Monday, October 27, 2008


I love elections, particularly those that bring real political change. Next Tuesday night I’ll be glued to the box till the early hours with my American future-wife and future-mother-in-law, expecting Palin to be consigned to Alaskan obscurity and the accession of the first black president of the United States.

I think my fascination for the democratic process began in San Francisco when I was 20 and marching for George McGovern behind Jane Fonda. Quite a way behind in fact: there were about 20,000 of us. I guess the sight of so many hippies protesting against the Vietnam War was too much to bear for conservative Middle America; McGovern lost by a landslide.

Two years later I was a trainee journalist in the vast BBC election studio, sitting just behind Robert McKenzie and his Swingometer. I’ll never forget the excitement of the first result, with Robin Day growling at his guests and David Dimbleby calmly in control. I was in the producers’ room of that same studio in May 1979 when Thatcher came to power. And in 1983 I directed the whole of the BBC’s election coverage as Thatcher romped to her second term.

However I think my most memorable election was in the winter of 1979. Regular readers of this blog may recall how I left my job on Panorama and drove east in an old campervan in search of love and the Dalai Lama. I ended up marrying my first wife in a Tibetan ceremony in the Himalayas, but on our way to Nirvana, we completely ran out of money, largely because we had to ship our VW campervan on a tiny Chinese wooden dhow across the Arabian Sea.

We arrived in Delhi stony broke, and resigned ourselves to selling the van and hitching home. Luckily we were befriended by the BBC’s Bureau Chief Mark Tully. One day he announced over lunch that the Indian Prime Minister, Choudhary Charan Singh, had resigned. Indira Gandhi, ousted in disgrace just two years before, was hot favourite to return to power. When Mark told us the date of the election, I realised that in Britain the result would be announced at 8pm on a Monday evening, just as Panorama was going on air. I telexed my old boss in London, and an hour later the machine clattered back with the command: “Hire crew and start filming. Get interviews with Mrs Gandhi, the Prime Minister and the President.”

Our financial troubles were over. However Jilly and I had been on the road for three months; I had long hair and a scruffy beard; we wore ripped jeans and were living in the Tourist Camp, surrounded by vegetarians and clouds of marijuana. It wasn’t quite the image for the BBC’s flagship programme.

With gritted teeth, I went to Connaught Circle and ordered a baggy cream linen suit; a printer ran up some BBC business cards. But Jilly and I were determined not give up our lifestyle altogether, so we spurned the BBC’s offer of moving into the Imperial Hotel. Instead, every morning, a white stretch Mercedes slipped past the rainbow vans in the Tourist Camp to take us to the Presidential Palace. Eventually the urge for a hot shower got the better of us and we persuaded the manager of the Imperial to let us stay in the hotel car park and use the facilities.

For six weeks we followed the Gandhis: Indira, the most charismatic woman I have ever met, and her scary playboy son, Sanjay. On January 15th we sat in our van and heard Mrs Gandhi’s victory speech on the World Service. Her opponent, a man in his seventies, hadn’t stood a chance. Hopefully next Wednesday we’ll be celebrating the defeat of another septuagenarian, and the dawn of a new era in world politics.

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