Granada goes to Rochdale

How a by-election in Lancashire made all elections TV elections

Granada Travelling Eye vans outside Rochdale Town Hall

From the early rumblings that a general election could be imminent to the climax of all the gee-whizzery of 21st century computer graphics, (although we’re not as ‘gee-whizzed’ as we once were), the screen on the wall or on the TV unit – and now our many mobile devices – bombards us ad nauseum with the twists and turns, the scandals and the stories and the general hullabaloo of the event. Each general election attracts even more coverage, reporters scrambling over each other, shouting, “What have you got to say about ‘X’ (add your own question), Prime Minister?” But it was not always like this. To the viewer of 1958, that was alien country.

Let me take you back, Tardis-like, to that year. Coordinates set, we materialise into a dull, wet Lancashire evening in the mill town of Rochdale in the north west of England. It’s Wednesday, 12 February and the last few voters turn up at the polling stations at the by-election for the parliamentary seat of Rochdale that has unexpectedly been made vacant following the death of Lt.-Col Wentworth Schofield, the last Conservative MP to date that Rochdale has ever had.

The election officials check their watches to the second and doors are firmly slammed shut and locked at 10.00pm precisely and the polling staff begin their journey to the count with their battered black metal ballot boxes secured with padlocks, white cotton tape and red sealing wax to protect their valuable contents. The count is taking place at the grim, Gothic-revival styled (and now Grade I Listed) Town Hall, built in 1886 and blackened by years of smoke from factories, cotton mills and coal-fired house-chimneys, although 2023, years ahead, will see it sitting on a pleasant esplanade after much renovation, a clean-up, tour guides and (naturally) virtual tours bookable ‘online’ – a phrase yet to be coined.

Rochdale’s claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of Gracie Fields, the actress, singer and ENSA entertainer. She was born over her grandmother’s fish and chip shop in Molesworth Street, although by now she had already made her home on the island of Capri, no longer a British citizen having given that up for love when she married Italian director Monty Banks. The town is also where the modern Co-operative Movement was born in 1844 – originally the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society – (thank them for your ‘divi’). The Society was to be a worldwide concept and became the largest consumer in the world known now as the ‘Co-operative Group’.

Vox pops in Rochdale

Additionally, the parliamentary constituency of Rochdale was later held for two decades by the larger than life but posthumously-disgraced Liberal, Cyril Smith, but that is a whole separate story and one that is unconnected to to this piece.

But a further claim to fame and one to which this piece is dedicated (although one that is now perhaps forgotten by most except the most hardy psephologists and TV historians) is that it made history by becoming the first town in Britain whose by-election was formally covered by television. The company that arguably forged the way for all election coverage that followed was Granada TV Network, the contractor appointed by the Independent Television Authority for weekdays in the north of England.

Granada was barely 20 months old but already its roots in flagship journalism and current affairs that culminated in the birth of World in Action in 1963 were being firmly established as a benchmark in television reportage. It was under this mindset that the decision was made by Granada executives in mid-January to cover the by-election. There was no time to lose.

To its credit, the BBC had covered general election results in the early 1950s (‘50, ‘51 and ‘55) with continually improved presentation and graphics (often painted on boards by white-coated artists whose skills and pace must have been tested considerably). The BBC’s coverage, nevertheless, was not so much the path towards the elections, but more the aftermath and results after polling station doors were locked.

Vox pops in Rochdale

Associated-Rediffusion and Associated TeleVision, the first ITV contractors in London on weekdays and weekends, weren’t on air until September 1955, so missed the May 1955 general election by four months. Granada Television followed with its opening night on 3 May 1956. The next general election was October 1959, so ‘Rochdale’ in February 1958 was an unexpected gift to Granada, albeit one that arose from the demise of a sitting MP.

But how to achieve this in such a short time? How would television affect the poll, the turnout, the reaction of the candidates? It must surely be fair to all, but the regulations surrounding covering an election process by television, whilst already in place, the ink was barely dry. The Television Act of 1954 however demanded that any news given in ‘programmes (in whatever form) [are] presented with due accuracy and impartiality and that… due impartiality is preserved on the part of the persons providing the programmes as respects matters of political or industrial controversy or relating to current public policy’.

