxes from steelmakers Stewarts and Lloyds in Bilston (west midlands). Michelmore says he gave reporter instructions on how to get to the two big green chimneys that you can see on main road between Wolverhampton and Birmingham (he obviously got about!). (Re)nationalisation is on the cards and there’s mixed views from workers and management about this! 14 years later I was there covering the national strike of that nationalised industry!
- Taking advantage of crew and live link in Liverpool, reporter – with police permission, he’s keen to point out – stopped traffic out of the Mersey tunnel. What did commuters hope the government would do for Liverpool? Work to improve transport, is reply. That hasn’t changed!
- Discussion with three foreign correspondents, from France, US and USSR (Radio Moscow). All fairly impressed with campaign – US one says there’s nothing wrong with UK body-politic with three such good and attractive party leaders. Naturally, the Moscow guy approves of Labour and its nationalisation! The French one says the parties there can’t work Wilson out – both the Gaullists and non-Gaullists suspicious re relationship with US (esp over Vietnam), the Common Market and international corporations. Michael Aspel in news noted that the ‘New York Times’ hoped the new government wold join the ‘Common Market’. Interesting.
- Interesting point from Scotland – nationalists now taking place of Liberals as the radical party in the urban central lowlands. Michelmore craves forgiveness for referring to Scotland and Wales as ‘regions’ – explains they have divided country into regions for coverage purposes: but that doesn’t mean they think of these nations as ‘regions’! Shape of things to come.
- Vox with man in Devon who served in the Royal Navy from 1906-1929. I remember so many World War I veterans from childhood. That does emphasise the distance from now.
- Lots of support for very conservative (by today’s standards) issues – capital punishment (abolished for murder for an experimental period a few months before), and flogging of prisoners both popular. The ‘racial’ issue much discussed, though only one non-white person consulted: African-Caribbean man in Birmingham, who hoped, very politely and reasonably, for ‘equal treatment’. Mentioned there were no black policeman. “There’s one in Bristol!”, claimed one white woman. “But he isn’t paid!”. “Yes, well, you’ve got to start somewhere”, she rejoins. Later there’s an int from Birmingham with African-Caribbean who has lived here for nine years. To her, Wilson is “the best Prime Minister England has had…since I took an interest in politics”. But starkest difference is lack of women. None in presenting/reporting/interviewing/commentating team. None in discussion panels. A few in vox pops (but very much out-numbered by men, and, if not obviously young, usually framed as ‘a housewife’), and only one female politician, Barbara Castle. Who, as usual, is fantastic!
- Discussion with Ray Gunter and others over an ‘early warning’ trades union bill. This eventually led to In Place of Strife White Paper in ’69; modest proposals from Barbara Castle, which tore apart labour movement and all but destroyed Wilson’s credibility when it was abandoned, and helped the Conservatives win power in 1970.
- Reporter is on Harold Wilson’s train – live coverage from there is great technical achievement, but has to forlornly report that Wilson refuses to speak to him. The reason? Wilson was furious with the BBC (most of the time, after a brief honeymoon period!) and gave exclusive int to ITN on same train journey! See opening par of this piece:https://www.transdiffusion.org/2005/04/01/bbcthatcher