Election Marathon: Marathon goes on the air

The first broadcasts

In Manchester the first 12 candidates to appear on Marathon began to arrive at Granada TV centre from Birkenhead, Blackpool, Bolton and Blackburn about an hour before the programme was due on the air.

They drank tea and broke biscuits together in a room away from the studio which was to be the scene of their ordeal and their opportunity. The Liberal Agent for Blackpool, in the manner of a trainer with an overweight boxer, declared he had got his candidate down to 55 seconds. A Conservative knight went off into one comer with his notes and pencil. In the centre of the room a big man with a rosette quietened a nervous conversation about television: “We’re going to win anyway; we’re not worried”.

All the candidates had been given caption cards to identify them and their parties for the viewers. They had balloted for order of speaking. They had been asked, too, to study a memorandum from Granada about television and the law, which said among other things: “There must not be any appeals to vote as such, and there must not be any offensive representation of or reference to a living person”.

It seemed to be narrowing politics a bit. Nobody, it is true, looked as if they would like to make offensive representations, though a production assistant was saying to a meek-enough candidate: “If you are going to say something rude you should say it through the chair”.

The candidates were assured that they need not worry that they might be cut off in mid-adjective — but, said the producer, “when the light goes steady, you must quit”.

At 4.38 the first three groups were taken to the studio. The three candidates for Birkenhead, the first to go on the air, took their places and sat stiffly side by side. They had no notes, but their eyes had a withdrawn look that suggested that well-rehearsed words were passing before them.

There was not much of an audience for them — just the usual technicians, a producer and a pressman. In the constituencies their appearances would bring smiles, handshakes, applause — anything, perhaps, but the busy silence they now faced as they waited for the starter’s signal and the 60-second sprint.

The other candidates sat around behind the cameras and the cables, clutching their name-cards. Make-up girls descended on them with brushes and powder-puffs (“just to take the shine off”). Mrs. Barbara Castle took her place with 10 minutes to go, and asked for a cushion. She explained: “You can see more of him than me”.

“Three minutes to go”, said the floor-manager, and there was silence.

“One minute” . . . “30 seconds” … A hand sawed sharply down and Mr. Graham Routledge was on. He is a 32-year-old bachelor and a barrister. He had been sitting upright like a guardsman. He spoke in a homely, straightforward, slightly formal way: “I am privileged to be the Conservative candidate for Birkenhead. I was born in Higher Tranmere. I went to school there, I live there. Probably I have met you. Consequently I am myself aware of the benefits many of you have received from the increased prosperity of the last few years …”

So they were off into the land of summits and price indices, pension tables and balance-of-payments crises, with not yet much of a smile or a spark to keep the viewers awake. But it was a fair start, and as the Birkenhead three went stealthily out of the studio to make room for the Blackpool North trio, Mrs. Castle could be heard talking about oysters and caviar for the few, and her opponent replying with wage statistics, and Marathon was well on its way.

It was all quite polite, so far . . . Mrs. Castle had to be interrupted by the chairman when she was going past the 60-second mark at Flying Scot speed: she gave way with a smile. The Labour candidate for Blackpool South said that his opponent had been a good MP: the MP said that he appreciated such kind personal remarks.

Not until the last constituency on Monday, Bolton West, was there any smell of gunpowder. The Labour man attacked the Conservative-Liberal pact he said existed there. The third seat in the studio was empty because of phoney politics, he declared, staring angrily ahead. But the Liberal turned his wrath elegantly aside, gave a neat puff for his own election meeting that night — and finished under time.

Over to Yorkshire

Marathon was being broadcast from Leeds as well as Manchester to save the time of candidates and of television. A crew of 35 and four Granada Travelling Eye vehicles had moved in to do the job.

On the day the invitations went out for Marathon, work had started to turn a 3rd-floor Granada office in the Headrow into a television studio. Cables were passed from the street vehicles through a 3rd-floor window. Noise had been the biggest problem, for the Headrow is a busy road; but that had been overcome by curtaining the office walls.

Extra telephones and lighting had been arranged and other Granada offices converted. One had become a make-up room. Another two became studio waiting-rooms, with water carafes, where it was thought the candidates might like to pace and declaim their speeches. Despite the preliminary warning against the declamatory manner, they did.

A night in Leeds went like this:

At 10.10 p.m. the camera crews begin to arrive in the studio for 11.30 transmission. They switch on the cameras to warm up. Outside in Wormald Street the director and sound and vision engineers take their positions in the Control Van and tune in to Manchester. They have three stop-watches to time the candidates’ speeches.

In the reception rooms the first two candidates have arrived — from Rotherham tonight, 60 miles away. The producer briefs them: ‘‘You are free to use your hands and you can read notes if you want to. The camera will not see them…. If you want to show anything like a poster you can, but the camera will not move for them. If we allowed production techniques for one, we must allow them to all”.

Someone asks the Labour man about his 11,500 majority in Rotherham. He recites the oldest safe-seat joke: “We don’t count the votes there, we put ’em on the scales and weigh ’em.” The Conservative, by diplomacy or accident, thinks the conversation is about weight and talks about slimming: they are both heavyweights.

At 11 p.m., with half an hour to go, they are waiting only for the Conservative candidate from York. One or two people begin to look anxious. Ten minutes later he comes in from the night with a flurry of party workers. He has been delayed by a car crash.

With 20 minutes to go they all troop off to the studio on the 3rd floor. The candidates are powdered, their eyebrows brushed, their ties straightened. They take the floor.

Ten minutes to Marathon and the chairman runs through his opening speech. The candidates put on their poker faces.

The producer sits behind a partition with a monitor set, and another stop-watch. Earphones connect him to the director in the control van outside. The producer will flash the studio light that tells a speaker he must come to an end. Elaborate precautions have been made against overrunning. A big card marked “I” stands ready for the producer to wave at the chairman if he wants him to intervene between two candidates, and another marked “F” which means that, as a desperate last resort, he is going to fade out the programme.

Then the cue comes, the Conservative smiles into the camera, speaks and takes his signal to close. The Labour man calls him “Ron” as they debate steel nationalisation and the Conservative starts back, “Let’s be fair about this, Jack”.

Now their minutes have gone and it is the York candidates who are sparring, with milder blows: “Sometimes, you know, I couldn’t agree with you less”. When the York candidate says that Socialism is “pie in the sky” the Rotherham Labour man looks as if he will break in. But he doesn’t, and the broadcast ends on time and in good temper.

The Labour man from Rotherham sums up the amiability of it all: “These fellows are all right on their own. It’s when you get dozens of them it’s different”.

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