On 22 January talks were instigated by Granada with local party agents and provisional plans were drawn up. It was decided that there would be five broadcasts covering the lead-up to election day and of the count itself at the Town Hall and of course, the declaration of the result.

Two weeks before polling day therefore, the first programme – 30 minutes in length – would be aired, with all three candidates – Jack McCann (Labour), John E Parkinson (Conservative) and Ludovic Kennedy (Liberal, and also one of the original ITN newscasters), being ‘grilled’ by a chairman in the shape of Irish-born journalist Brian Inglis of The Spectator and later Granada’s All Our Yesterdays and What the Papers Say. The first programme would also include film inserts about Rochdale and various elector-in-the-street ‘vox pops’.

Programme number two was planned to air one week before polling day – again for half an hour and this was to be a public meeting with the candidates. A fifteen-minute programme would be broadcast just two days before polling day which would be a press conference with the chance for local newspapermen to ask questions and the national press would be catered for in a fourth programme. The fifth and final airing would cover the count and subsequent declaration at the Town Hall.

News Chronicle front page
News Chronicle front page on 23 January 1958.

There followed a great interest in Granada’s Rochdale plans, even though the ITA had yet to add its blessing to the venture, however unlikely it would interfere, other than to tweak and consolidate the contractor’s intended coverage. The News Chronicle, since absorbed into the Daily Mail, having picked up the story, heralded the headline ‘Rochdale may be the first TV election’, even though the programmes would be unlikely to be seen by viewers outside of Granada’s area. The BBC seemed neither bothered or impressed and said it ‘did not intend to depart from our usual practice in by-elections that we do not influence voters nor report the campaigns in news bulletins’. However, research shows that the BBC did in fact interview many voters, although full scale coverage it was not. It is likely that they had second thoughts when Granada’s intentions were made public.

So with the local political parties in general agreement, the ITA when told of the plans felt that the arrangements were in line with ITA policy and Sir Robert Fraser, Australian-born Director General of the Authority since it was created four years previously, said the ITA would support Granada in its plans and that ‘Rochdale’ might be ‘useful as a pilot for bigger things’. Upon agreement, the ITA informed the Government Whip’s Office of Granada’s intentions.

So far, so good – but almost immediately the question of the allocation of time to each party candidate came up, with the Conservative and Labour party agents maintaining that, as they were the major parties, they should have a greater share of screen time. Granada executives however, told them that for the 15-minute programmes with the local and national press present, there would be no rigid checks on time but the chairman would ensure that the time was equally divided. The share of time for the half-hour shows though, was to be discussed with the ITA. The Conservative and Labour agents accepted the proposals but the Liberal agent, understandably, was not as happy. However, a 2:2:1 ratio in the half hour programmes was eventually agreed.

Cameras inside Rochdale Town Hall

By 24 January, it was starting to sink in with party heads in London that Granada’s operations were now actively in hand – and there began some heated exchanges between them and the Granada executives. Morgan Phillips, Labour Party General Secretary, was less than happy that Granada hadn’t consulted party HQ in London first, rather than just the local party offices in Rochdale. It was Granada’s view that local associations should have been left to consult their own head offices for any advice or instructions, and was no business of theirs. Phillips, somewhat contrarily, asked Granada whether they had ‘studied the legal aspects’ of election law in programmes to which the reply was that the ITA saw no legal barriers whatsoever in the plans.

On Monday 27 January the first programme was to go ahead but at the eleventh hour, the local Conservative Association in Rochdale pulled out as it was unable to get the final green flag from London, even though the local Labour and Liberal parties and their London HQs were in agreement with Granada’s plans. Programme One was postponed.

