This is an extract from my book about covering the 2017 General Election ‘Nothing Has Changed’ which you can buy direct from my publisher here. When I came to write the book I realised that this was one of the most extraordinary days and nights of excitement, drama and raw emotion that I have ever known in my career. It recounts the day of the ITV Cymru Wales Election Debate (which you can watch here if you’re interested), the preparations at Stanwell school in Penarth, rehearsal and the debate itself along with the way we were all brought up short immediately it was over when we found out about the sudden death of the former First Minister Rhodri Morgan. I still can’t quite believe what happened and I certainly can’t believe that it happened a year ago today.
Wednesday 17th May
Stanwell School’s theatre is a hive of activity when I arrive at lunchtime. It’s looking good: everything’s in place and everything seems to be ready.
Our rehearsal comes mid-afternoon and this is where we’ll spot any likely problems. My colleagues are taking the rôles of the leaders. Rob Osborne is Neil Hamilton, Tom Anderton is Carwyn Jones, James Crichton-Smith is Leanne Wood and Sion Jenkins is Mark Williams.
As an ex-pupil, Megan Boot, who’s standing in for Andrew RT Davies, is no stranger to this stage. She’s played many rôles before this, her biggest being Eponine in Les Miserables. There’s no misery from this lot. They throw themselves into character, attacking each other, trotting out all the slogans that we’ve been given as sound bites for weeks, interrupting each other, shouting, causing me problems by going over time and breaching guidelines, although that’s mainly Rob.
We run through a few sections of the programmes for my sake and for Fiona the director and the gallery team. It’s fair to say it’s going well. Doing three of these debates in as many years has given us a level of expertise which is on show even during this rehearsal.
I take a break and go to get showered and changed. I stop off to buy some sandwiches for the end of the night. I know I won’t be able to eat beforehand because I’ll be so uneasy. When I come back the students have left the school and we’ve completely taken over.
Two flights of stairs run either side of the audience seating and they take you into the school itself. We’ve commandeered a few classrooms. One is for the make-up artists. They worked on last year’s debate so know what to expect. More recently they worked on Doctor Who. I can only imagine the contrast.
I have my own room although I won’t be using it to dress in because it has a glass window in the door. My name’s printed on a piece of paper taped to the door and somebody has drawn a star beneath it. I’m touched. There are also some crisps, sweets and water. Other classrooms have been turned into green rooms for each of the leaders and their teams although apparently they have sandwiches too. I should be outraged but I won’t be eating any of them anyway.
The leaders come to check their positions and cameras. Carwyn Jones jokes that the low lectern is a cruel trick on him. It’s too low for him to lean on in that barrister manner he likes to deploy in the Assembly. More seriously there’s a very bright TV light in his eyes. After an eye operation a few years ago, sustained bright studio lights can make his eyes water. He’d just had the op when I recorded my Face to Face interview with him in 2011 and as the credits rolled it looked like he was crying. He still jokes that I made him cry during an interview.
Neil Hamilton is late for his chance to check all this because he’s been in the Assembly chamber. Perhaps mistakenly, UKIP had tabled a debate on immigration for this afternoon meaning he couldn’t leave the chamber. He jokes to the other leaders, Where were you?
The audience has been arriving, about 200 or so who’ve all been checked for political allegiances or none. They’re signing in and gathering in the school canteen for coffee and biscuits. Clearly school canteens have changed a lot since my day. It’s shiny, stylish and spacious, more like an upmarket coffee shop. There’s a good buzz of anticipation.
I go back to my classroom/green room and take a few bites of a Double Decker I’d bought earlier. I can’t eat much before a major event like this but I’ll need some energy and as a result of years of experience I can confirm that Double Deckers are by far the best thing for an energy boost.
The audience are led in and have taken their seats, the cameras are all in place and there are final ‘good lucks’ being said by everyone on stage and in the talkback in my ear. It’s time to begin.
The leaders are ranged either side of me. On my immediate left is Andrew RT Davies and next to him Neil Hamilton. On my right is Carwyn Jones, Leanne Wood and Mark Williams.
I ask a light-hearted question to warm us all up. Since we’re in a school, I ask them what their memories are of school days and whether or not they were good students. I’ve forgotten that Mark Williams was a deputy head teacher before becoming an MP so his memories of school are more recent.
