Yes, it took a long time to arrive at this next update. You can blame the ‘programme’ at number 27 on the list. Anyway, on with the next couple of entries on the list, which would have undoubtedly appeared much sooner if I’d refused to do commentary on them.
(Shown 2798 times, 1988-2021)
Earlier in the list, we found no-nonsense agricultural programme ‘Farming’ just outside the top sixty, airing 1488 times between 1957 and 1988. But what came next? Well, as eagle-brained readers may recall, it was this. But what was ‘this’?
Despite a long and storied history of spending Sunday lunchtimes offering a “weekly agricultural magazine for those who live by the land”, as the 1990s approached it was felt to be time for a wider look at rural affairs. The mission to launch the new programme fell at the muddy wellies of Michael Fitzgerald, Editor of BBC Pebble Mill’s Countryside Unit, who told the Sunday Telegraph how the purview of farmers was evolving. A lot of agricultural land was being set aside for things other than growing crops, and it was time more was done to bring that to the screen, along with covering other aspects of countryside life. Not that Fitzgerald was deserting the farming community with this new offering, vowing that new programme Country File would always keep “at least one wellie in the farmyard”.
That promise didn’t go down to well with a few members of the farming community, some sending angry letters to Pebble Mill – Fitzgerald remarking how one letter referred to the new show as a “bland, insipid programme” – but it seems most of their contemporaries (including the National Farmers Union) were content to wait and see what the new programme would bring.
Indeed, while the smell of pigswill remained in the nostrils of the new programme, early episodes certainly looked a little further afield, covering topics such as open-cast mining in Wales, canoeists campaigning for legal access to British waterways, or the shortage of low-cost village housing. However, not everything went according to plan – a planned film exploring the lives of crofters on the devout Presbyterian Scottish island of Lewis had to be abandoned when they discovered the film was to be aired on The Lord’s Day. Despite being filmed on a weekday (such was the production team’s desire not to cause offence), a pre-interview chat with crofter Neil Mackinnon led to the six-person film being sent packing before a single second of footage was shot, all because the film was to be broadcast on a Sunday.
Despite those early hiccups, the programme proved to be a success, and in July 1989 saw telly stalwart John Craven take over the hosting duties previously shared by Anne Brown and Chris Baines. The very fact that Craven would leave John Craven’s Newsround, a show regularly attracting six million viewers, for a niche lunchtime programme was certainly newsworthy. His name had been right there in the title, after all. And yet, after 17 years and 2,926 editions of the Children’s BBC news roundup, Craven shuffled his papers and bid an avuncular farewell for the last time. The day of Craven’s final Newsround – Thursday 22 June 1989 – was certainly a big day for TV farewells. A few hours after Craven’s Newsround swansong, Robin Day hosted Question Time for the final, erm, time.
At this stage, it certainly didn’t hurt viewing figures for Country File that rival channels offered less than scintillating competition. In 1990, it was usually pitted against Westminster Week, Police 5 and The Waltons on channels Two through Four. By 1992, the alternatives were generally Sunday Grandstand, ITN News/Waldon, and Little House on the Prairie. By 1994, the competing programmes were the same, save for black-and-white repeats of The Fugitive and The Phil Silvers Show on BBC2. Nevertheless, Country File was deemed a hit, and the programme duly received a commendation from the parliamentary Rural and Agricultural Affairs Advisory Committee. It would have been funnier if a bureaucratic error led to the commendation accidentally being awarded to repeats of The Waltons, mind.
By 1995, Country File was certainly popular enough to be lampooned memorably in the final episode of The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, with John Craven portrayed as a sociopathic pest with a penchant for breaking into Dalek-speak, while Smell regulars Chris Bell, Tom Fun, Whisky and Brandy Bolland causing rural chaos in a series of segments.
The programme continued to attract a stable audience as Britain moved into a new century, and it’s fair to say it served an audience not really catered for away from the BBC. It’s a format hardly likely to pop up on Amazon Prime any time soon, after all. No, Clarkson’s Farm isn’t the same.
The show’s popularity even led to it moving into a Sunday evening slot from April 2009, with new presenters Matt Baker and Julia Bradbury joining Craven for the move. It proved an immediate success in the new 7pm slot, becoming the twelfth-most watched programme on BBC1 that week, with 5.69m viewers.
