Gordon Burns recalls the innovative Granada 500 programme at the time of the 1979 General Election

Well, the Granada 500 was one of the best experiences I’ve had in television, certainly with Granada. Granada were this wonderful, pioneering organisation, I’ve talked about their quality demand, they are clearly pioneers of television, even in drama it was pioneering when they actually took on things like Brideshead Revisited and Jewel in the Crown, but even in the area of politics and current affairs. For instance, Granada were the first company to get into the political party conferences in Blackpool or Brighton, wherever they were, and the TUC, to cover it gavel to gavel, if you like, from beginning to end. They made that breakthrough to get in, they made various other breakthroughs in television, one of which was they became the first television station to bring the party leaders – which included the Prime Minister at the time – together to face questions from the public – because the first time this ever happened was through a series called The Granada 500.

Now, it had launched before I did it – Mike Scott did the first one, he was a very well-known presenter at the time, and he did that one. Before he became head of programmes, he was a main presenter, he did a lot of network stuff, very handsome guy, very eloquent, very likeable presenter. But he tended to do the more serious stuff, like World in Action specials, like they had a series called State of the Nation, which is what it was – they looked at the state of the nation in great detail, probably an hour-long programme talking to all the key politicians and experts and so on.

The thinking behind The Granada 500 was, in the run-up to a general election, when the campaigning had started, Granada would go to a key constituency, a marginal constituency in the election, and also if they could, to find a marginal that had always voted in the end in favour of the winning party – they had never got it wrong, so to speak. So he did it the first time, and I was invited to do it in the election… it must have been… I did it in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister.

So we took Bolton West as our constituency that had always voted for the winning party, it was a key marginal, and the way it worked was, we moved into the Octagon theatre. And for Granada Reports they put a large section of the programme towards the Granada 500. Actually, I can’t remember if they did that or whether they had an extra half hour at the end. But the 500 people who were gathered were found for us by a polling organisation who represented a cross section of the community in Bolton West, and people who were largely, but not necessarily, undecided were polled regularly in the run-up to the election to see whether they had changed. Because every night we did a programme on a different issue of the election campaign, be it the economy one day, law and order the next day, whatever, and we would have experts there, and I would be quizzing the experts and then the 500 would be asking questions and this was done in the octagon Theatre in Bolton so you got a feel for the election you got a feel for the issues you got a father how our 500 were swinging and swaying, but it all culminated in the end with a trip to London where we took the 500 in a special train, which left Bolton station and arrived at Euston or Paddington or one of those, but it was our train, full of the Bolton 500, and the TV crew and so on, and we got to London and we had coaches to whisk us all to a theatre, I can’t remember which one, was it the Wyndham Theatre?

So they all came and took their seats in the audience and we had the stage set up, whereby each leader would arrive separately and do a 20-25 minute stint, a bit like Question Time, where members of the audience asked the leader questions, and the leader answered directly to them. So the three leaders which was then the Liberal party, so it was David Steel, Margaret Thatcher for the Conservatives, and the Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan was also appearing. It was an interesting experience in many ways, and it may, I understand, have played a part in what happened in the election, because it was fairly neck and neck in the opinion polls as it neared election day but Labour had a slight advantage over the Tories, if memory serves me right. I think we did the special on the Monday or the Tuesday – sorry, I should explain, although this was regional up to now, the meeting with the party leaders where they let the public in to the theatre in London, went out nationally on World in Action as a special.

So this was either the Monday or the Tuesday, and the election was on the Thursday, so it was that close. And it was interesting, the party leaders… David Steele came on first, and interestingly, Callaghan and Thatcher had the routes and the timings scrutinised when they would be coming to the theatre so they never crossed paths – there would be a gap between them. They wouldn’t even drive past each other, which was interesting. So David Steele arrived, and he was very straight and very honest, he answered every question head on, he didn’t evade any or whatever, and he came over quite impressively, I think. And then Mrs Thatcher arrived, and she had, I think, grasped the mod of the nation, law and order and all that sort of stuff, and they wanted it all to be a bit tougher, and she did the housewife bit, and how she has to organise the budget in the house as all housewives do, and therefore it’s important that you have proper budget-keeping for the nation and no debt and all that sort of stuff.

This was a time of industrial strikes.

Indeed so – the winter of discontent and all that bit. So obviously she went to town on that lot and she did really well, I have to say. She did really, really well – and I’ll tell you more about that and how people reacted at the end. And then in came Jim Callaghan, after a break when Mrs Thatcher had gone – and I found him not as I expected. I had interviewed him once before, not for too long a period, and he was avuncular Jim Callaghan and I found him to be slightly arrogant. But what surprised me incredibly was how nervous he was. He was the prime minister who had handled all these things and the dispatch box and prime minister and industrial disputes, and always looked to me as in control and calm on the television etc., always putting down people all the time – but he was shaking. His hands were shaking and he muttered as he came towards us, “I wish I’d never agreed to do this.” And I thought that was very strange – I thought he would be in his element. I mean, there’s no great confrontation, people put their questions – I might do a quick “I don’t think you totally answered that,” or whatever, but basically it was him and the audience, that’s what it was supposed to be.

So he was very shaky. And it was a time of industrial disputes, and where he made his big error in my view, sitting in the front of the audience, were these nurses, and they had on t-shirts. And there was a dispute with the nurses about how poorly they were paid and the hours they had to work and all the rest of it, and they were threatening, I think, to strike. And one of them asked a question, and Jim Callaghan turned on them and really went to town on them about being irresponsible and all the rest of it – he really tore into them, which was the wrong thing to do. You don’t attack nurses – they are the darlings of the community! And yet he went into them – and it was a big mistake. And he then left and that was it, and then we all got on the train and went back to Bolton because it was the end of the whole series – we had done it now, and there was no more.

And I remember touring each carriage on the way back, thanking everybody for their participation, and I asked them all, don’t tell me about voting in the election, but who was the most impressive of the leaders to you? And virtually all of them – not all, a high percentage – said David Steele. They said he was honest, he was straight, they liked what he said, and then I said, “Will you vote for him?” No. “Why?” Wasted vote. So that’s always been the thing the Liberals always had – he made sense to them, they liked him, but they thought he had no chance so they weren’t going to vote for him. And of the other two, they were really impressed by Mrs Thatcher, even those who weren’t normally Tory, they said she was very impressive, and they didn’t like Callaghan, and they didn’t like the way he went at the nurses. And so came the election, which is history now, Thatcher won it to become the first female Prime Minister. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know, but I was later told by somebody within the Labour ranks that when they carried out their post-mortem of what went wrong, one of the areas pinpointed was Callaghan’s performance on that Granada 500 programme, which they think from having a slight lead turned it to Mrs Thatcher. Now, whether that’s true or not, I don’t know – but I like to believe that I played a telly little part in history.

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