Not many people bothered to stay up to watch the EU Referendum result play out. Most people woke up to the news that Britain would never be the same again.
Not me though. Rather than just heading off to bed and checking Twitter in the morning, I embedded myself at Sky headquarters in Isleworth, West London to stay up all night with the Sky News crew instead. How do you cover one of the most momentous political moments on TV? How do you tell the story of the night, and still have enough stamina when the result finally does come to digest what a Leave vote actually means for Britain?
This is the story of the night.
9pm – 11pm: Drones, colourful studios and buzz…
The Sky studio is looking very colourful as the team prepare for the polls to close. I know we’re talking about serious, proper politics here but it’s pretty isn’t it?
Ahead of the coverage beginning, all the Sky newsreaders from Adam Boulton to Kay Burley are rehearsing their opening gambits from Westminster and other headquarters. I’m watching them on a screen in the Sky News office; it’s surreal seeing them practise what in a matter of minutes will be national news. This stuff is scripted because the polls haven’t yet closed, so it would be against Ofcom regulations to say anything about the way the day has gone.
Nick Phipps, who is the executive producer of all the EU Referendum coverage, tells me about how they’ve planned for the night ahead.
“What all the planning is about is really that we have every single option available, that we’re completely covered whether it’s in terms of being in the right place live, having the right presenters, making sure the results are going to be taken in accurately and sent out, whether its on TV or our mobile platforms, as quickly as possible and more quickly than the opposition.
“The main thing that we don’t do is build it as a solid thing. What we’re trying to do is put together the most incredible menu possible; it’s a bit like there’s a kitchen in the background that’s cooking all of these incredible meals. And for myself and for the director Dave Gilman, basically once we go on air we’re just able to choose from this menu and jump between the courses”.
He’s in the gallery where things are incredibly tense. I’ll go and sit there soon when things heat up but for now, I’m in the Sky News office, surrounded by lots of TV screens showing the BBC coverage, ITN coverage as well as the Sky coverage.
I’ve gone to have a look at a drone that’s flying outside the office to give viewers an aerial view. Two men are controlling it and I’m deeply jealous; this is far better than the remote control helicopter I got for my 11th birthday and flew into a tree.
There it goes…
I’m looking at this drone because there’s not a single vote in yet; they’re just being verified.
Nick Phipps has told me that they’re expecting early results from the Isles of Scilly; this is probably the first time Sky News has ever been live from the southwestern tip of the Cornish peninsula.
“Because of the size of the isles they’re one of the smallest electorates so not many votes to count, so we think they could be the first place to declare their result. Similarly with Gibraltar: the polls close an hour before us because they’re an hour ahead.
“We’re also in Sunderland, which has been first the last six elections to declare. They’re very good at getting results out there.”
Sky will also give a projection in the early hours of the morning, declaring what they think the final result will be based on the votes that have come in so far.
“If I was a betting man,” says Nick, “I’d say we’d be doing that around 4 or 5 am.”
Well, it’s only 11 pm now. Time to settle in…
11pm – 12.30am: RESULTS TIME : The political bit where we actually find out which box voters ticked…
Now it gets good. I’m now in the gallery, the belly of the beast. There are at least fifteen people in this room, surrounded by more screens that I’ve seen on Mariah Carey’s MTV Cribs. This is an exciting place to be, everyone is thinking fast and making quick, firm decisions about which shot to show.
All these screens show scenes from different parts of the country, and then the director decides which bits to cut in and out of depending on the story.
The big deal right now is that Gibraltar are going to announce their result first. “QUIET PLEASE” bellows someone in the gallery.
“Gibraltar next!” The team then start working out what to show on screen while they wait for that announcement. They cut to Kay Burley who has MP Nicky Morgan with her as a guest.
It’s a bit like watching a conductor with his orchestra. But the screens are the musicians… does that make sense or have I had too much Lucozade?
It might sound obvious but seeing all these many, many screens reminds me how crucial images are to TV. They could easily have a series of talking heads chatting about the latest result, but instead they’re skipping around the country from sports hall to sports hall.
The team is carefully crafting a show where something is always happening – and to do that, they need to show different images, different scenes, follow the story.
The trick, I’m told, is not to miss the main story of Gibraltar’s announcement but also show what’s happening elsewhere – to keep it dynamic.
But listening is crucial too. Because there are so many visuals to focus on, the news lines can get lost. That news update running along across the pictures starts to become so much more important.
