By the time of the first General Election of the 1960s Britain had seen 13 years of Tory rule. Over that same period the nation had also begun to embrace the medium of television. Whilst something exotic and geographically limited in 1950, ownership of a ‘set’ had steadily risen throughout the decade and by 1964 around 17 million homes had one. At the same time the limited schedule of a single channel had grown to three competing services by the time Alec Douglas-Home went to the country in October of 1964.
Pathe nonetheless continued to produce its round ups of the news and the General Election was no exception. Under the headline ‘Election Warms Up’, Pathe gives a rather glamorous account of campaigning across the country taking in the ‘youngest woman putting up for the House’, Liberal candidate for Chigwell, Gudrun Collis (alas she came third out of three) and a particularly energetic Patrick Jenkin running(!) between houses as he canvasses. There is the added glamour too of a trio of celebrity candidates as Pathe catches up with the campaigns of ‘handsome Lord Edward’ Dexter in Cardiff, comedian Jimmy Edwards (and moustache) in North Paddington and Screaming Lord Sutch standing against Labour leader Harold Wilson, but seen here campaigning in London. Sutch had announced that he would contest Wilson’s seat in order to fight discrimination against long hair and to seek knighthoods for The Beatles, however his nomination papers were rejected. The newsreel closes with shots of the two main party leaders: first Wilson at an election press conference (remember those?) and finally Douglas-Home facing a hostile crowd armed with ‘He Wants Polaris’ placards in St Pancreas.
Pathe also caught up with the election’s eventual victor, filming Wilson in his Huyton constituency in Liverpool. Wilson is shown arriving for his count and eventually giving his acceptance speech. Despite his own thumping 19,000 vote majority the election in the wider country was to be a close one and Wilson himself describes the results already coming in as ‘moderately encouraging’. In the end Labour scrapped home with a four seat majority.
Just 17 months later, buoyed by recent by-election wins such as the one in Hull North, Wilson decided to try and increase his majority and an election was set for 31 March 1966. The gamble paid off for Wilson and Pathe recorded events on election night under the heading ‘Labour Romps Home.’ Amid rowdy scenes in Trafalgar Square Pathe’s commentator notes that Labour’s eventual 96 seat majority was ‘positively jet-propelled’!
By now however the days of the newsreel were reaching their end. Other newsreel companies had already folded and Pathe, in an attempt to survive, felt the need to evolve away from straight news and develop its quirkier side with fun, colour ‘cinemagazines’. However, even these could not stem the tide. Pathe’s parent company was itself now producing television programmes and had even become a majority share owner in Thames Television, formed in 1968. By 1970 Pathe released its final newsreel.
Nonetheless, there is footage from the 1970 General Election available to view, including both Harold Wilson and Ted Heath campaigning, an unnamed candidate canvassing and finally Heath and members of his new Cabinet arriving in Downing Street. Unedited and without sound these films are still fascinating snapshots and testimony to an extremely valuable archive of recordings capturing much of our shared history and which, to their enormous credit, British Pathe have made freely available to us all online.
Matthew Bailey is a Research Fellow at the Centre for British Politics at Nottingham. He has published work on a variety of topics regarding British politics. Philip Cowley is a Professor of Parliamentary government at the University of Nottingham and is the co-editor of the book ‘Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box‘.