From that point on, CountryFile has continued to attract large audiences, often registering viewing figures north of eight million. The ratings high point for the series came on 7 February 2016, with a total of 8.78 million people watching Matt Baker visit a former Tyneside coalmine transformed into a country park, while Ellie Harrison looked at the restoration of Roker Lighthouse near Sunderland.
Because the BBC doesn’t want to just let a popular brand be, there were also a number of spin-off programmes. 2009 saw the first appearance of Country Tracks, which ran until 2012. 2010 saw a one-off special Secret Britain, which because a full series in 2015. And, from 2016, a series of seasonal Countryfile diaries aired, starting with CountryFile Spring Diaries, going out on weekday mornings.
It might not be the sexiest of television programmes and you’re not about to see it plastered across a digital billboard promoting iPlayer any time soon, but damn does it make for a warming Sunday evening comfort blanket.
27: Party Political Broadcasts (etc)
(Shown 2874 times, 1950-2021)
Well, contrary to what many might think, here’s a fun one. The following will help you understand the tone I’m using to express the word ‘fun’ in that sentence.
In theory, it’s a simple one. Look for programmes marked ‘Party Political Broadcast’ in Genome. And for good measure, ‘Party Election Broadcast’ before totting them all up. Sadly, it’s not as easy as that. For example, here’s a Labour local election broadcast from May 2004. Or is it?
Hidden away down there. I’m going to have to bloody well search for ‘party political broadcast’ to pick up all the instances within programme descriptions, aren’t I? Except, of course, that will also throw up a load of false positives, such as:
Sigh. So, I’ll need to vet results, to sort programme descriptions that contain (or are followed by) genuine party political broadcasts, from ones that merely refer to them. Fun. And hang on, what about stuff like:
That’s surely similar enough to warrant inclusion, especially in cases where stances on a topic are broadly split between party lines. Then, of course, you’ve got things like Budget Statements. Not a party political broadcast per se, but essentially a representative of a political party getting five minutes to point out how stupid and wrongheaded the other lot are, especially when it comes to what they’d like to do with your money. They’re little more than a PPB in accountant’s clothing. So, that’s added to the pile too.
So, in summary: for this entry I’m including pretty much everything where a politician or party is afforded a short, clearly highlighted programme slot to express an unchallenged opinion about how brilliant they – and everyone who agrees with them, which they hope includes the viewer – are. Hence the ‘(etc)’ right up there.
I’m going to be honest, the figure I’ve carved out here may well be slightly inaccurate, but there’s a point where you have to draw a line in the sand for the sake of your sanity.
ANYWAY. Some history.
Much as broadcasting didn’t begin with TV, neither did the art of using the airwaves to coax viewers into voting for your lot. 1924 saw the early British Broadcasting Company (as was) putting out the first party election broadcasts over the radio. This only came about due to no small amount of campaigning from Sir John Reith, who’d been lobbying then Postmaster-General Neville Chamberlain to allow politicians on air to make their case to potential voters in person. After initial protestations from Chamberlain that affording airtime to grubby opposition parties would be subversive, the initial proposal was temporarily dropped. However, Reith continued to lobby for their introduction, pointing out that the Post Office was happy to deliver manifestos to homes of Britain without charging for the service, and his proposal was merely a logical progression of that. Chamberlain relented, and in early 1924 the nod was given to allow the first election broadcasts.
There were just a couple of main rules that had to be adhered to. Each broadcast could be no longer than twenty minutes, and broadcasts must be unedited. That’s quite a lot of leeway for an act recently dismissed as subversive. Leaders of the three major parties – Herbert Asquith (Lib), Stanley Baldwin (Con) and Ramsey McDonald (Lab) – seized the opportunity to the max, taking full advantage of their allotted minutes to inform the public why they’d each be Britain’s brightest hope. It would be McDonald who’d win the election, forming Labour’s first-ever government, albeit a decidedly flimsy minority one.
It wasn’t to last – towards the end of that year, a fresh election had been called, and a manufactured political scandal did for the McDonald government. With the election date set for 29 October, Labour hopes of an increased vote share were roundly scuppered by a story published in the Daily Mail just five days before polling day. The gist: THOSE DAMN REDS ARE IN THE PAY OF THE SOVIETS! THEY’RE GOING TO GIVE OUR MONEY TO MOSCOW! IT’S TRUE, WE TELLS YA.
