When I thought about writing this blog post I had envisaged it being a little piece of nostalgia without a hook to anything happening in the world today. And then events overtook me. On Monday this week, Theresa May called a general election in the UK to be held on June 8 this year. But I’ve been thinking about the election that took place on May 1, 1997, and the events that led up to it.
My train of thought was put on its track by a Twitter account called New Dawn 1997? which chronicles the build-up to that election through newspaper clippings and found items. It’s a project of the People’s History Museum in Manchester, which is holding an exhibition of the same name, in conjunction with Nottingham University’s School of Politics and International Relations.
It made me think of this photograph, of a man you might remember.
You’ll notice that not only is it a magazine cover, it has some writing on it. You can see the annotated, larger version over on my Flickr acccount.
It was twenty years ago today that I got my magazine cover signed. Not by Tony, though he was there too that night. I was 18 and was about to sit my A-Level exams. The Sunday Times had managed to wangle an appearance from both John Major and from Tony Blair, a week apart, and my school had managed to wangle tickets to both, which were given out to anybody who wanted to go.
So on April 17 we trooped up to the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, where Mr Major spoke, genially and candidly, about the election, the campaign and what he wanted for Britain. It was mainly livened up by my associate Jake Fisher putting his hand up during the question section and asking the Prime Minister whether he wanted to come to the pub with us. He laughed and said that he’d love to but his security detail wouldn’t let him.
The following Thursday, April 24, we returned to the scene of the crime for an appearance by the man everybody by then knew was going to be the next PM, Tony Blair. Where Major was genial and friendly, Blair was statesmanlike and grand. Impressive, but not exactly friendly.
At the event, people from The Sunday Times were giving out copies of the previous week’s magazine, which had a big long feature interview with Blair inside, and which had Blair’s face on the cover.
We left the hall and headed for Westminster Bridge, and on the way we were accosted by a man in a trenchcoat who asked us whether we wanted to be on TV. It was about 9.30pm on a rainy, cold April night and this total stranger wanted us to come with him. So we did, obviously. What can I say, we were stupid then. Although more probably the thought crossed our minds that there were about 12 of us and so probably nothing all that bad could happen. Probably.
We arrived at College Green (which we didn’t at the time know was College Green) where we found an actual television crew, along with former Bond star Honor Blackman (in those days better known to us as the grandmother in terrible 1990s rip-off sitcom The Upper Hand) and three people we were much more interested in: Peter Baynham (who’d not long ago graced our screens in Fist of Fun with Lee and Herring), David Schneider (The Day Today star who’d also recently been in Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge) and the brains behind a lot of those operations, Mr Armando Iannucci.
The three of them were at the time producing and presenting The Friday Night Armistice, an absolutely brilliant variety-comedy show, and this being the 1990s the BBC had decided to devote most of the following week’s election night on BBC2 to the three of them, in the form of a three-hour special called The Election Night Armistice.
What we were there for was to film an insert which could be played out at 10pm the following week – election night – to mark the closing of the polls. We had to face away from the Big Ben clock, and Honor Blackman pushed down a plunger that signalled the end of the campaign. (Look, I know. Like I said, it was the 1990s). Then BBC2 would go to Have I Got News For You and after that, at 10.30, the Armistice programme would begin.
In the final edit it turns out (video courtesy of the Internet Archive) I was standing slightly too far to one side, but you can just about see me at one point to the left of the picture. It’s not my finest television appearance, if I’m honest.
Armando, David and Peter were extremely kind to us. They answered all of our stupid questions, and we thought they were genuinely surprised that not only had we heard of them, but that we were also huge fans. And then the three of them signed my magazine cover. Armando with his ‘Mister Tony Blair’ line from the show, Peter with “Oh God, I’m scared” and David with something that to this day remains indescipherable. When I scanned the image in in 2009 and asked him about it on Twitter he gamely tried to figure it out, but to no avail.
@adreviews Can’t believe my writing’s worse than Armando’s. Can you 90 degree the pic so I can get a better look?
— David Schneider (@davidschneider) April 2, 2009