The next day, there followed much to-ing and fro-ing. The political correspondent of The Times had cast doubts on Granada’s impartiality – citing Granada founder Sidney Bernstein’s Labour Party membership and Granada’s left-wing leanings as good enough evidence of bias in favour of Labour. ‘Election Television in Doubt’ ran its headline. The Conservative and Labour parties were still cautious and were taking legal advice, being anxious not to contravene the 1949 Representation of the People Act and the Television Act of 1954. Having been originally suspicious, the Liberal Party under Jo Grimond embraced the whole Granada project, although they preferred equal time for all. Further, the ITA, having supported Granada’s plans, felt there was no danger of any infringement of the 1949 Act and was frankly puzzled by any suggestion that there would have been. It rightly believed that the programmes were not designed to promote any one candidate – expressly forbidden by the Act – but that the programmes would consist of fair and balanced treatment for all three candidates.

Reverse angle of the candidates being grilled

Two days later on 28 January, Granada was advised by Sir Robert Frazer that, finally, all three candidates were happy to go ahead although the Macmillan Conservative government was still in consultation with the Law Officers to ensure the Representation of the People Act would not be in any way infringed.

Daily Mirror page
Page 2 of the Daily Mirror on 30 January 1958

The newspapers by now were naturally on the case, and we have already seen that The Times wasn’t fully keen on the ‘television election’. The Telegraph indicated that Granada was being permitted to pick and choose as to what by-elections it wanted to cover. The Daily Mirror in its editorial shouted, ‘Set TV Free and Let the People See’. It said the government had been thrown into a state of ‘ludicrous dither by ITV’s bright idea’. The Express noted that Conservative Central Office had sent one of its ‘TV experts’ to groom its candidate Mr Parkinson ‘for possible stardom’. You have to wonder I suppose what her advice was… maybe, (and here I muse), no dandruff on the collar? check one’s trouser buttons always? Or, (dare I suggest), never answer a question with an answer? The Express’s George Gale further said in a ‘gay, knock-about piece’ (as my 1961 source calls it), quoting the Conservative candidate Joe Parkinson that ‘all along’ he had ‘wanted to go on with this television’ [the first programme] but was ‘stopped by a ruling from London’. The Manchester Guardian supported Granada fully: ‘Granada has put forward an excellent plan for broadcasting the Rochdale by-election… There is no unfairness in it, no bias and no risk of corruption’.

Everybody had their say. Lord Hailsham, Chairman of the Conservative Party, said the issue was of great importance and that it should be confronted by all parties at national level, the BBC and ITA. The dithering over the allotted time also continued and eventually, the 2:2:1 ratio was abandoned in favour of equal time for all. The Liberals naturally supported the decision, the Labour Party seemed happy, the Conservatives non-committal.

Whilst it was agreed by the Law Officers that there would be no contravention of the Representation of the People Act, the Television Act of 1954 posed something of a problem. It permitted ‘Party Political Broadcasts’, shared out meticulously between the parties and ‘properly balanced debates and discussions’ but there was no freedom for such pieces as interviews with voters as they could not be counted as ‘properly balanced debates’ – and Granada’s plans already were to go out on the streets of Rochdale for voters’ opinions. Similarly, a press conference where only members of the press could ask questions did not fall under the remit of the Act.

The candidates

More followed, and after adjustments to the planned programmes (that were in reality quite minor), and revised plans were sent to the three parties, it finally looked as the show was on the road. A week before polling day, even though the date of the first programme still hadn’t been fixed, the Granada entourage trundled its way to Rochdale.

On Sunday 2 February, technicians descended on the Town Hall, the Gothic building from which all the programmes would be broadcast. This was going to be an OB like no other for Granada. The council chamber itself was transformed into what was effectively a TV studio. The lights were hauled up, the cables, cameras and monitors were set up and the staff kitchen became a running buffet. But not only Granada personnel were present. This had attracted reporters and television men and women from all corners of the United kingdom, from France, Sweden – and even a film crew from CBS in America – arrived to film parts of the programmes that Granada was to air.

International press record Granada recording the event

The production team went ahead with some filming after it met at Rochdale’s Wellington Hotel for lunch. There was a producer and director from Manchester, another producer, interviewer and and assistants had flown in from London and the camera crew for the filmed vox pops, were mainly from Independent Television News who drove across from Snowdonia after their last assignment. Lunch over, the team headed out into the cold Rochdale air, filming the back streets, yet to be depicted in ‘Florizel Street’ and also the shopping centre and post-war housing estates. The fire brigade agreed to provide a 120-foot turntable ladder to get pictures of the Town Hall and even the traffic stopped.