The supposedly smoking gun was a letter penned by Soviet official Grigory Zinoviev, a purported directive sent by the Communist International in Moscow to the Communist Party of Great Britain, the scheming Soviets dead set on installing a Labour government as part of a plan to radicalise Britain’s working classes.
Of course, the letter in question was completely fake, but the damage was done. Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives duly romped home with a large majority. Newspaper dark arts aside, Political Broadcasts on the radio were now very definitely A Thing, and they were set to be broadcast exclusively over the wireless for quite some time to come.
Despite the monopoly on Election Broadcasts going to the BBC’s radio service, it wasn’t without some severe limitations. In 1947, a new formal agreement was reached between the three main parties and the BBC. The Government of the day would be able to use the wireless from time to time to explain legislation approved by Parliament (under the banner ‘Ministerial Broadcast’), provided it was delivered in a suitably dry and factual manner. Aside from that, twelve broadcasts were permitted each year (referred to in the 1952 BBC Yearbook as “controversial broadcasts”) for the three leading parties, divided up according to the vote shares at the most recent election.
When it came to cross-party broadcasts, MPs could be invited onto the radio to take part in round-table discussions on ‘controversial’ political matters, as long as they weren’t the subject of legislation at the time (i.e. topical, which negates the point somewhat). Furthermore, there was to be no discussion of issues within a fortnight of them being discussed in either House. To get a feel for that, try only listening to current affairs podcasts that are at least a month old. Not YouTube, though. This was still purely a radio-only genre, remember.
However, in the early 1950s they eventually arrived on the screens of televisually-equipped Britons. The very early 1950s, in fact. Now, a number of sources (including the Beeb’s own centenary sub-site) refer to the first televised Party Election Broadcast as airing in October 1951, where Viscount Samuel spoke on behalf of the Liberal Party, but I’m going to argue that they arrived a little earlier than that.
Saturday 4 February 1950 saw the first TV broadcast billed as an Election Broadcast, with a sound-only recording of then-PM Clem Attlee (Lab) giving a ‘talk’ airing after the (also audio-only) late night news broadcast. Subsequent broadcasts followed throughout that week, with a broadcast by Anthony Eden (Con) going out two days later, followed by Viscount Samuel (Lib) the following evening. James Griffiths (Lab), Florence Horsbrugh (Con) and Megan Lloyd George (Lib) were subsequently broadcast throughout the remainder of the week. Indeed, nightly election broadcasts aired right up until 18 February 1950, coming to a close a week before Polling Day for that year’s Election. Close your eyes now if you’re avoiding the result: it resulted in a slim Labour majority.
Now, admittedly, the Liberal Party’s minty Viscount was the first to appear in an in-vision Election Broadcast. The nightly ‘talks’ in 1950 were merely audio-only rebroadcasts of speeches given earlier in the evening on the Home Service. But still: a series of politicians afforded TV airtime to go on about how brilliant their mates all are. That’s a PPB, it was on the telly, so it counts in my book.
Still, everything would change in 1951. Eventually. A sound-only PPB aired on 13 October 1951, with Lord Woolton (Con) speaking to a nation presumably just trying to enjoy their Saturday night. But just two days later, the medium changed forever with the first official Television Election Broadcast (specifically billed as just that), going out in a plum 8pm slot. Sadly, any hardcore politicos hoping for something special to mark the occasion were greeted by… Lord Samuel flatly reciting his script as if he were on the radio, barely moving his gaze from the printed page in front of him. And, to cap it all, accidentally giving the prearranged signal to announce he’d finished, and duly getting cut-off in the middle of a sentence.
Of course, a camera being thrust in front of a Minister for Something merely resulted in production values that a YouTuber with a three-figure follower count would baulk at. A desk, a mic, some paper and (more often than not) a bit of nice wood panelling in the background. No wonder generations of kids kept asking if they could just go to bed early. This was purely by design – the filming was initially carried out by the BBC, and any sense that one party’s PPB was a bit livelier than the others would cause all kinds of kerfuffle.
