Page last updated at 10:57 GMT, Monday, 29 March 2010 11:57 UK

How TV can help win an election

How politicians came across on TV came to be recognised as crucial

As party leaders prepare for the UK's first televised prime ministerial debates, John Thynne looks back at how the love affair between TV and politics evolved.

When Harold Wilson saw the TV schedules for election night in 1964, he spotted a problem.

Labour's leader believed that the real threat to his chances came not from Alec Douglas Home's Conservatives, but from a rather less aristocratic source.

With an audience of 14 million, Steptoe and Son was a firm favourite with the British public.

Wilson thought that the show would keep voters at home and could cost Labour a dozen marginal seats.

So he did what any media-savvy politician would have done in 1964.

He went to see the director general of the BBC and had Steptoe postponed.

"Wilson was very conscious of the power of television and of its appeal to ordinary people, and he was terrified that people wouldn't go and vote for him because they'd be too busy watching Steptoe and Son," said the historian Dominic Sandbrook.

Anthony Howard, the political commentator, was told of Wilson's intervention by the director general's wife.

"The deal over Steptoe and Son was done three doors down from where we used to live."

"Wilson came to call on Hugh Green and the deal was done in the kitchen," he said.

American influence

Politicians had not always shown such interest in television. In the 50s, radio was the dominant medium.

Television and politics inhabited quite separate worlds from each other.

Harold Wilson being groomed for Panorama
Harold Wilson understood the power of TV and used it to his advantage

"There was a feeling among the politicians, especially the political leaders, that television was the goggle box, the idiot's lantern, what Winston Churchill called a 'tuppenny ha'penny Punch and Judy show'," said Michael Cockerell, the political documentary-maker.

But as the popularity of television soared in the early 60s, its usefulness to politicians did not go unnoticed.

In America, John F Kennedy had started to use the medium to project his image.

Watching on from the sidelines in Washington was Harold Wilson, the new leader of the Labour Party.

Back home, he invited the cameras to film him off-duty, on holiday in the Scilly Isles.

As Wilson was filmed in shorts and sandals, puffing on a pipe, the commentary purred, 'His domestic life is quiet and simple; he's the archetypal 'New Man'''.

Wilson's opponent at the 1964 election, Alec Douglas Home, was not quite so well-served by television.

Before an interview at the BBC that year, he asked a make-up assistant if she could make him look better - only to be told that there was nothing that could be done; he had a head like a skull.

"Hasn't everyone?" he asked.

"No," came the curt reply.

The marriage of politics and television had a brief honeymoon.

Cultivating an image

Trouble came in a new form of television - the political interview.

In Robin Day, Panorama had its most brutal exponent.

Edward Heath and a television camera
Ted Heath's appearance on Panorama did not help his battered image

After the election defeat in 1966, the Conservative leader Ted Heath was invited onto the programme.

"How low does our personal rating among your own supporters have to go before you consider yourself a liability to the party you lead?" asked Day, cutting to the chase.

A clearly flustered Heath could only mouth that "popularity isn't everything".

But Heath quickly changed his tune. In a bid to improve his image, he took up sailing and his fortunes were transformed.

When he won the famous Sydney-to-Hobart race at the end of 1969, he was invited onto Sportsnight with David Coleman to talk about his success.

All of a sudden, popularity certainly seemed pretty important to the Conservative leader. But then, it was an election year.

Wilson on the other hand was said to be enraged by Heath's television performance.

With the birth of New Labour, spin was the only game in town

And a few months later, in a shock result, Heath defeated Wilson at the polls.

By the end of the 70s, both Heath and Wilson had given way to new leaders; under Margaret Thatcher, professional image-makers became key players in any election campaign.

The relationship between politicians and the electorate had been changed forever.

With the birth of New Labour, spin was the only game in town.

As today's party leaders prepare for the televised leadership debates, it is worth reflecting on whether television has been good for our politics.

When asked about appearing in a leadership debate in 1963, Alec Douglas Home prophesied: "If you aren't careful you know you'll get, what's it called? A sort of Top of the Pops."

"You'll then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a script writer.

"I'd rather have our old ways really and put our policies firmly in front of our people."

How to win an election: A Panorama guide is on BBC 4 at 9pm on Monday 29 March or afterwards via BBC iPlayer

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