Political Television 1936-55

A review

When BBC TV began regular high-definition television on 2nd November 1936, politics was not high on the list of priorities for television. When the Postmaster-General gave a talk on the future of broadcasting on opening night, it concentrated on technical aspects. At first the service covered news only by broadcasting the two main newsreels (British Movietone News and Gaumont British News) where politics took second place to ‘feelgood’ stories, royal visits, and sport. Only on very big stories did the newsreels dash to cover a story; coverage was prepared in advance.

After a few months, an occasional political discussion programme did appear in the schedules. This was News Map which was usually presented by J.F. Horrabin, an ex-Labour MP who had taken up print journalism. News Map did not leave the studio and it was mainly interested in foreign affairs stories. World events provided quite a few such stories for it to discuss. On 21st March 1938 a sound-only broadcast of news was added.

Neville Chamberlain returns from Munich. The BBC is there to show the nation. On the left Chamberlain speaks in front of the newsreel and radio microphones; on the right is one of the three Emitron cameras from the BBC Outside Broadcast Unit. The television boom microphone can be seen in the centre; the man in the white coat holding it is believed to be Keith Edelstein.
©Syndication International

There was one and only one appearance of a Prime Minister on television before the Second World War: Neville Chamberlain's return from Munich was televised live at 5:38 pm on 30th September 1938. The producer of this OB was Ian Orr-Ewing, later to be a Conservative MP, whose idea the broadcast was; he was lucky that one of only two OB trucks was free, and that Chamberlain returned during a gap in the schedule.

This broadcast had good reviews. The Times said it had “a quality of history in the making that no other outside broadcast has equalled.”. The presenter for this broadcast was Richard Dimbleby. When Chamberlain declared that the Munich Agreement meant peace, Dimbleby said, off-air, "I wish that were true".

In the early afternoon of 1st September 1939, a civil servant from the Postmaster-General‘s office telephoned Alexandra Palace to tell them that the television service was being taken off the air immediately. The transmitters were switched off in the middle of the cartoon Touchdown Mickey just as Mickey Mouse imitated Greta Garbo saying “Ah tink ah go home” with no announcement. (German TV stayed on the air as war began; it was only taken off when the RAF bombed the transmitter in 1943)

Television returned on 7th June 1946 in order to cover the National Victory celebrations. Announcer Leslie Mitchell declared “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted” and Touchdown Mickey resumed where it had left off. Had the BBC imagined people waiting seven years looking at the snowstorm?

The resumed television service was not very different from what it had been in the pioneering pre-war days. There was still very little news and politics. Not until 1948 was a new programme specifically for television news started. This was Television Newsreel, which, as its name suggested, was another newsreel compiled specifically for television. Senior journalists from the established newsreels were recruited to produce the broadcast and they followed the same pattern as the cinema newsreels. Television Newsreel was not topical. The same edition ran twice a week.

The measly coverage of news and politics on television was not an oversight. The Director-General of the BBC, Sir William Haley, was a newspaper journalist who later became editor of the Times, and he felt that news was not appropriate for television. Prime Minister Clement Attlee disliked the whole medium, and leader of the opposition Winston Churchill thought the BBC were full of communists.

In February 1950 came the first general election of the television era. Party election broadcasts had begun on radio in 1924, and the BBC wondered whether the parties might be interested in making some for television. The answer was no. There was no reporting of the campaign at all because of a very legalistic interpretation of the Representation of the People Act 1948. However, producer Grace Wyndham Goldie managed to persuade the BBC to let her put on a programme on election nights to report the results (over the objections of engineers who thought it was dangerous to the transmitters to keep them on overnight).

A Television Newsreel film camera in 1948. Funny animal stories 1, serious political coverage 0.

Grace Wyndham Goldie with one of the graphics used in the 1950 results programme - the total number of seats won.

The object of the programme was simply to report the results and nothing else. There was to be absolutely no prediction of what was to come. The one suggestion from then Head of Television Programmes Cecil McGivern was that there was to be an outside broadcast from Trafalgar Square, where it had long been traditional for the results to be relayed to the crowd on a large screen. Unfortunately for the OB producer, in between the results there were a series of crude cartoons of leading politicians which the crowd enjoyed but could not be shown as they were political comment.

The main presenter of the programme was Chester Wilmot, who came from radio. To give informed comment, Grace Wyndham Goldie went to Oxford academic R.B. McCallum who had written the definitive book studying the 1945 election. McCallum was not enthusiastic and made several conditions to his appearance, of which one was that he must be accompanied by a young associate who wrote the statistical appendix to the book: David Butler.

Butler‘s contribution to the 1950 programme was felt immediately in his suggestions for graphics to help explain the results, and in his bringing along a small group of students with slide-rules who could work out the percentages and the swing for each constituency within seconds of the result arriving.

There is no recording of the 1950 election results programme. If one was made it was not kept. All that survives are various still photographs made for BBC publicity.