Indeed, this approach still wasn’t the default for all political broadcasting. Sound-only recordings of talks given to the Home Service earlier in the evening continued for the next few years due to BBC guidelines (main parties allowed as many as six PPBs per year in audio, but a maximum of just two audiovisual broadcasts), but at least a little invention wasn’t too far away. 19 March 1954 saw the start of Radio Times billings that promised more than just “Lord Cyril Boring P.C. G.S.O.H Q.P.R.”. It’s all relative, of course, but “Meet The Labour Party: A Student’s Journey” sounded a least a little bit more interesting, as did the production credit “produced by the Labour Party Film and Television Unit”. You don’t get that sort of thing these days.
That was followed a week later by a similar attempt by Labour’s blue brethren, ‘Public Questions‘ promising a mass debate between “the Rt. Hon. Anthony Eden. M.C., M.P., Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, John Nixon Browne, C.B.E., M.P. (Govan, Glasgow), Peter Thomas, M.P. (Conway, Wales), Edith Pitt, M.P. (Edgbaston, Birmingham) and Ray Mawby (prospective Conservative candidate for Totnes)”. Is that your cathode-ray tube overheating, or just the white-hot heat of fiery political discourse? Oh, it’s the former. Turn it off at the wall.
This was a spell where, whatever else they may have been getting up to (and it certainly wasn’t winning elections), Labour had nailed the art of giving great titles for the PPBs. Such as “Conference of the World’s Press” (19 Nov 1957), “Question Time” (11 Feb 1958), “The Britain We Want” (29 Nov 1958) or “The Radical Alternative” (4 May 1960). Come on, you’d be at least ten percent more likely to tune in with a title like that.
The Conservatives later tried to take the same approach, but with less success. Well, unless you’re stirred by titles such as “The Town Hall and You” (4 May 1959), “Factory and Farm” (29 Sep 1959) or “It’s Your Council” (11 May 1960). The Liberal Party eventually had a go too, but “Get Britain Moving with the Liberals” (6 Mar 1963) just sounds like an especially boring exercise video.
As far as progress goes with the format, that was pretty much as far as it would go until Conservative Central Office got on the blower to Saatchi & Saatchi in 1979. The result: a series of five party political broadcasts that bore a closer bearing to television adverts than the staid Politician Behind A Desk format that was previously the inked-in norm. Given the fuel of James Callaghan’s infamous “Crisis? What crisis?” quote-that-he-never-actually-said, it was deemed that there was plenty to pack into those films, with spokesTory Humphrey Atkins only needing a brief cameo in the first ten-minute film, the rest being taken up by a series of strange tableaus, including a coughing planet, money frozen in ice, and a man under Union Flag bedsheets. It was hardly a ratings smash – the same week’s Labour PPB drew a larger audience – but the message seemed to resonate, and Britain was to fall into the iron grip of Conservative rule for the entire 1980s, and beyond.
Similar attention-grabbing tactics would soon ensue from other parties (though in fairness, if you were watching telly at the time you’d have to leave the room to avoid the damn things, as PPBs had to be broadcast simultaneously on all channels), the most notable perhaps being John Cleese’s SDP Broadcasts in 1987, and the most infamous being the same year’s Kinnock: The Movie.
Ah, Kinnock: the Movie. The Ronny Rosenthal Miss At Villa Park of Party Political Broadcasts? Or is it? It seemed such a cert to Labour campaign supremos Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould – Neil Kinnock’s personal popularity was faring much better in the opinion polls than Labour’s, so what better to throw focus on? Throw in Chariots of Fire director Hugh Hudson to make the thing, then just sit back and watch those polling numbers rise.
And, as it happens, it actually went down pretty well. Kinnock’s personal poll ratings rose further as a result. And so, Labour decided to use one of their remaining Party Election Broadcast slots to repeat the film. After all, things were going well for the party, as Polling Day drew closer some polls had Labour just a few percentage points behind the Conservatives, and Newsnight even predicted the whole shebang would end in a hung parliament. However, a huge marketing splurge by a panicked Tory party, who’d thrown Tim Bell in to grab the campaign reins late in the race, would ultimately lead to a victory, and a 102 majority, for Margaret Thatcher.
So basically, it’s arguable whether Kinnock: The Movie was really the disaster it was painted as, not least because the Conservatives duly copied the recipe in 1992 for John Major.
