8 fascinating facts about the early days of BBC election night broadcasts

We've raided the Radio Times archive to reveal some interesting ways election night has changed over the decades

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These days it seems the template for election coverage is set in stone: each broadcaster rolls out its heavyweight political commentators and hosts, sets them up in a studio with plenty of graphics, and sends a bunch of reporters around the country.

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But it wasn’t always so. Imagine how it must have been in 1923, when the wireless shut down at midnight! That was the year the Radio Times was launched by BBC founder John Reith to provide listings for the newly-established BBC and its wireless service.

RadioTimes.com raided the archives to see what election night looked like in the first few decades of the BBC – and this is what we found.

1. The elections used to be a very musical affair 

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Before the arrival of TV, election night meant one thing: live music. Forget political commentators, it was all about late-night orchestras.

Take the broadcast in 1923. If you wanted to hear any results on the wireless, you’d have to tune in to a two-hour concert by British dance band the Savoy Orpheans live from the Savoy Hotel. Election results would be announced “at intervals” with round-ups of the key results every hour.

That must have been a hit with the listening public, because in 1929 the BBC organised an election night show including the Wireless Military Band and the The Gershom Parkington Quintet. The listing promises: “At intervals between 9.50pm and 4.0am listeners will hear the results of the polling in the General Election as they come to hand.” As they “come to hand”? Casual.

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In 1931, an editorial explained the BBC’s approach: “There is a unique excitement in the hail of results that will interrupt, with increasing frequency, the light music indefatigably continuing to unwonted hours.”

You might think things would have changed by the fifties, but they hadn’t. Listeners in 1950 were promised a “continuous programme of gramophone records and light music which will be interrupted for the announcement of the results as they come in.” 

Even in 1964, BBC radio’s “Light Programme” was offering “a non-stop all-night service of gay music, top priority news ‘flashes’ and regular summaries of the state of the Parties.” Of course, by this point there were other options – and some of them involved actual political analysis of the results. 

2. The Swingometer was very low-tech when it was introduced 

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The Swingometer may have developed into something pretty flashy in recent years, but it wasn’t always so. 

The great Bob McKenzie – a Canadian sociologist – was considered the “Master of the Swingometer”. At the start it was a simple affair: the arrow could be moved around the dial to demonstrate how many seats the Conservatives or Labour would get if the electorate “swung” 1% or 2% from the previous general election. It was really designed for a two-horse race. 

In 1970 it actually had to be adapted by hand during the broadcast, with a BBC artist filmed on set painting more numbers onto the dial. The Swingometer passed out of use after 1979 following McKenzie’s death, and was not revived until the 90s.

McKenzie told Radio Times in 1974 that he and BBC exec Grace Wyndham Goldie thought it up back in the early days of TV. But long-standing BBC psephologist David Butler, who got in on the action in the first-ever BBC general election show, also claims some credit and has been called the “Father of the Swing”. 

3. People used to ring the BBC and they found it REALLY annoying

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Imagine the scene on election night in 1930s Britain.

– “Who do you think has won our constituency, Melvyn? They’ve not announced it yet on the wireless.”

– “Oh I don’t know Meryl, I’ll just give the BBC a ring, they’re sure to know.”

This must have happened pretty frequently, because the BBC evidently got so fed up it had to print a special notice in Radio Times.

In 1931, the general public was warned: “PLEASE DO NOT RING UP. Listeners are reminded that the B.B.C. does not at any time give news by telephone, and they are earnestly requested not to make telephone enquiries during the broadcasting of Election results. Such enquiries cannot in any case be answered, and will only add unnecessarily to the already great pressure on the Corporation’s staff.”

Still, you can imagine the frustration of waiting for result. The wireless closed down at 4am on election nights, and Friday would bring an agonising wait. In 1935, for example, you’d have to wait until the “first news” at 6pm the day after the election to hear anything more.

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The problem of overzealous telephone fans seems to have disappeared for a bit, but it came back with a vengeance in 1955 when – according to a 1997 Radio Times feature – Richard Dimbleby accidentally left himself open to receiving calls: “So many viewers spotted the telephone on his desk and tried to ring it that the GPO had to unblock the BBC’s jammed exchange.”

4. The strange case of the invisible 1945 election 

July 1945 was a period of limbo. The election officially took place on 5th July, but with so many servicemen posted overseas after the war, it took until the 26th for the votes to arrive in the UK and be counted and for Winston Churchill to be booted out of office.

So if you look at the listings for 5th July, it’s like nothing political was going on at all. Listeners could tune in to hear the RAF Skyrockets Dance Orchestra or listen to Laurence Olivier in Henry IV, but for the next few weeks there was no mention of the general election.

But the 22nd July edition of the Radio Times broke the silence. “Election Results on Thursday,” the front page declared. “The BBC will announce the election results on Thursday at hourly intervals. The first results will be given at noon.” Still, servicemen overseas didn’t get to find anything out until an election special at 6.50pm on the General Forces Programme.

5. Early graphics were created by hand – on the night itself

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In 1955 the BBC boasted of using “THIRTY-SEVEN cameras, sixteen more than were used during the Coronation” in their election broadcast. But despite this display of modern technology, the actual graphics were pretty low-tech. 

Radio Times published a run-down of what exactly would be happening in the BBC’s studio D, which was home to caption artists and  sub-editors. 

“Results will be filled in on slips which already bear the name of the constituency, candidates, etc,” the feature explains. “The slips are matched with caption cards bearing the same information and taken to caption artists who use quick-drying paint to fill in the figures. The cards are then taken to studio attendant who place them on easels before the cameras.

“Meanwhile duplicate slips are taken to statisticians working with slide rules to tabulate the overall figures and to assistants who translate the individual results into squares on a map of the British Isles and into additions to other diagrams.” 

6. In 1974 the BBC got really experimental with BBC2

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For the October 1974 election someone had an excellent idea about what to do with BBC2. What if, for hours on end on Friday morning (literally hours),a presenter went through every single constituency in alphabetical order with a complete run-down of voting figures and results? 

Meanwhile, the viewing public could avoid this factual overload by watching election analysis on BBC1 and waiting to be told that their constituency was coming up over on the other channel.

This arrangement was never repeated.

7. The Dimblebys have always dominated election night on TV 

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The first UK general election to be broadcast on TV came in 1950, when Richard Dimbleby was appointed “your television guide” for the evening. The Dimbleby reign had begun.

He came back the following year, and then again for every election until 1964. In fact, 1964 was the year when his son David Dimbleby made his first appearance, reporting from Exeter – one of the first constituencies expected to declare.

Sadly Dimbleby Sr died the following year, and there was a complete lack of Dimblebys in the 1966.

But David’s absence was only temporary. By 1970 he was back – and in colour! – and he has taken part in every election since.

8. Radio Times used to mark the general election with a poem 

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The poetry of Roger Woddis featured regularly in Radio Times in the 70s and 80s, and twice he turned his comic wit to the subject of the general election. 

In 1979 he praised David Dimbleby’s ability to deal with odious politicians, writing:

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“It’s strange how David Dimbleby contrives to be so courteous,
Though shaking hands with some of them would very likely dirty us.”