The 1950 election programme was a big success. It led immediately to the first regular scheduled political discussion show, which started the following month (March 1950), In the News. In order to placate nervous BBC governors, it was sold to them as an “entertainment programme”.

A Butler-invented graphic for the 1950 election - a map with squares for each region representing each seat in Parliament, which were coloured in black, white or grey according to which party won the seats. Butler can be seen doing calculations on the left of the picture. The cheap and cheerful nature of the set is noticeable.

The format of In the News was simple: four iconoclastic commentators dicussing current controversies among themselves. Edgar Lustgarten, later famous for true crime stories, was the editor, and eventually the participants stabilised and became known as the ‘Famous Four’. The ‘Famous Four’ were Conservative MP Robert Boothby, former Independent MP W.J. Brown, Labour MP Michael Foot, and historian A.J.P. Taylor.

The Free Speech team in 1955. Left to right are W.J. Brown, Robert Boothby, Chairman Kenneth Adam, Michael Foot and A.J.P. Taylor. Four iconoclasts breaking the image of the political parties.
© unknown, possibly ATV. This picture is included in Mervyn Jones’ biography of Michael Foot.

In the News was a hit with the viewers who relished the empassioned arguments conducted by what seemed to be firmly hostile opponents. After the show, the panellists relaxed and joked about what they had said about each other. By 1952, In the News was watched by 48% of people with TV sets. The political parties were beginning to watch, and soon they began to realise that a panel of dissidents was not the ideal vehicle for promoting their party. A BBC memo sternly recorded “Michael Foot‘s continued appearance has made the Labour Party feel that the solid core of the party is overshadowed. Similarly the Conservative side the continued appearance of Boothby has not been acceptable to all Conservatives.”. The broadcasters tough response was to cave in and let the parties nominate solid, reliable politicians. The Conservatives suggested their youngest woman candidate in the 1950 general election, one Margaret Roberts, but the BBC rejected her as not well-known enough. In 1955, when Independent Television started, Lustgarten took the ‘Famous Four’ to ATV with a new program called Free Speech.

The parties were also objecting to other programmes they considered biased against them. In 1950 a BBC television play called Party Manners had a central theme about left-wing politicians trying to make personal profit from politics. The Labour Party objected vociferously and a planned repeat was shelved.

On 19th September 1951, Clement Attlee called a General election. For the first time, an election was announced through a broadcast. On radio, after the nine o'clock news. In the News immediately disappeared from the schedules, suspended for the whole campaign. There was again no coverage of the election in news broadcasts. There was one innovation for the 1951 election: the parties agreed to make a broadcast each for television.

The first television party election broadcast was given to the Liberal Party, and the octogenarian Lord Samuel (Liberal Leader in the Lords) was chosen to make it. Samuel’s live broadcast was not a big success: he spent the whole of his broadcast reading his speech, rarely looking up at the camera, and over-ran by several minutes. Eventually he inadvertently gave the pre-arranged signal that he had finished and was faded out in the middle of a sentence.

Making the first Conservative TV election broadcast. The script cannot be seen - it is in the participant’s heads.
© unknown. This picture was included in Michael Cockerell’s book Live from Number 10.

As seen on TV: Anthony Eden and Leslie Mitchell.
©Conservative Party.

The first Labour TV election broadast. Sir Hartley Shawcross (left) and Christopher Mayhew.
©Labour Party.

The next day, it was the Conservatives’ turn. The Tories chose Anthony Eden to make it, as he had had some experience on American television. Eden had the bright idea of making the broadcast as an interview, and suggested Leslie Mitchell (who had worked on pre-war television and on British Movietone News) as interviewer.

Eden and Mitchell rehearsed with a tape recorder, but found they could not agree on the order of questions. Eden gave Mitchell his standard campaign speech and asked Mitchell to put the questions in-between. It didn‘t work. Eventually the two managed to rehearse the broadcast on tape. Eden had it transcribed and learned every word.

The broadcast was a big success with the critics who were fooled into thinking it unrehearsed (“Hail to Anthony Eden, the scriptless wonder. He needed no cues.” said the Daily Telegraph). Eden managed to spark a controversy when he included a graph showing the rise in prices during the Labour government. In the Labour broadcast the following day, the presenter was Christopher Mayhew, an MP with television broadcasting experience. Mayhew used the same figures as Eden to produce a quite different graph, claiming “Just as Crippen was the first criminal to be caught by the wireless, so Eden is the first political criminal to be exposed by television”.

Another Grace Wyndham Goldie election night programme was put on, more elaborate than the first. Caption cards were prepared for all constituencies and the results painted on when they came in. Another success followed. The election resulted in a Conservative win and Winston Churchill returned as Prime Minister.

Churchill did not like television. He did not give a television interview in the UK during his time in office. In 1953 on a visit to the USA, the TV cameras were there prompting him to comment how fascinating it was that every expression on his face could be seen by every American. But whatever Churchill’s views, his party was well aware of the importance.