Bill Grundy
Bill Grundy

The sound camera for street interviews was set up and Manchester-born Bill Grundy, (later of Thames Television’s Today but well known to Granada viewers from People and Places, Scene at 6.30, Northern Newscast, and Granada in The North) ventured out along with Canadian broadcaster Elaine Grand, now with Granada but who remained an occasional contributor to CBC of her birth country. As with Grundy, Grand also became the presenter of a Thames show Afternoon Plus and was a trailblazer for women and daytime television in the UK.

A diverse cross-section of Rochdale’s residents were caught on the camera. From the mill workers to retired elderly ladies out for shopping, the bus conductor to the travelling salesman – all were interviewed. Some, like the old man, just ‘didn’t want to know’ and Bill would no doubt have been given short shrift from some of the more gritty, Rochdalian die-hards. Miss Grand, in her fur coat and with her Canadian lilt probably fared much better with the gentlemen…

The vox pop packages complete, the film was rushed off for processing.

All seemed ‘good to go’ – but then yet another spanner was thrown into the works before the Wednesday Programme One could be aired. This time, it was from the Liberal camp. Candidate Ludovic Kennedy felt that he had been given Granada’s revised plans ‘rather too late’ to fit into his campaign schedule. After discussions and probably some persuasion, Kennedy was 95% certain he would be available for the Wednesday show at least, but he wanted discussions with the other two candidates about the remaining programmes.

The cameras in cramped and smoky conditions

On the Tuesday (4 February) the candidates all met, together with their agents, to discuss the (now revised) planned schedule of programmes. After the meeting, the News Chronicle secured an interview with the parties and reported that Mr Parkinson the Conservative candidate was ‘prepared to do the lot’ – but said that the meeting was instigated by the Liberals. The Labour candidate Mr McCann was not happy about the proposed press conference with local newspaper men as he said that no-one had defined what the local press would be. Kennedy only wanted fairness to candidates and the electorate, but was reported as saying that TV was ‘extraneous to the election’.

In the end the candidates agreed that they would appear on the Wednesday show the following day. They then agreed to appear on the press conference based programme on the following Tuesday and following the close of the poll, they would support the televising of the count. The plans for five shows was whittled down to these three but Granada executives could do no more – if even one candidate pulled out of their plans, there could be no show at all.

Preparations continued at the Town Hall on 4 February in preparation for the first programme. Equipment was fired up in readiness to put Rochdale in contact with Manchester’s control studio and with the Winter Hill and Emley Moor ITA transmitters in Lancashire and Yorkshire respectively. With the benefit of hindsight, this was to become one of Granada’s finest moments. In fact, at an address to the Manchester University Liberal Society, the Joint Treasurer of the Liberal Party, Philip Fothergill, told delegates, ‘It [the TV election coverage] will do freedom-loving eggheads no harm to give credit where credit is due. In this case, we raise a cheer for Independent Television’.

Around the panel

All was set. After doubts from Labour party officials, Tory misgivings and dithering by the Liberal candidate, agreement finally ensued with the first programme less than 24 hours away. It’s hard to imagine in the 21st century media world the wranglings that took place in 1958 but new ground is never broken easily.

Granada employed a crew of thirty and there were six vehicles all parked up outside the Town Hall, cables draping through windows, snaking across the floors to the heavy, turret cameras on tripods and wheeled bogies. Booms and lights were set up and boards mounted on easels were readied for front and end-cap graphics and idents. On the night, the three candidates and their agents and producers made use of the Wellington Hotel (which by now must have been making a bob or two) for an early meal to discuss the shape of the programme but by 6.30, it was off to the Town Hall to face the cameras at seven sharp.

