Hyperdrama and CGI submarines: Jeremy Vine reveals the election night green screen secrets

The BBC presenter talks his favourite graphics, what to expect from the 2017 show and the strange world of overseas election coverage

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A cowhide jacket, loosely-fitting chaps and a counterfeit sheriff star: this was not one of Nick Clegg’s better looks. But in that moment fashion wasn’t the problem at hand. It was 2am, live on BBC Election Night 2008 and the Lib Dem boss was in a Wild West shoot-out with a Texan gunslinger as David Dimbleby and George Osbourne cheered on the sidelines.

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At first viewers might have mistaken the scene for a sleep-deprived hallucination, but, for better or worse, it really happened. Sort of.

Clegg wasn’t actually there: his face was digitally inserted into what Jeremy Vine – BBC’s king of election night green screen and heavily-accented cowboy of the piece – calls “one of the greatest graphics of all time”.

“People criticise it, but I’ll always defend the Nick Clegg one,” the presenter explains with his boundless enthusiasm for all things election night. “The only mistake was the accent. But I don’t want to say it didn’t work!”

As the many green screen fans out there know, the Calamity Clegg sketch is just one of the BBC’s many unforgettable “cartoonish graphics”, as Vine himself calls them. Every election night since 2006, the presenter’s contribution to the coverage has conjured up an online storm, instantly transforming simple CGI submarines (2014 Scottish referendum) into broadcasting history.

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Joining the submarine in the graphics hall of fame is the time Vine swanned up a virtual PM’s house to explain hung parliaments…

And, perhaps strangest of all, there’s the incident where Vine presented a gallery of photoshopped Gordon Browns, with the collection representing a scale of Joseph Stalin to Mr Bean.

“It was based on a quote from Vince Cable, who said the PM had gone from between the two,” recalls Vine. “But the problem with the graphic was that if Brown had a really good night then he’d be Stalin. And Stalin, well, he was a very very bad person. As we did it on the night we suddenly thought ‘maybe this wasn’t going to work so well’.” 

Soviet despots aside, there is sound reason behind all this digital madness. All the graphics used, no matter how surreal, aim to untangle the sprawling web of political data for the audience. “In the end we take our lead from the viewers. First and foremost they want information and we need to convey it,” asserts Vine. “Whenever we do a submarine we do really ask ‘is this making the result clearer?’”

It’s hard to believe looking at the examples above, but whittling down the data into such graphics can sharpen its meaning, transforming a string of constituency counts into a potent picture of the nation.

Just look to Peter Snow’s 1997 shoot-em-up sequence depicting Blair’s landslide victory. “He had these towers that were Conservative majorities and they were just exploding all over the map!” says Vine. “It may look dated now, but at the time I thought ‘This! Is! Astonishing!’”

This bootleg-Dreamcast-game graphic might be the best us Brits can point to, but there’s little doubt it portrayed a nationwide political overhaul. It was there to make a point. And you don’t have to spin the globe far to see that election coverage is hard to come by overseas.

Take France. During this year’s battle between Macron and Le Pen, viewers were led through a beautifully-render virtual office only to be joined by Morph and Chas-type figures with nuclear codes in tow. “It looked like something out of a Matisse painting!” chuckles Vine.

Then there’s the prime exhibit of election graphics gone weird: the 2017 South Korean presidential race where one broadcaster revealed results with ‘dabbing‘ politicians.

Not to be outdone, the Seoul Broadcasting System mocked up the presidential hopefuls as key characters in Game of Thrones.

But despite the trend overseas, a fire-breathing dragon won’t be flying through British screens anytime soon, even in the event of a Plaid Cymru landslide. Instead, realism is the name of the BBC game.

Over the past elections, Vine’s largely dropped the gimmicky sets in favour of an increasingly life-like Downing Street, with the presenter having to remind viewers that his Number 10 was only a green screen creation. “We’d really broken through– it looked so real!” beams Vine.

