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The Weird History of British Party Political Broadcasts

A look back at 60 years of politicians' embarrassing efforts to sell themselves to the UK.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Fist-­bitingly embarrassing mash­ups? Impassioned monologues from Martin Freeman? Spoofs of boy bands that belong int the 1990s? How did this happen? Party political broadcasts (PPBs) were originally intended as a simple broadcasting gambit to differentiate parties on dryly literal lines. They were a logical extension of the BBC's paternalistic desire to educate and inform. For these short slots at least, they didn't bother to entertain.


Or did they? Let's think of PPBs as sleeper hits, the kind of work that takes time to mature and penetrate but finds its audience in the end. Because actually, not only do old PPBs tell us plenty about their eras but they're funny too. Sometimes funny peculiar. But still funny.

Take this 1955 effort from cadaverous Tory Harold MacMillan. It begins with a dynamic, lingering shot of—ta­da!—a leaflet. And then, we meet the man himself, cutting a patrician yet still oddly rakish figure in what he no doubt referred to as his drawing room. It's as if the nation has been summoned for a telling­ off. It's simultaneously wooden and patronizing.­ MacMillan adopts the tone of a man trying ­for the fifteenth bloody time to teach a class ­full of slow-­witted schoolchildren how to tie their laces. "Here's a picture of what we've done" he dully intones at one point. "Let's look at it together." Ooh yes, let's. And thanks again, Harold. You really are a brick. Let's just say it's a long six minutes.

So thank goodness for the Labour party and their effortless gift for showbiz.

In 1959, one Anthony Wedgwood Benn was the party's poster boy. And it has to be said that his opening chair swivel to camera, during which he resembles the world's least threatening Bond villain, has "future Glastonbury headliner" written all over it. We're told, with some pride, that the broadcast is coming "direct from Labour's Radio and TV Operations Room in London." But there's lots of talk about "Hugh Gaitskell's national tour"­ which probably did a roaring trade in T-­shirts with the dates on the back. Also, look out for a guest appearance from Albert Steptoe, presumably representing all working class people, ever.


Patronizing the lower orders has never been a single party speciality. From a Labour point of view, what followed was decidedly mixed. They spent parts of the next dozen or so years in office. But their relationship with the camera and the TV studio remained uneasy.

In 1970, for example, they pushed the boat out. The intro music is incongruously laid back and groovy the kind of thing Astrud Gilberto might have listened to while sipping a late ­afternoon Caipirinha. And it's a University Challenge spoof which must have seemed very clever at the time. Sadly, it's introduced by a man with hardly any teeth which doesn't really feel like a subliminal suggestion of prospective health and happiness. The resulting sketch actually manipulates time itself—it manages to fit more dead air and longueurs into its three minute duration than seems technically possible. Still, back then at least Labour had Harold Wilson, with his pipe, his half­pint mug of warm bitter, and his general air of dangerously bohemian outlaw glamor.

By 1974, things had got real. Doom and despair stalked the land. Not for the last time, we wondered if a posh, jowly Tory might save us. We never learn, do we? This Labour Party film is so self-­consciously gloomy and austere, you half-expect Ted Heath to start weeping and rending his garments before climactically leaning to one side and blowing a candle out on our dreams. The effect is to make you go: "Jesus, this guy's depressing. Let's vote for someone else." Which shortly afterwards, we did.


In the 1979 Conservative effort, Margaret Thatcher seems almost imploring. She's Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest explaining why the chemical cosh is the only solution. "Don't worry," she simpers. "We'll look after you." It's the most sinister bedtime story you've ever had a nightmare about.

By 1987, Thatcher's final broadcast, she's initially an ambient presence. Perhaps she's now too important to even bother with the trifling matter of going on TV? Instead we're treated to a Labour Party magician who performs a number of policy tricks that don't work—get it? But no, eventually she appears, in an overloaded and maximalist climax; to admonish, to sneer, to just simply gloat. Finally, a valedictory segment of breathtaking arrogance shows her bestowing blessings on grateful cub ­scouts, waving magisterially and admonishing foreigners and socialists while what appears to be a mash­up of "Pomp and Circumstance" and the Hawaii Five-­0 theme plays in the background. Loathing Thatcher's various miserable bequests to the nation is one thing. But it's hard not to watch this and feel faintly, guiltily impressed by her sheer, berserk chutzpah.

After Thatcher, the next era struggled to be born, living as it was, with the mother of all political hangovers. It was 1997 that saw the next paradigm shift as PPBs entered the celebrity age. Initially, this resulted in what might be the definitive Liberal Democrat broadcast as John Cleese takes a few minutes to think aloud about why the party he's endorsing isn't going to win. Can we draw a line between his wry bafflement and Nick Clegg's desperate 2010 power grab? Probably. For years, they'd been wondering why nobody gave a toss about them. Finally, they just quit the soul­-searching and decided to become Tories.


Still, you could easily argue that this self­-effacing offering has more dignity than this 1997 Labour monstrosity. Pete Postlethwaite came to be rightly regarded as something of a national treasure. But he probably went to his grave regretting his turn as a ghostly, creepy, and unrealistically right­ on taxi driver in this wildly overblown short film that resembles something Richard Curtis might have made in his sleep.

It didn't matter though. Because the Tories had given up. No famous people wanted to be friends with John Major. Well, maybe Peter Stringfellow and Jim Davidson did but commissioning a PPB containing cameos from them would have been a punt. So instead, we got this desultory affair which scrolls through its autopilot list of idle threats before basically shrugging its shoulders and slouching off to suggest William Hague try wearing a baseball cap to the Notting Hill Carnival.

The eventual effect of the Blair years was a kind of post­-ideological, managerial, flattening ­out of mainstream politics. Even aside from its more pernicious effects, this has led to a decline in the general levels of unselfconscious absurdity that used to make PPBs such a reliable treat. But since this homogenization has resulted in the rise of multi­-party politics, it seems fitting to end with the only party political broadcast that anyone's really noticed this time. Is the Green Party's boyband spoof funny? Kind of, in a faintly self­-satisfied, Radio 4 panel show sort of way. Has it been effective? Well, it got a lot of shares and retweets. Whether that amounts to success is moot but at least they tried. Still, when the alternative is having Natalie Bennett saying stuff, it's probably tempting to think outside the box.