Manchester Evening News TV listings: 7pm The Voice of Rochdale: By-election report.
Manchester Evening News TV and radio listings for 5 February 1958

Brian Inglis, the ‘anchor man’ sat at a wooden table procured from the council chamber itself – the type that even now can be seen in some less progressive Town Halls. His notes and scribbles were laid out in front of him and the scene must have looked almost like a headmaster speaking to three boys who’d been called up before ‘the beak’ in true ‘Bunter’ style. A monitor was positioned to his left, out of shot and a microphone boom was above him and ready to swing round from Inglis to the three men who were sat opposite, ready for interrogation. Ashtrays on pedestals were positioned in front of the men, should any other them feel the need to smoke cigarettes. A camera behind Inglis pointed above his head at the candidates, its turret lenses ready to be switched to close ups or general views of the three contenders. Two more cameras were positioned back towards the oak-panelled walls and to the right of the candidates, one precariously on a tressle table and behind the cameras but looking on, were guest journalists, party chiefs, being told ‘please don’t talk’. This was an incredible stage, part Gothic, part evolutionary but one thing was absolutely certain. The politicians were taking to this likes ducks to water and the future was being sculpted right there in that dark, dank night in Rochdale.

A short test of sound and cameras was undertaken and with the party chiefs’ stop watches at the ready to ensure their ‘man’ was treated equally as promised. Indeed Brian Inglis said ‘We know that during the next half hour we shall be setting a precedent of importance. We shall do our utmost to give a fair, impartial and useful report’. Mr Inglis produced a paper bag to draw lots to determine the order of speaking and told the gentlemen, ‘Don’t look when you are doing so… Who’s number one?’

Filming from the top of a Travelling Eye van in front of Rochdale Town Hall

Programme One finally went on air. Probably only then did the candidates fully realise that whatever they said, whatever their answers to Inglis’s interrogations, could make or break their chances of success at the following week’s election. The electors of Rochdale, courtesy of their regional commercial television contractor could be swayed, or not, by what these three men uttered as they sat at home, in the working mens’ clubs or the smoke rooms of The Eagle, The Prince Albert or The Bull’s Head on the Oldham Road.

And before you could say, ‘put wood in th’ hole’, the just-less-than-30 minute show was over.

Ludovic Kennedy, the ‘professional’ of the three men seemed the least enthusiastic. It is possible that he felt his experience might have disadvantaged his two opponents. Conservative candidate John Parkinson said he loved every minute of it and called it ‘a tremendous experience’, although he admitted to some nerves waiting for the show to go on air. He also said that the hand-signalling showing he had fifteen seconds to go of his allotted time was his main problem, being aware neither to ‘over shoot’ or waste a few valuable seconds. Jack McCann also enjoyed the TV experience but earnestly hoped that the personal touch would never be lost in politics.

But what of the people of Rochdale? What was their verdict? It was reported that they thought the candidates – particularly their favourite ‘came across well’. They generally did not however, approve of the filmed inserts of street interviews, pre-introduced by the more ‘seamier’ scenes of ‘ginnels’ and back-to-backs, with references to clogs, shawls and cobbles which did not go down too well with some viewers. It is said that one elderly gent, in a bar containing half of Fleet Street and Granada people after the show, gathered people around him to give his views. Clutching his pint, he seethed, ‘not cobbles, SETTS!’

Daily Mirror
Back page of the Daily Mirror for 6 February 1958

The next day, February 6th, the papers were full of it. ‘Millions see TV make poll history’ ran the Mirror. ‘Candidates on television – Rochdale sets precedent’ said The Times. ‘Rochdale politics takes to TV’ read the Manchester Guardian, but its TV critic reported on page 2 that ‘Granada’s precedent proves cold politics’. The Daily Herald sighed, ‘TV election was oh, so dull!’ but then it added, – ‘till Jack [McCann] came’, referring to the Labour candidate.

The candidates themselves aired their own views of Programme One in a Mirror piece: ‘In a programme like this, everyone starts off equally’ said Ludovic Kennedy. Jack McCann said he was ‘frightened to death at the start, but afterwards, I was so busy thinking what to say, I did not worry’. John Parkinson less dramatically said, ‘Once I got going, I forgot the cameras.’