The cuddly documentary approach was refined yet further for 1997, this time with the ball batted back to Labour. The Conservatives, having pretty much realised the jig was very much up, went into full Nasty Tory mode with the comical New Labour, New Danger (which did at least inspire a great Harry Enfield sketch), while Alistair Campbell and documentary maker Molly Dineen spent months on a carefully crafted ten-minute portrait of Tony Blair. That worked. Trying to repeat the feat with a film on Ed Miliband a decade-and-a-bit later, not so much. Not sure why CCHQ didn’t try making a short film showing the real Boris Johnson in… oh, right.
Of course, your everyday general Party Political Broadcasts (and their higher stake Election Broadcast brethren) aren’t the only thing included in the broadcast total here. There are also local elections (“if elected, we promise more bin days”), Queen’s Speech Responses (“look what you’ve elected, you idiots”), Budget Responses (“look what you’ve elected, you broke idiots”), Mayoral Election Broadcasts (London only for the purposes of this list, the first ever broadcast of which seems to have gone to the Green Party), and Party Election Broadcasts for the European Parliament (in which millions of idiots voted for a party who wanted to abolish it, but whose MEPs happily pocketed their Brussels pay-packets and pensions despite doing very little actual participation in the European Parliament, then pretended that this proved some kind of point). There were also National Assembly broadcasts for the non-England nations, but those aren’t being included here.
And then there were the referenda. The most curious of which – at least to someone writing in the perspective of it all happening long before their time – was the 1975 EEC Membership Referendum. That deserves a longer write-up, but this piece has gone on long enough already, and you’re all keen to move onto the next programme in the list (which is surprisingly, and my database might have got corrupted here, Bobby Davro’s Public Enemy No 1), so I’ll just state that it seems to be a right old curio when viewed through post-Brexit eyes. Nearly the entirety of the national press supporting the ‘Yes’ campaign, with the largest No-backing paper being the Morning Star. The staunchly pro-Labour Daily Mirror pointedly using a front page to dub refusenik Tony Benn as the Minister of Fear. Referendum Campaign Broadcasts reportedly getting audiences of up to 20 million. Cats and dogs living together. All that.
After that, at least as far as UK-wide referenda go, it would be a long time before another referendum campaign kicked in. Much to the chagrin of The Referendum Party, James Goldsmith’s rabble of hoorays that stood in the 1997 General Election on the basis that if elected they’d hold a referendum on EU membership, act on the outcome, and then immediately dissolve as a political party. And they went all out in their attempts to reach that goal, outspending both Labour and the Conservatives on press advertising. Sadly for them, it all amounted to very little – in seats where the party was standing, they gathered an average vote share of just 3.1%. Though, y’know, lose the battle win the war etc.
The first actual national referendum after 1975 came about in 2011, with the Alternative Vote referendum. Cooked up as a fudge between coalition partners Liberal Democrats (partner in the Syd Little sense) and Conservatives (partner in the Eddie Large sense), with the former having really wanted true proportional representation on the ballot, and the latter just wanting to be left alone to get on with closing libraries, it didn’t really seem to satisfy many. In the end, only 32% of votes went to the Yes campaign, and we’re stuck with First Past the Post until the end of time.
Then there was 2016. But, y’know, ew. Also, due to the list using the default London region listings, the Greater London Authority referendum of 1988 is included. Look, nobody said all this was going to be interesting.
In short, Party Political Broadcasts are a format that will be with us for a long time yet. That’s despite the fact they’re becoming decreasingly effective, given falling audience figures for the channels that show them. With the remaining live TV viewing audience spread across more and more digital channels that have no obligation to show PPBs, and millions more largely ignoring broadcast TV almost entirely, the main focus on getting political messages ‘out there’ is via sponsored online content, which seems to mean (at least in some quarters) going straight for the scaremonger jugular even quicker and harder than ever before. And I say that as someone who remembers Party Election Broadcasts from the late 80s onwards, where a common tactic was shot-on-film dramatisations of Life After You Vote For The Other Lot, which invariably seemed to resemble the first twenty minutes of Threads.
To be fair, my usual reaction to seeing the exit polls at 10pm on Polling Day is generally a dismayed “they’ve only gone and bloody done it”, so it does all fit together.
Phew. It’s all over. It’ll probably be something a bit lighter next update. Or at least something that won’t take so much pesky research. So tune in again soon.