12.30am – 1.30am: The votes start rolling in…
Sunderland has just put Out in the lead. This is causing ripples here, it’s a big deal. When Nigel Farage appeared to concede, it seemed like all the experts and MPs on screen were predicting a Remain victory.
But now Sunderland has rocked the boat, and it gets interesting again. Who wants to hear from the off that it’ll definitely be a victory for Remain? If that’s the case, I might pop off to bed…
But actually, it’s far from clear.
As Nick tells me, “We’re following the story. We had a big planning meeting where we said ‘OK at 6am if we’ve voted to remain this is what we need to do; if we’ve voted to remain this is what we need to do.’ It’s having to ride both of those horses at the same time with only one of them coming to pass.”
As well as all the Sky feeds in the gallery, they’ve also got the BBC coverage up there plus lots of other channels. Their aim is to have a story faster than the opposition, and it’s interesting seeing the differences in their approaches. For example, the BBC cuts only to the end of the Leeds silence for Jo Cox, whereas Sky covers the whole thing. Later there’s a sound issue at Sky and the BBC catch the Orkney island result first.
The main feeling right now is that the Remain camp is worried. Really worried. And the big question here is: was Nigel Farage cleverly managing expectations when he said he thought the Remain camp would probably win?
It would be nice to have some more votes announced now but people aren’t counting as fast as they did in Sunderland. Why can’t other places borrow Sunderland’s counters? I haven’t got any Lucozade left now. My eyelids feel like someone’s standing on them.
2am- 4am : Shock votes
The Borrowers have stepped off my eyelids. Basildon has announced a much bigger Leave vote than anyone anticipated, Wales is looking like it wants to Leave – but bits of London like Wandsworth are showing higher than expected Remain votes.
As an aside, it seems everyone agrees on this: whatever happens after tonight, we will have a divided Britain.
Nick is on the phone to some reporters on the ground, finding out if they can give the team a heads up on what to cut to next, what the next story will be.
Now that more votes have come in, analysis becomes important. Political analyst and academic Michael Thrasher is ready to give his first forecast. He’s done basically every election since Sky was created. The producers are keen for him to make clear this is not a projection, merely a forecast. So he’s not saying what the result will be but he’s looking at what the results have been so far in comparison to what they expected.
The very complex graphic – needed to back up Thrasher’s forecast – isn’t ready yet, so we cut to a difference scene.
A new producer shows up at 2.30 am – he’s there to work out the big stories from the night so far and start planning what should be covered in the morning, and whether the right reporters are in the right places. If Wales is surprisingly more Out than expected, does the Sky team have the necessary coverage there for when viewers wake up and start their day?
On a different note; do Skittles really have that much sugar in them? Because I’m not feeling a sugar rush and I’ve just crammed 75 per cent of a packet into my mouth.
Quite a lot of people were saying on Twitter that they were off to bed and would look at the results in the morning. Now that it’s so so so close, many of them are staying up…
It’s all about London now…will they swing it back to Remain?
4am- 5.30am: The pressure for Remain is on London now
The director takes a very quick loo break and someone fills in for him as he rushes off. I don’t think he’s been for hours. Everybody is glued to their work as the EU situation gets more fascinating. There’s nobody sitting around eating or drinking of chatting about Love Island – it’s all hands to the pump in the gallery.
It’s been six hours since the polls closed. Sky has projected that the Leave campaign will win. It looks like we’ll be out of the EU.
The morning after…
At 6am I went to bed for a few hours with Britain looking like it would definitely be leaving the EU – but as dawn broke I still had a small sense that London might swing it. It wasn’t to be.
It was a far more shocking, see-saw night than I thought it would be. As the polls closed there was a belief from experts that while it would be very close, Britain would just about Remain. Everyone kept saying it.
But then as Sunderland voted out, you could sense that victory was really up for grabs. What followed was a violent tug-of-war, a dizzying night of sleep deprivation and square eyes as we watched one result after another come in.
Looking back, it was from 3am that a sense of, “Right, we’re out of the EU” started to filter through – and it felt like a colossal story to witness unfold from the Sky News gallery.
The realisation of how most of Britain outside London really feels became staggeringly clear.
The image that for me sticks in my mind as I watched the monitors from behind the scenes is the contrast between 10pm Nigel Farage and 3am Nigel Farage.
For me, he embodies the strange, turbulent night. At 10pm he was conceding the battle but adding that the Leave camp would ultimately win the war. By 3am, he was claiming victory with a euphoric fervour I’d never seen from him before.
A split personality for a divided, divisive night.