The Mirror talked also to the Rochdale people: ‘The best thing is that you can listen to what a man has to say without his speech being drowned by hecklers’; ‘It’s just the sort of thing that makes people who don’t normally bother about politics really think’. A man named Walter Jackson said, ‘My mind is made up and no television programme of any kind could alter my views’. The News Chronicle, in a piece penned by David Willis who spoke to a Rochdale woman, reported that she said in true Lancashire style, ‘Well, it’s a lot better than opening the door on a dark night and talking to a shadow’.

Other newspaper reports generally praised Granada – ‘It [Programme One] was a privilege no other area of the land has yet enjoyed’… ‘Political history flashed on to a million northern TV screens tonight’. Roland Hurman, under the dateline, ‘The Fireside Front, Rochdale, Wednesday’ said that McCann ‘appeared in control’… of Parkinson, that he ‘looked as if he was enjoying it.’ and of Kennedy, ‘Newscasting is a very different proposition from being under fire, but Kennedy showed that he is learning his political craft fast’. The Daily Sketch wondered whether ‘this is a monster which should be put back in the bottle’. And George Gale for the Express who was in a pub during the broadcast quoted one old Rochdalian, contemplating the arguments about the H-Bomb, who said, ‘Well, you must have a detergent, even if we don’t use it!’

By Sunday 9 February plans for Programme Two on the eve of the poll went ahead and the press was still reporting the Programme One broadcast with differing views. Under the headline ‘What is Duller than Politics?’, Maurice Wiggin of the Sunday Times said that the ‘first by-election broadcast… was a feeble anti-climax’. He went on to say that it might have had some local interest to northerners but that southerners should ‘not feel deprived’. The Observer’s Maurice Richardson however said it made ‘lively television’ and that all candidates are advised to brush up on their television techniques or the electorate may vote with their bedroom slippers. For the Sunday Pictorial, curmudgeon Malcolm Muggeridge called television ‘A soapbox with knobs on’. But somewhat prophetically added that he foresaw the hustings in future invading the screen in a very big way, ending with, ‘In the end, who knows? Parliament itself may be televised’.

The Neilsen Television Index (pre-JICTAR and BARB) published that after the first programme, 42% of the possible audience (i.e. homes with two channels) watched the first fifteen minutes of the programme with 40% remaining to watch the second fifteen minutes. To summarise the findings, it said that the number of homes which actually tuned in to the show was about 680,000. Most did not switch off or were bored enough to ‘switch over’ to Tonight on BBC Television. It also reported that percentage-wise, the show was quite successful in that its ratings were higher than for Under Fire, Youth Wants to Know and What The Papers Say.

By Tuesday 11 February preparation was in hand for the Programme Two eve-of-poll programme and for the second time, the paraphernalia of television was rolled out within the venerable oak-panelled room of the council chamber at the Town Hall. This was to be the press conference-designed show and whilst there seemed to be a marked lack of enthusiasm by some of the newspapermen, Norman Shrapnel writing afterwards, felt that ‘The prospect of three orthodox would-be politicians – right, left and centre – having stock cross-bench questions shot at them by three newspapermen – left, centre and right – was not easily going to fire our hearts or stir our political consciences’. He followed up however by saying that in fact, the ‘biggest eve-of-poll meeting ever held’ turned out to be quite exciting television and it was not only the candidates who thought so.

The three lucky press men were Gerald Fay from the Manchester Guardian, Frank Machin of the Daily Herald and Roland Hurman of the Daily Mail. Before the show went on air, all were jokey as cigarettes were smoked by the three candidates and there was a fear that this might be turning into an ‘old pals act’ after all the legal wrangling of the last week or so but nothing was further than the truth. Programme Two was indeed going to be very different from the first show, with Brian Inglis at times almost having to call order. (‘I’m here to see fair play’).

Waiting for the deadline to air, Mr McCann smoothed his hair, taking a moment out from scribbling notes. Mr Kennedy, used to an on-air presence from his ITN experience, was unruffled by the make up girl dabbing his cheeks and brow. Norman Shrapnel, reporting on the events said McCann was ‘technically fascinated’ and Mr Parkinson seemed ‘coy’. A short rehearsal to check everything was in place and one impatient American press man with others behind the cameras shouted, ‘When does the shooting start?’

