Last Sunday, BBC Parliament transmitted one of its occasional themed evenings, when it dips into the well-preserved political archives of the Beeb and offers viewers the opportunity to compare then and now. The theme this time round was, unsurprisingly, the EEC Referendum of 1975. We had snippets from news broadcasts and ‘Nationwide’, campaign ads from both camps, the full two-hour results programme from the day after the vote, and even an edition of ‘The Rock n Roll Years’ reviewing the sights and sounds of the year when the British public last had their say on Europe.
For those of us who have a strange addictive fascination with beige backdrops, purple ties and black-rimmed specs, these evenings are binge viewing experiences unlike any other. It’s also unmissable when the studio presenter cuts to a man on the street – in this case, two much-missed political reporters, Charles Wheeler and Vincent Hanna. A glimpse of the public crowding around behind them and occasionally being asked their opinion on developments is a curiously unique insight into not only the way Joe Public thought 40-odd years ago, but also how he looked. A cornucopia of Dickensian hairstyles, and not a piercing, tattoo or ‘casual’ outfit in sight; everyone looks like they’re on their way to a night at the theatre.
For me, the two stand-out programmes on Sunday night were the Oxford Union Debate and the ‘Panorama’ clash between Labour Cabinet Ministers Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn.
The former was televised to a huge audience in the absence of cameras at the Commons, and as well as a bizarre mix of students, from the anticipated King Crimson roadies to 20-year-olds who already resembled 50-year-olds, the case for both sides of the argument was put by Barbara Castle and Peter Shore (The ‘No’ camp) and Jeremy Thorpe and Ted Heath (‘Yes’). All four put their case across in a way that was largely devoid of the meaningless Birt-isms that plague political speeches in 2016, speaking plainly and passionately without recourse to a familiar collection of words in a specific, road-tested order that appear to say everything whilst actually saying nothing at all. Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, a year away from the scandal that cost him his job and killed his career, was immensely entertaining. Always a somewhat theatrical orator, he stole the show with a witty, flamboyant performance that nevertheless made the point in a manner that held the audience’s attention. It’s hard to imagine any of the contenders in the upcoming Wembley bash having either the ability or the allotted time to state their case with such panache.
As for the famous ‘Panorama’ heavyweight bout between Jenkins and Benn, it often reminded me of the equally famed showdown between former Leeds Utd boss Don Revie and his just-sacked successor Brian Clough, broadcast the year before. As Austin Mitchell did during that encounter, presenter David Dimbleby gradually sat back and allowed the opposing colleagues to simply get on with it. And they did, delivering a compelling master class in restrained antipathy. Benn had yet to fully develop the more eccentric extremism that contributed towards Jenkins’ eventual exodus from Labour five years later, and both men were true to their core convictions, able to argue the toss free from being consistently interrupted by an egocentric host clearly seeking his own chat show.
It’s a pity the programme makers of today haven’t used this example of televisual political discourse as the template for the now-customary leaders debates instead of the stop-start American Presidential model.
This format was in evidence on ITV this week, when David Cameron and Nigel Farage were invited to persuade the public that their personal vision of Britain either with or without the EU was the right one. Only, they didn’t go head-to-head; both had around 20 minutes to get their point across alone, as well as engaging with the token and obligatory studio audience and a selection of utterly predictable questions to which they gave utterly predictable answers. Farage was accused of racism by a black woman; Cameron responded to every question by falling back on his standard Churchillian script that only required ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ in the background to complete the patriotic picture. The whole exercise was flatter than a transsexual’s pre-op chest.
Tomorrow, we’re promised a six-way Remain/Brexit debate, which means even less time for the participants to get their scripted points across as well as the prospect of some truly foul-tasting broth; however, if Tuesday’s idea of a two-hander was anything to go by, it hardly seems worth investing in that as a means of seriously debating the issue. It’s difficult to believe that any don’t-know will have their mind made up by these essentially useless interventions into the argument on the part of an industry too rooted in the fast-cutting MTV school of broadcasting and the need to give every subject a Cowell-esque makeover for fear of audiences switching over. At least in the days of party political broadcasts, those that did switch over were confronted by the same programme on all channels. Viewers had no choice but to listen, and maybe minds were made up that way.
© The Editor