During the 1952 US Presidential election, John Profumo MP was sent to watch the television campaign and reported on the effective Eisenhower ads. It was no coincidence that the next year, the parties and broadcasters reached an agreement for party political broadcasts outside elections. The Conservatives gave the first, with Harold Macmillan being interviewed by Bill Deedes, then a young Tory MP. Budget broadcasts also started that year.

Four scenes from the first party political broadcast outside election times. Clockwise from top left: Bill Deedes introduces, Ernest Marples reports from a new house, its tenant Mrs Philpot interviewed, Deedes talks with Macmillan.
© Conservative Party.

Winston Churchill addresses the 1954 Conservative Party conference (detail from print of 405 line transmission). A rare appearance by Churchill in front of TV cameras, but he did prepare some visual stunts for his speech.

1953 was the year that the coronation of Her Majesty the Queen was televised, at the young Queen’s insistence and against the wishes of the Cabinet. Grace Wyndham Goldie began a programme where three journalists interviewed leading politicians, called Press Conference; Cabinet Ministers had to get permission from the Prime Minister to appear on it. Another programme called Panorama appeared in the schedules, featuring some political discussions in between arts reviews. The critics did not like it.

News coverage had slowly developed. To the sound-only bulletins, some still photographs were occasionally added in the early 1950s. A proper television news service started in November 1954, but Richard Baker did not appear in front of a camera nor was he identified. Shortly before, the Conservatives were the first party to invite the television cameras to their annual conference. Churchill even organised a secret screen test for himself at 10 Downing Street (he hated the result, but others who have seen it say he was very impressive).

He may not have liked appearing television but Churchill’s government made a big contribution to it in 1954 by passing the Television Act, establishing commercial television in Britain for the first time. Churchill was persuaded into it by lobbyists who knew of his anti-BBC views and the title “Independent Television” started as a euphemism for television that was not “communist-controlled”. Leader of the Opposition Attlee pledged to repeal it if Labour won power.

In 1955, Churchill finally retired and handed the premiership to Sir Anthony Eden. Television news cameras reverentially covered Eden’s progress from the Foreign Secretary’s home in Carlton Gardens to Buckingham Palace, and on to Downing Street, even mentioning Eden’s changes of clothes to go to luncheon. They did not interview him nor did they attempt to. A week later, Eden asked the BBC if he could make a Prime Ministerial statement to the nation on television. The BBC said no. It had been agreed between the BBC and the parties during the Churchill/Attlee era that ministerial broadcasts were to be on radio only. So it was on radio, as in 1951, that the 1955 General election was announced.

Anthony Eden’s car arrives at Buckingham Palace to allow him to kiss hands and become Prime Minister. Still from BBC News coverage, which had a camera right up close.

There were three party election broadcasts for the Conservatives and Labour in the 1955 election. This time, there were cock-ups all round.

The 1955 election was the first election in which television played a significant part in the campaign. It was the first campaign which was actually reported as news while it was going on. About 40% of homes now had a television and they were 4.5 million TV licences (there had only been 344,000 in 1950). By a happy coincidence (for the broadcasters), the announcement of the election happened during a long newspaper strike. After the election, the Times Guide to the House of Commons noted “there was a tendency to hold fewer election meetings, probably because of the impact of television.”

The 1955 election results were reported on television in a much more comprehensive way than ever before. A professional anchor was found - Richard Dimbleby. For the first time, a telerecording of an election night programme was made and kept. David Butler was allowed to use the concept of swing which he had invented to give a prediction when the first seats were declared, and accurately indicated an improved Conservative majority.

Richard Dimbleby introduces the 1955 election programme. Good money has been spent on the set and there are lots of outside broadcasts. Note that likely early declarers Cheltenham and Salford have a mention.

The easel on which the cardboard results captions were televised, believed to be from the 1955 election. The man at the bottom of the picture has just taken the caption from the artist.

To go with David Butler, another academic appeared on the 1955 programme. Robert McKenzie was a Canadian born Politics professor who wrote a standard study on political party structure. Where Butler looked at the numbers, McKenzie talked about the political impact of the election results as they came in. He did however invent the one graphic which came to symbolise television coverage of elections, and is still in use today: the swingometer, a pendulum attached to a chart illustrating the House of Commons outcome at each point of swing.

Television graphics technology was not advanced in 1955. The results still had to be painted on cards and taken to an easel in a neighbouring studio in order to be televised. The delay in painting was needed to allow the students with slide-rules to work out percentages and swings which were read out when the caption was displayed.

The existence of television on election night prompted returning officers to decide to hold their counts immediately after the close of poll, so that the result was declared during the early hours of the morning, rather than during the following day. In 1955, for the first time, a majority of constituencies declared on the night (357 of 630). A real competition started to get the first result out as early as possible in order to get the constituency name on the map. In 1955, there was a tie between Cheltenham and Salford West, both of whom declared at eight minutes past ten’o’clock.

On 22nd September 1955, Grace Archer died in a fire at Brookfield Farm in Ambridge. Broadcasting competition arrived a few hours before Independent Television went on the air.

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