The show got under way and the ‘old pals act’ suddenly ceased under the watchful eye of Inglis. One wonders now could anyone of the time been a better referee. But Inglis was a professional and whilst he had no red or yellow cards in his shirt pocket, calm demeanour and professionalism were his craft.

Hotly debated were subjects such as the abolition of the death penalty and whether it really did act as a deterrent for murder. The Rent Act and the cotton industry – all important issues of the time – came under scrutiny and at times, there was furious sparring amongst the candidates and extracts from ‘the tape recording’ clearly show this:

Parkinson: ‘As far as insanity is proved, well that is a different matter entirely. But I want to see the death penalty revert back to its previous system. I want to divorce this from a political issue’.
McCann: ‘Oh no’.
Parkinson: ‘Of course I want to divorce this from a political issue. It’s a conscience matter’.

[There followed more argument – and no-one could hear what was said]

Kennedy [to Parkinson]: There’s one question I want to ask you. What evidence have you got that the death penalty is a deterrent more than imprisonment?’
Parkinson: ‘Well, of course, look at the increases in the…’
Kennedy: ‘What evidence have you got?’
Parkinson: ‘Well, you have seen…’
Kennedy: ‘What evidence have you got?’

The onlooking journalists behind the cameras were relishing the heated exchanges, even though at times there was so much snarling that the essence of the debate was quite lost in the general fury. Inglis, professional as he was, had both hands full in controlling the situation, decided to move things along with, ‘Let’s switch to another subject’.

But as the curtain came down on Programme Two and the cameras and lighting were switched off, as in many television debates since, the three protagonists became jolly good chaps again and all agreed that it was en enjoyable experience. Ludovic Kennedy, after having reservations following Programme One said that it [Programme Two] was ‘much more exciting’. No one had quite walked off the ‘set’ and all had got very hot under their proverbial collars but at the end of the day, to both the producer’s terror and joy, it was damned good television and for statisticians reading this, it was calculated that Mr McCann ‘won’ by eight seconds.

The dawn broke on Polling Day Thursday 13 February with the wind blowing across the Pennines and a temperature of 6°C. There was even a touch of thunder according to one historical weather source. Cold it might have been but the temperature was rising for both candidates and Granada Television as the doors of polling stations opened in the church halls, schools and clubs of Milnrow, Wardle, Heywood, Middleton and of course within the town itself and elsewhere across the constituency.

It was to be the television franchisee’s big day – or rather, night – as the coverage could only cover the counting of the votes and could do nothing that might jeopardise the secrecy of the vote or even report on ‘how the day was going’ with respect to turnout. It was made absolutely clear that no camera must show a picture of any ballot paper and that the secrecy of the vote must be preserved at all times. All thirty Granada crews members had to be “sworn in” before the Town Clerk – a formality that is no longer undertaken – these days, you are merely given the ‘thou shalt not’ requirements on paper and informed of the penalties for contravention of the secrecy regulations.

Cameras were positioned outside as well as in the Town Hall for the ballot paper count, with cameras and equipment to one side of the hall, away from anything but general shots of the counting process. There were smaller areas where interviews could to take place of the candidates, their wives and party delegates, and as the ballot boxes were returned to the Town Hall, the atmosphere grew tense as Programme Three, the final show, went on the air.

The election officials, the counters with banker’s ‘thumbs’, the party workers who patrol the desks where the mounds of ballot papers lay (‘that one’s in the wrong pile!’) all added to the drama of the occasion, although the real players where the candidates and their wives, ready to be encouraged before the cameras to answer to the inevitable questions. Mr McCann seemed confident as his row of counted ballots grew, and yet so did Mr Parkinson, even though his fortunes seemed to be less sizeable and Mr Kennedy looked slightly worried and yet his own personal success in the election could not be understated. The wives were brought before the cameras for interview during the count – notably Moira Shearer, who married Kennedy in 1950. She was the famed Scottish ballet dancer, actress and film star (The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffman, and, even later in the 70s, the BBC’s chosen presenter of the Eurovision Song Contest when it was staged in Edinburgh in 1972).