At 8 o’clock, I stand on the edge of the stage, just feet away from the first row of audience members. There’s a tense quiet in my ear as the production team wait for the countdown to begin and there’s a hush in the hall. It’s strange to think that in seconds we’ll be live on ITV and online as well as being involved in two hours of loud and sometimes robust debate. Then comes the count, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and I say,
‘This General Election looks like being one of the most momentous ever. A huge amount will be at stake when you cast your vote in three week’s time. Tonight, live on this stage, five Welsh leaders will try to persuade us to vote for their party. This is the ITV Wales Election Debate.’
After the titles, I say ‘Good evening from Stanwell School in the Vale of Glamorgan. We’re here live for the next two hours to learn more about what each of the main Welsh political parties are offering. They want our votes on June the 8th. Tonight we find out why they think they deserve them.’
We play a video montage of how we got here. There are shots of Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May campaigning. There’s a clip of Carwyn Jones saying, ‘What have the Tories ever done for Wales?’, Leanne Wood claiming that, ‘There are a lot of people who are very, very angry’, and Neil Hamilton saying, ‘I’m up for the fight.’ We see Boris Johnson, Paul Nuttall, Christina Rees, Mark Williams and Tim Farron. Andrew RT Davies is shown saying, ‘We have to fight for every square foot of turf in Wales.’
The leaders have opening statements of a minute each. Then we play the video introduction to our first questioner, who is Callum McSorley. He’s only just turned 18 so will be a first time voter and is appropriately a student at Stanwell School. In his VT he says that he feels overwhelmed and worried that he doesn’t have all the facts and figures to make a fully informed decision. His question is deceptively simple: ‘As a first time voter trying to make sense of Brexit why should I vote for your party?’
In the debate, Mark Williams displays a fierceness that surprises those used only to his mild manners. He makes his apology for the Lib Dem tuition fee debacle and delivers forcefully a defence of immigration and a second referendum.
Leanne Wood scores points with the sort of carefully-timed jibes that she first demonstrated against Nigel Farage in 2015. When Williams says there’ll be no coalition she says, to loud cheers, ‘there is: the Tories and UKIP.’ She’s the most-experienced of all of those on stage tonight when it comes to taking part in TV debates.
Davies’ use of the phrase ‘strong and stable’ starts to get loud groans from the audience. At one stage the groan is almost a cheer. His final use of it gets a small round of applause as well.
A man in a Union flag-patterned suit gets annoyed at the politicians talking over each other and voices his opinion loudly. ‘We’re not schoolkids here,’ he shouts. ‘We’re adults. Can we behave like it please.’ Wood replies, ‘Well said’, but remains as assiduous as interrupting as any of the others.
I make a couple of school-related quips, threatening detention or letters home. In fact they’re very unruly and shout over each other a lot. We’ve already decided we’ll be more relaxed this time about letting them interrupt and challenge each other but there are points when I worry it could just become noise. ‘There’s only so much shouting we can do and I can do,’ I say at one point to Davies but it could have been to any of them.
As the moderator, you have to be ready to interrupt people for time reasons as much as anything else. There will always be those who think that you’re biased for or against one or another and you have to accept that. But you also have to be comfortable letting them have a pop at each other. This was my third TV debate and I was more relaxed about allowing them to argue with each other but you can’t let it go on too long. In the theatre and particularly on the stage it can feel quite exciting when they talk over each other but you have to realise that if you’re watching on TV or online after a while it just becomes noise.
The discussion on immigration is the most fiery. The question comes from Stephen Tull, a maths teacher whose wife is Polish and works in the NHS. He says that after the referendum, his wife suddenly felt unwelcome in the country she had considered home. He wants to know about the future for people like his wife and British citizens abroad.
During the ad break, the audience take over. The questioner, Stephen, takes issue with something Neil Hamilton had said, asking if his Eastern European wife is ‘a problem.’ As Hamilton starts to answer him, he and others start saying loudly ‘disgusting.’ A young woman tells how her pregnant sister can’t rejoin her family in the UK and begins crying. Different groups in the audience then start challenging each other.
