By 10pm on the night of 9th June 1983 BBC Television center was humming. In Studio Two, amid a beige version of the set from Alien, David Dimbleby and Robin Day were about to start the election results show, though everybody already knew Thatcher was going to walk it.
I was in the studio next door, which had been transformed into a vast Green Room, tables stacked high with food and booze. Us trainees had been brought in to help organise the guests and manage the hospitality.
We’d gently lead them away from a drunken dinner and take them to the studio
And that party was only getting started. As the night wore on and the politicians, academics and journalists came and went, but mostly came and stayed, the whole place, and the labyrinth of corridors, scenery docks and stage lifts surrounding it, began to resemble something between a University May Ball and the last days of Rome.
People were being sick in corridors, being discovered “in flagrante” in lifts or sneaking off into unlocked offices. Some, bearing an uncanny resemblance to their Spitting Image puppets, became far too slurry and unsteady on their feet to go before Dimbleby and co at the appointed time.
Back then, juniors like me were often sent to pick up politicians and other public figures, because if they were not physically guided they’d forget to turn up altogether or go to the wrong place. We’d arrive rather sheepishly outside clubs, parties and private homes — sometimes not the private homes that they were supposed to be living in. We’d gently lead them away from whatever drunken dinner they were at and take them to the studio where more free alcohol was always available. And everyone was smoking.
For politicians and journalists alike, it was an especially louche time. And secrets, by and large, were kept along an arc of tolerated misbehaviour that ran from Westminster through St James’ to Notting Hill and White City. Albertines Wine Bar and Julie’s restaurant both had booths you could dissolve into during lunches that slipped toward early evening, and the “cinq a sept” trade in the local hotels was always healthy.
There was a BBC chauffeur driving company run by a man called Niven, and a late night “Niven Car” was the ultimate perk when the White City and Lime Grove bars finally closed. I’m not the only BBC veteran who’ll remember when a certain public figure left an item of intimate female clothing on the back seat of her “Niven” after an over-enthusiastic snog on her way home. It was duly recovered, popped into a plastic bag and discreetly couriered back to its proper owner.
I’m making it sound more fun than it was. There was a lot of awful behaviour that went unremarked and unpunished, especially the leering, groping and grabbing that my female colleagues had to put up with endlessly, some of which would today rightly be called sexual assault. And, of course, this permissive culture was the ideal environment for celebratory predators, the Jimmy Savilles, Stuart Halls and Cyril Smiths (one of David Dimbleby’s guests that very election night). We all heard the gossip, but nobody made a challenge.
But if I could have any part of that world back it would be this: we didn’t expect, need or want our MPs, ministers or their shadows to be plaster saints.
Of course it’s human nature for Carrie Johnson to want to give the husband she nearly lost a month earlier a surprise on his birthday. Who can blame her? She probably thought it was within the ever-changing rules. It’s human nature for Rishi Sunak to join in an impromptu chorus of “Happy Birthday” when a cake suddenly appears in the cabinet room. What else is he supposed to do? Walk out?
It is also human nature for Keir Starmer’s team to enjoy an hour or so of beer and curry after a long day campaigning. I mean it’s late, they’d been together all day and where’s the real harm? It’s human nature for the hangers on of the local MP to want to join in too. How often do you get to share a beer with a future Prime minister? And it’s very much human nature for Angela Rayner to relax over a drink with her friends on the Westminster Terrace and tell a dirty, exaggerated joke about flashing the PM.
But what’s incredibly not human is the po-faced public posturing that moments like these now inevitable produce. Imagine the Niven knickers 2022 edition. Within an hour of the first tweeted image from the driver there’d be a full #knickersgate scandal with twitter blue ticks trading barbs and everyone involved crafting careful statements with their lawyers denying it ever happened, asserting their towering moral rectitude in all imaginable scenarios and furiously attacking their wicked opponents for – er – splashing said knickers around the media.
But who wants to be governed by Obidiah Slopes?
The British state’s response to Covid should and probably will lead to resignations – probably for unnecessarily delayed lockdowns and crazy care home policies. Let’s decide that after the Public Inquiry. But over some confected outrage about a birthday cake? That’s no way for a healthy political system to work.
Seeing Starmer tear into Sunak for his miniscule infraction, citing the awful, lonely suffering of the dead, also took me straight back to the early 1980s. I immediately thought of the oily, scheming, even holier than holier-than-tho hypocrite Obadiah Slope, as perfectly brought to life by a young Alan Rickman in Barchester Chronicles. I was probably watching it in between picking up drunken cabinet ministers.
But who wants to be governed by Obidiah Slopes? I don’t.
And there’s a larger point which is being missed here. People (like me in fact) didn’t avoid seeing their dying relatives or meeting their newborn grandchildren because of what politicians might be doing or not doing in Miners’ Halls or Downing Street gardens. We avoided seeing them because it made sense not to catch and spread a potentially fatal disease. Number Ten could have hosted an all day re-enactment of the 1983 BBC Green Room and almost all of us would still have been sensible — as most Swedes were without the need for heavy handed laws or fines.
So maybe it’s time to cut each other some slack, and remember that politicians are not saints or devils, simply human beings with differing view but reassuringly similar flaws.
I’d drink to that. Niven home everyone?
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