The count

The theatre of the occasion was enhanced by an almost comical episode when the Mayor of Rochdale, as Returning Officer, appeared to be ready to announce the result announce the result at a surprising early stage in the proceedings. Rising to his feet and clearing his throat, it looked as though the announcement was imminent – then he sank back into his chair after officials hurriedly whispered that it was a false alarm.

When the result finally came, the Mayor ‘in the flattest voice’ read out the losers and winner in alphabetical order as they would have appeared on the ballot paper, so Kennedy the Liberal’s votes came first (17,603) – amid loud cheers. If Hughie Green’s clapometer had been invented then, Mr Kennedy would have been back next week. But Mr McCann’s majority was clear at 4,530 votes (22,133) and Mr Parkinson’s smile, always there throughout the campaign, suddenly disappeared as the split vote caused by Kennedy dashed his hopes of following in Wentworth Schofield’s footsteps at Westminster. He polled 9,872 votes and his downfall, it would appear, was telling the cotton traders what he thought of them (which was not much). He was greeted with boos as he stood on that balcony with his two protagonists, one who now was about the lead the constituency for Labour in Westminster.

A graph showing the election results

The speeches from the balcony over, where once Miss Gracie Fields’ voice had echoed over the cobbles – or setts – of the square below, the Granada team had already started rolling in the cables, dismantling the cameras and all the other paraphernalia that goes with a television outside broadcast. Brian Inglis spoke to the viewers at home in his signing-off with, “That’s all from Rochdale. McCann goes to Westminster and we go home to bed.”

The hubbub died away, the night was suddenly calm again as reporters, columnists, observers, journalists and foreign camera units faded into the cold, Rochdale night air.

The TV critic at the Manchester Guardian praised the Granada initiative in following this by-election, although he recognised that some of the early stages of the on-screen election had been arguably ‘lifeless’ but added that ‘the excitement at the end was undeniable’. He went on, ‘Television is superb when it shows a thing actually happening: the Mayor in his chain of office reading out the … official declaration: the candidate’s kiss for his wife, the smile of the victor…’ The Daily Mail considered the reason for Mr Kennedy’s ‘spectacular’ success as runner up and answered simply “Television, which was allowed to report the by-election for the first time, may have played a decisive role.” Kenneth Allsop, who reported for Tonight and presented 24 Hours in the 1960s, reported for the Mail that ‘…the televoter is born… television is established as the new hub of the hustings.’ The Manchester Evening News said that viewers had a perfect ringside seat at the climax of the Rochdale election” and that “…Granada deserved praise for their pioneering work”.

The candidates themselves gave their own verdicts on the ‘TV Election’: Jack McCann believed that the high poll (80%) was in some way due to the fact that interest had been stimulated by TV and that ‘political parties cannot afford to ignore it.’ John Parkinson felt that there had been enormous interest created by the Granada’s coverage and that had been proved by the high poll. ‘It gives every candidate every chance to get his policy into the maximum number of homes and to the maximum number of voters.’ He was doubtful nonetheless as to whether it [television] influenced people to vote one way or another. Ludovic Kennedy was ‘fundamentally in favour of having television in an election’ although he added ‘a lot more should be done in the way of reporting’. He too, agreed with Mr Parkinson in that he didn’t think it altered the way people are going to vote, but that also it makes people conscious of their responsibility to vote.

The three shows totalled just two hours and five minutes of broadcasting. Compared to today, that is hardly a toe being dipped into water. As this piece is written, the next parliamentary general election is no more than two years away (January 2025). We will be bombarded – make no mistake – with almost round the clock coverage on the rolling news channels of the BBC, Sky, LBC, Talk TV and mainstream channels’ own news programmes. Bradby, Peston, Kuenssberg, Edwards, Mason, Marr and Ferrari et al will be in fifth gear. Vine will no doubt stride once again across digitally created graphics and even Bob McKenzie may turn in his grave, his swingometer poised.

And all due in no small part, although few will realise it, to the now almost-forgotten days of Granada TV’s ground breaking project of February 1958 in Rochdale where really, it all began.


Pete Singleton is a Transdiffusion staff editor.

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