This morning my American wife asked me why Gordon Brown has the power to hold the general election anytime between now and the 3rd of June.
I’m afraid I couldn’t give her an adequate answer. In America, presidential terms are fixed to end every fourth November. As a result neither political party has an advantage over the other by choosing an election day to suit their own fortunes. Jo says our system is crazy and unfair. I have to confess she’s probably right.
The question arose because I said over breakfast that if I were Gordon Brown I’d call a snap election right now and have the voting in April, just as the daffodils will be at their best. Why wait till May, when things are hardly going to get better?
With the policyless Tories in disarray, I doubt there will be a more auspicious moment than now. Perhaps, with the Ides of March just one week away, Brown should hire a soothsayer to foresee the outcome. Have an augurer cut open a stray pollster and check the vital organs for signs of the public mood: frankly, with the polls the way they are, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen after three weeks of campaigning.
You can be sure of one thing: in BBC Television Centre they are already building the scenery for the election night programme. In fact, they will have been designing, planning and rehearsing it for much of the last five years. I know this because it was once my job. In 1979, just after Margaret Thatcher came to power, I was told I would be the director of the next election, whenever it happened.
It’s one of the plum jobs in television. The programme starts after News at Ten and goes on until the new prime minister is installed in Downing Street late in the afternoon the following day. It’s a grueling 20-hour marathon that takes five years to plan and rehearse.
How do you rehearse an election? With a lot of money, that’s how. You could run BBC 6 Music for a couple of years on the budget they gave us to make that one show on election night.
It didn’t just take place in a single studio: we were given almost every resource in Television Centre. One huge studio was used just for a rest area for all the staff. I designed my set by drawing a large question mark on the back of a menu card in the BBC canteen. They built a giant version of it fifteen feet in the air, so that we’d have room for hundreds of backroom staff underneath. It took two weeks to put up and another week to take down.
We’d constructed a new computer with which, for nearly two years, we’d rehearsed every conceivable outcome, from a Conservative landslide to a hung parliament. The computer was clunky and slow at first, and so unreliable that we had a hundred volunteers with bits of paper to run a backup service in case it crashed.
On election night my question mark set looked suitably quizzical, with David Dimbleby on one side and Robin Day and his guests on the other; my control room looked like a super-sized Starship Enterprise, with images from 250 cameras in 55 locations. Returning officers combed their hair in readiness for their little moment of fame.
As it turned out, it was no contest. With the SDP/Liberal alliance fracturing Michael Foot’s Labour party, our computer graphics showed a blue victory for Thatcher from the very first result.
This time I’m looking forward to watching a multi-coloured cliffhanger: the timing may not be fair, but at least the television programme will be exciting.