‘Did BBC help win Labour the 1964 election by cancelling Steptoe and Son?’ asked The Daily Telegraph ‘How Steptoe and Son nearly cost Labour the 1964 election’ said The Daily Mail.The headlines themselves are new, appearing in the last few days, but the story may seem familiar.
Both papers were reporting that Harold Wilson, in the run up to what was a very tight election in 1964, was canny (or paranoid) enough to spot that the BBC planned to repeat an episode of its phenomenally popular comedy, Steptoe and Son in the last hour of polling. Wilson reckoned that the escapades of Albert Steptoe’s unexpected win on the Premium Bonds would be enough to keep vital working-class Labour voters at home and so scupper his chances of victory. In the end a successful lobbying campaign by Wilson led to the programme being pushed back until the polls had closed (it wasn’t cancelled as The Telegraph headline suggests – the BBC still wanted it in its schedules to hold viewers over into its election coverage).
The papers appear to have run with the story because of a rather excellent project between the University of Sussex and the BBC to chart online the Corporation’s history. Part of the project is devoted to the BBC’s coverage of elections down the years and contains a host of fascinating material (take a look if only for the Radio Times from each election since the 1920s). Part of that material are interviews with Wilson and the BBC Director-General, Hugh Greene discussing the pressure put on the BBC over the 1964 General Election.
Whilst it is tremendous to, at last, hear from the protagonists themselves (and note that Wilson can’t recall the actual programme involved) the story itself isn’t new. In his 1988 book, Live from Number Ten, Michael Cockerell sets out the facts and quotes Hugh Greene in a manner that suggest he had heard the D-G’s words as played out on the BBC’s new site. In the interview recorded by the BBC back in 1981, the ever conspiratorial Wilson suggests that it is he who is letting us in on a secret beginning his account with the aside: ‘I don’t think this is known…’
But we did. Four years previously, in 1977, his longstanding secretary, Marcia Williams, had given the exclusive to The Observer under the headline: ‘Marcia: How We Stopped Steptoe’. In other words, last week’s headlines were reporting news that was almost forty years old.
It is also worth noting that this was only the first instance of Wilson’s complaints to the BBC about Steptoe. Cockerell’s book also recounts the time in 1974 that Wilson’s Press Secretary, Joe Haines, was required to complain about the episode ‘And so to bed’. In it, Harold invited a woman back to his house only, first, to have to wait for his father go to bed and then see his own bed collapse at the vital moment. The problem wasn’t the content, but that the woman involved was named Marcia Wigley. Wilson and his political secretary Marcia Williams were not amused. Haines reported back to the Prime Minister:
Charles Curren [Director-General of the BBC] phoned to say that when the episode was first shown, Bill Cotton [Head of Light Entertainment] said the scriptwriters were being mischievous. Cotton remembered saying to them that the BBC had enough trouble without that.
Asked by Haines why, despite this, the BBC had proceeded to repeat the programme, Curren suggested that dropping it would only have drawn attention to the particular episode and raised further questions.
There appear to have been no such qualms at the BBC in 1967 when the channel decided to repeat every episode of Steptoe and Son it had, until that point, produced. That is every episode but one: the 1965 ‘My Old Man’s a Tory’ was omitted. One of the series’ writers, Alan Simpson, sets the scene:
This was the perfect example of us mocking the Labour movement, rather than the old man’s right-wing beliefs. Although old Harold Wilson loved our show, I’m sure he didn’t like this one. This was us mocking Harold’s socialism. I was, at the time, a member of the Labour Party in Sunbury. In this episode we took the mickey out of the small ward meeting, with the Labour Party representatives crowding into the Steptoe house and producing these pamphlets decrying Tory policy and putting aside a copy to Mao Tse-Tung and a copy to all the Communist world leaders! Anyway, the morning after it was first broadcast I got a phone call from the woman who was the leader of the Labour Party ward that I was a member of. She was furious! She accused me of being a traitor to my class. She snootily said, ‘I hope they paid you your 30 pieces of silver on time’, and all this. Ridiculous. We were taking the mickey out of all this earnest, po-faced behaviour, sending silly memorandums to world leaders. The old man was on the sidelines scoffing at them all. The whole situation was bloody stupid, and our job was to show how bloody stupid it was.
There appears to be little explanation as to why this particular episode was left out but given the chequered relationship between the BBC, a Totter’s Yard in Shepherd’s Bush and Number 10 it isn’t too farfetched to suggest that someone – at least this time around – was hoping to spare the Prime Minister’s blushes.
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, in particular the Conservative Party and Margaret Thatcher’s election as party leader.
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