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So just where is this pursuit of realism leading? Vine soaring around the UK in a virtual hot air balloon, of course. “You know I stand on a map on the floor? Wouldn’t it be better if the map was actually Britain – if it was a satellite image and I could float over it and land on it?” he says, somehow notching his excitement up another level.

That’s not the only graphic-to-be: “At the moment our graphs exist in three dimensions and I can walk round them, but I can’t touch or move them. We really want to do is something like Tom Cruise in Minority Report where he controls a big glass wall, picking things off it and animating them in his hands. We’re not there yet, but it would be amazing!” 

However, for all the satellite imagery and CSI-like interfaces to come, none of this technology will be free from faults. From Snow’s crumbling towers to those all-important swingometers, almost all election night graphics rely on real-time data, voting numbers that could potentially crash the system with an unexpected result. 

“We’ve never had that situation, but we’ve come close in the last election with the SNP,” laughs Vine. “Our virtual board only went up 1% higher than their swing and you can’t change these graphics at half-past-two in the morning! It very very nearly broke the swingometer!”

However, in the day before computer crashes, one surprise result did sabotage the studio equipment. In 1970 Conservative leader Ted Heath saw a surge in support that the BBC hadn’t expected, leaving presenter Bob McKenzie’s nail-to-the-wall swingometer several percentages short. The solution? “They just got a guy to come on and paint extras numbers!” laughs Vine.

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True, you won’t be seeing a stagehand topping up this year’s swingometer with a touch of Dulux, but Vine still has to be on guard against low-tech slip-ups. “The main issue is not remembering what I’m supposed to be showing next,” he admits. “I don’t want to make it sound like it goes wrong all the time, because it doesn’t. But sometimes when I’m asking a question on the air, I’m actually asking the producer. If I say ‘So, how many seats do Labour have?’ I’ll get the answer in my earpiece.”

It’s such problems Vine and the green team screen normally spend months building a safety net under, with the psephologists dedicating months to prepare and the computer specialists an entire year to perfecting the graphics. This time, however, they’ve got just 50 days. 

But if Vine is scared of the snap election, he’s not letting it override his default joy of the job: “It’s particularly a scramble with a surprise election, but we’ve all decided we love it because there’s that sense you’re hurtling into the unknown. That’s the great thing about an election programme!”

Everything you need to know about the 2017 General Election night coverage

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Despite his smiles, the team undoubtedly have a huge task on their virtual hands. When election night comes round, Vine will have had only six days green screen rehearsal under his belt. He’s even had to recruit his two young daughters to quiz him on 250 key constituencies to prepare in time (“I don’t even know if they know what they’re asking me about!”).

And all that’s before considering the new camera technology the BBC are rolling out for added ‘hyperdrama’. How’s it work? Well, it’s complicated. And involves a lot of the word ‘graphic’ to explain: “It’s got to do with a virtual camera that’s able to shoot from inside the graphic. So, instead of using real cameras that shoot the graphic with the graphic programmed into them, we can put the camera inside the graphic itself,” says Vine. “What that means is that it’ll look like the camera will almost fly around the set – the equivalent of when the camera moves on wires above football players.”

Don’t worry if that’s not clear: there’ll also be plenty of tried and tested green screen moments for your viewing pleasure. According to Vine the tight time constraints have forced the BBC to dust off graphics from the 2015 Election Night, recalibrated with the 2017 data.

But the BBC won’t only be emptying their digital recycling bin onto screens– we’ll finally get to see unused material from two years ago, including a literal house of card graphic that only half made it to air.

“We got to show it at three in the morning, but it was broken up by some breaking news. We always really regret that we never got to use it,” says Vine, almost letting his excitement slip for a second before returning to the usual election euphoria: “It’s a beautiful graphic!”

So, could other classic graphics return to our screens Thursday night? Could more aircraft be blasting through the studio? Perhaps a cowboy Tim Farron could make an appearance? We simply don’t know: Vine says giving away any more away will “ruin the surprise”.

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Just know whatever graphics do appear, Vine couldn’t be happier presenting them.