Time the Tories learnt from Mrs Thatcher's stage managers?

During the party conference season, I commented on the peculiar backdrop behind platform speakers at last year's Conservative Party conference, and pointed out that Mrs Thatcher, under the guidance of Harvey Thomas, had revolutionised the staging of conferences.

A major innovation was to make sure that the main camera angle hid everyone but the speaker from view, so that television viewers couldn't see anyone looking bored with, or disapproving of, what she was saying - a detail that was eventually latched on to and copied by Labour Party conference organisers:

For some strange reason, today's Tories seem to think that it's a good idea to have their leader speaking with his back to his shadow cabinet colleagues, as he did at today's Spring Forum in Brighton.

But, however much they may have been briefed to look attentive and nod in the right places, it's not just that it looks odd (and arguably completely unnatural) to see someone making a speech with his back to so many members of the audience, it's also a risky and distracting strategy.

Unless, of course, I'm the only viewer who can't help keeping an eye on how the audience is reacting and is continually on the lookout for yawns and/or heads shaking in disagreement. The inevitable result is that you don't listen as closely to what he's saying as you otherwise would (which could possibly be the reason they do it) - while the possible ever-present risk is that someone's inappropriate reaction might prompt the beginnings of a negative news story.

P.S. Just noticed a delayed burst of applause 36 seconds into this clip - shadow cabinet members behind him had been nodding their heads, but didn't get their hands apart to join in until after the audience in front of him has started clapping. Not a negative news story, perhaps, but is anything gained by exposing such hesitant stuff to a wider audience?

P.P.S. (1 March): Since posting this, I've announced details of a St Dave's Day (prize) competition HERE.


  1. A good point actually, I found myself watching the people in the background and it does tend to take away from the main speaker. As to the applause lag from the platform I can see the alternate point being made if they were to lead the applause. Claims of staged/prompted applause etc.

  2. Hi Max,

    Although it is an odd (and distracting) scene to have an audience behind a speaker, it's not uncommon. Many American political speeches are set up the same way. The audience behind the speaker is often used to show the diversity of people who support a political candidate or party.

    This is also quite common in some churches. The choir, deacons and other members of the church sit behind the speaker.

    Unless the speaker is effective, I often find myself looking at the other people to keep myself occupied.

  3. Just Wonderful - thanks for reassuring me that I'm not alone and am, perhaps, not the only speeches anorak in the world. Prompted applause, by the way, hasn't deterred the Tories in the past: Ian Duncan Smith, probably the most hopeless public speaker they've ever had as leader, got 'interrupted' by standing ovations during one of his conference speeches - even though I never remember it happening to Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair - or anyone else for that matter!

    John - yes, news of this is beginning to come through to me after this post - but do you think the people behind Cameron play the 'diversity' card? And the idea behind the Thatcher innovation originally came via the USA in the first place. Her conference supremo, Harvey Thomas, had previously run Billy Graham crusades to the UK.

  4. I don't think the diversity angle gets played with this crowd.

    I have seen Billy Graham live. This is the type of setup he uses. I think it's also used in multi-level marketing conferences. I'm not a fan of it, but maybe there's a dynamic they're trying to tap in to.

    I would be curious to find out the "science" behind having people behind a speaker.

  5. I assume the intent is to get across the idea that, hey, Ken Clarke agrees with him. And so does William Hague! etc.

    But I too find them very distracting.

  6. Great article - as usual - Max. I completely agree with you. For two great clips that show the pitfalls of speaking with people behind you, check this out - http://wp.me/pwfa1-cy - Enjoy!

    John Zimmer

  7. John Watkis: I'd be very surprised if there is any 'science' behind it - otherwise, they surely wouldn't do it!
    Peter: Good point about Clarke & Hague. Only trouble is that Ken can't be bothered to get his hands apart when everyone else does!
    John Zimmer: Thanks for this and for pointing us to the brilliant Clinton & Bush clips - which I strongly recommend everyone to watch...


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