They only just quieten down when the final part begins. In the discussion, about trust in politicians, Davies attacks Labour for spending ‘the last eighteen months ripping itself apart’ and asks if anyone could ‘seriously believe that Jeremy Corbyn can run a government that will stand up for this country.
This is too much for one member of the audience who shouts repeated demands for the extra £350m a week for the NHS promised by Leave campaigners. He gets a big cheer from the audience. Davies tries to answer but the man keeps shouting. Hamilton’s answer, about the decision being up to the government of the day elicits hissing. The man keeps shouting. I thank him for his contribution but move on because I can’t allow it to take over the last ten minutes of the debate.
Moments like that and audience interaction certainly add excitement to the occasion although this year’s audience was significantly more willing to shout out than the audiences for the previous two debates who confined themselves to boos and cheers.
Then it’s all over. The atmosphere is still tingling. There are handshakes and hugs and everyone’s relieved and pleased. People keep asking me if I enjoyed it or how I thought it went. I can’t tell. While it’s happening, it’s just a question of getting through it all. A group of University of South Wales students come on stage for selfies with me.
I head up the stairs from the stage to the back of the theatre and ito the body of the school where our classroom/green rooms are. Before I get to the top I see Carwyn Jones and his special adviser Huw Price at the top and coming toward me. They’re ashen-faced and I hear the First Minister say to Huw, ‘Here’s Adrian, we can tell Adrian.’
My heart sinks. My first thought is that they have a very serious complaint but they don’t look angry so maybe someone’s said something very wrong, maybe a libel? My mind races back over the last two hours, but I just can’t think of what could have gone so badly wrong. Then Carwyn says quietly, ‘Rhodri’s dead.’
I’m stunned. ‘What?’
‘We don’t know how he died, whether or not it was a heart attack or he was knocked off his bike. But it’s happened this evening.’
In the school canteen there are conflicting atmospheres. Red faces and tears in the eyes of Labour people, shock and upset in the faces of others who’ve been told and frantic activity by producers. Owain is about to go live into the news and has now had to change everything he planned to say. He’s also borrowed a black tie from James. Meanwhile the chatter and argument about the debate continues.
The UKIP man in a union flag suit who’d been one of the most vociferous hecklers stops to continue making his points. Amongst the Conservatives, Vince raises concern about the last section of debate, saying that it was confusing because it was about devolved matters. He also complains that journalists in the spin room didn’t want to speak to the senior figures he’d brought. Shattered and drained, I say, ‘I’m responsible for many things but not that’, and he laughs.
Afterwards we gather in a bar for a few pints to go over the night, the debate and to remember Rhodri Morgan.
Rob Osborne recalls when he was a student journalist and managed to wangle his way into Welsh Government press conferences. Even though he was First Minister, unlike most other AMs, Rhodri always took an interest in what Rob and the other students were doing and made time for them to interview him, even though he knew nobody would ever hear it.
That matched my own early memories of him. He regularly made time for a know-nothing commercial radio journalist and not just to give comments, but to gossip too and in turn to pump me for information.
I remember too, years later, when I was presenting the Politics Show one Sunday on BBC Wales. He was due to be the main interviewee and we’d been told he could only record it a few hours before the programme went on air. The time came and went and phone calls went unanswered. Eventually he was tracked down to the garden and we were told he’d come in live. He did, wearing his gardening gear which included a muddy Cuba sweatshirt and yes, he went on air dressed that way. Nobody questioned why the First Minister of Wales would be on a Sunday politics programme dressed for the garden. That’s because nobody would have been in the least surprised.
At conferences it’s customary for journalists to be given hard copies of the main speeches just before they’re delivered. Once at a Welsh Labour conference I asked Jo Kiernan, his special adviser for just such a copy. She said she had no idea what he was going to say. It may have been that conference when he started praising NHS standards by remembering how much worse they’d been when he was young, recalling using a milk bottle to urinate in. I was sitting on the floor and looked across the hall to Jo who was also sitting on the floor. She simply shrugged.
It was only last month that I recorded an episode of Welsh Bites with Rhodri. I knew even then that it was an extraordinary interview – he spoke about things in a way I hadn’t heard from him before.
We keep talking past midnight. We’re all shattered and dazed. The debate, which finished just hours ago and everybody thinks went well, is a distant memory.