Almost 50 years ago, a popular British television sitcom may have inadvertently influenced the results of a national election.
In 1964, as Beatlemania was sweeping the world, the most beloved TV program in Britain was a comedy about the grim, desperate lives of two very poor West London rag-and-bone men (i.e., junk dealers).
"Steptoe and Son," which debuted in 1962, caused an immediate sensation in Britain, drawing huge ratings and a passionate national fan base.
Created by the writer-producer team of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, "Steptoe and Son" centered on the wretched lives of the elderly and uncouth Albert Steptoe (the “dirty old man!”) and his long-suffering and ambitious adult son, Harold.
The Steptoes eked out a meager existence on fictional Oil Drum Lane in London’s impoverished Shepherd’s Bush district. They employed a horse named Hercules that also became a British pop culture icon.
Widower Albert Steptoe, portrayed by Irish actor Wilfrid Brambell, would stop at nothing to prevent his beleaguered son, portrayed by Harry H. Corbett, from ever leaving him or improving himself.
(The show was later refashioned in the U.S. as the hugely popular “Sanford and Son,” about a poor black father-and-son team who ran a junkyard in a Los Angeles ghetto.)
In October 1964, Harold Wilson, the leader of the Labour Party and former shadow foreign secretary, wished desperately to become Britain’s next Prime Minister, eagerly hoping to capitalize on a number of scandals -- including the Profumo sex affair -- that had tarnished the reputation of the incumbent Conservatives, who had ruled the country for 13 years. (The last Labour PM was Clement Atlee, whose term ended in 1951).
But Wilson noticed something that alarmed him – BBC was set to broadcast an episode of “Steptoe and Son” at 8 p.m. on election night, Oct. 15.
In those days, long before the advent of cable TV, VCR recorders, the Internet and Netflix, Wilson feared that many of his supporters might opt to stay at home to watch "Steptoe," rather than trudge down to their local polling station -- thereby, potentially costing him the election and his party several seats in parliament. At the time, "Steptoe" regularly commanded a national audience of at least 14 million viewers, and sometimes reached a peak of 20 million -- almost one-half the nation's total population.
According to various sources, Wilson prevailed upon Sir Hugh Greene, the director-general of BBC, to postpone the broadcast of the television program, to which Greene amazingly agreed. Reportedly, Greene himself supported Labour.
"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,’" British historian Dominic Sandbrook told BBC.
Anthony Howard, a political journalist, claimed that Wilson literally went to Greene’s house to plead with him to either cancel or postpone the scheduled showing of "Steptoe."
"The deal over ‘Steptoe and Son’ was done three doors down from where we used to live," Howard said.
"Wilson came to call on Hugh Greene and the deal was done in the kitchen.”
The ploy apparently worked – Labour won the election as Wilson beat the aristocratic incumbent Alec Douglas-Home.
In the popular vote, Labour garnered about 12.2 million votes or 44.1 percent of the total, compared to about 12 million or 43.4 percent, for the Conservatives. In terms of parliamentary seats, Wilson won a slim majority of only four, meaning he would have to call another general election in 1966.
Part of the Conservatives' defeat in 1964 could be attributed to the Liberal Party, which won an impressive 11.2 percent of the electorate, attracting almost twice as many votes as they had in 1959.
In his book, “Napoleon's Hemorrhoids: And Other Small Events That Changed History,” author Phil Mason seemed to endorse the notion that BBC’s decision to push back “Steptoe” helped Wilson triumph.
“The rescheduling of BBC’s most popular television sitcom may have settled the outcome of the 1964 general election,” he wrote. “With opinion polls showing the leading parties neck and neck, Labour’s Harold Wilson … was deeply worried ... and felt [the "Steptoe" broadcast] would adversely affect Labour’s turnout as the majority of the show’s audience was likely to be their supporters.”
According to Mason, Wilson later thanked Greene and boasted: “That will be worth a dozen or more [parliamentary] seats to me.”
Greene, however, later had misgivings about acquiescing to Wilson's request, Mason claimed, quoting him as wondering “whether I should have had a bad conscience.”
Ironically, the losing candidate, Douglas-Home, blamed television for his failure – not to Steptoe, but rather to his discomfort before television cameras and his inability to deal with hecklers on the campaign trail. His lack of charisma – and the fact that he was a late replacement for incumbent Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who suddenly took ill – spelled doom for the Tory Party. Some studies suggested that perhaps as many as 2 million disillusioned Conservative voters stayed home during the election.
As for the makers of "Steptoe," they were quite aware of what had happened.
Despite their devotion to the Labour party, Galton and Simpson subsequently spoofed Wilson's machinations in an episode entitled “My Old Man’s A Tory,” in which Albert demonstrates his fervid support of the Conservatives in contrast to his Socialist son, who turns their home into a shrine for Labour -- replete with a portrait of Wilson himself.
Strangely, "Steptoe" and Wilson remained in the national spotlight for about the same period of time. After Wilson’s tenure at 10 Downing Street ended in 1970, he served as leader of the opposition for four years, before returning as prime minister for a two-year term, until 1976. "Steptoe" remained on the air until 1974.
Yet, it's inconceivable that an U.S. presidential candidate would ask a television network to postpone or cancel broadcast of a popular entertainment program to encourage voter turnout on Election Day. But, of course television has played a major role in U.S. elections as well – for example, Richard Nixon’s disastrous performance during a televised debate in 1960 was partially responsible for his loss to the more handsome, telegenic John F. Kennedy.
In recent years, television analysts were blamed for projecting winners too early, discouraging supporters of the presumptive “losing” party in the West Coast from casting their ballots.
Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York City, explained that in 1980, all three major TV networks called the election for Republican Ronald Reagan at 8:15 p.m. EST.
“This caused [incumbent Democrat Jimmy] Carter to concede the election too early, and many voters on the West Coast stayed home,” he said. “Because Carter conceded before the polls closed, the Democrats suffered some unexpected losses in congressional races because [Democrat voters] stayed home.”
In more recent elections, there have also been problems with using “exit polls” to project winners. During the 2000 election, between George W. Bush and Al Gore, the three networks offered conflicting projections on which candidate won, exacerbating the situation in Florida, where Bush's margin of victory was merely 1,700 votes.
“Florida delayed certifying the election for several weeks, and there were a number of court battles that ultimately led to the U.S. Supreme Court calling the election,” Chandler noted.
The exit poll system failed again in the 2002 mid-term elections, when the Voter News Services computer systems crashed. The media ended up only reporting actual vote returns distributed by the Associated Press and not relying on the exit polls to project winners.
“Because of these events, the press has been more careful about projecting winners in recent elections,” Chandler added.