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Never say you’re just a reporter

2007 July 7
by Paul Vallely

David Dimbleby apologises. We have only just begun the interview when he announces, “It’s Gordon Brown’s first PMQs. I must watch for 10 minutes”.

It’s a fascinating moment as the master of one Question Time – Dimbleby has been chairman of the BBC’s flagship of political debate since 1994 – passes judgement on the debut of the new Prime Minister in its parliamentary equivalent. Brown rises to his feet. “Oh look, there’s the turncoat Quentin Davies sitting just behind,” says Dimbleby. The term is a description rather than a judgement.

The new PM parries a spectacularly dull question about local government in Shropshire from a Tory backbencher. “Perfectly good answer,” says Dimbleby.  

Now the leader of the Opposition is at the dispatch box. He asks for the Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir to be banned. “You need evidence to do that,” says Brown. “No, you don’t,” says Dimbleby, a fact that Brown concedes in his next answer, as though he had heard the BBC’s most seasoned political interlocutor.

Now David Cameron is attacking ID cards. “They didn’t stop the Madrid bombers,” he says. “No, but they did help to catch them,” Dimbleby interjects, in a deft aside similar to those he uses on Question Time to deflate dissembling politicians. His tone is affable, rather than acerbic. His vigilance is acute. His manner is unthreatening, and yet the politicians know when they have been skewered. He allows them to get away with very little.

PMQs over his Sunday evening series How We Built Britain, which, having completed its run, is about to be released on DVD. It did not receive universally good reviews. One high-minded critic swiped that “he has a 1960s public-school boy’s grasp of history, even less of architecture, and the aesthetics of a Surrey publican” – which, presumably, is something to do with the pink shirt that he sports throughout the series.

Dimbleby shrugs, and looks genuinely unconcerned. “If you’re looking for a highbrow programme on architecture, you’re going to be disappointed because that is exactly what it isn’t meant to be,” he says, in a manner that is patrician yet genial. His mellifluous tones, acquired long ago while at school at Charterhouse, then at Christ Church, Oxford, sound slightly posher than they do on the box. As he has aged – he is, incredibly, a very youthful 68 now – his voice has grown richer and more fruity, as befits a man who was once awarded America’s “most Dickensian surname” award. He continues: “It’s not about architecture; it’s social history as seen through buildings. It looks at what they tell us about the people who built them.”

It also went out in prime time on Sunday evenings, and so was predicated on what he calls “an almost Reithian assumption: you never assume prior knowledge; you are polite to the audience, and assume a genuine interest and keenness to know.” The six-part series also, he says, tapped into ” a deep-seated feeling in Britain that we have beautiful landscapes and buildings, and that simply to look at them is enjoyable in itself.

“People feel proud of their history, they are intrigued by it but they know that they are under-informed.” Gordon Brown might want to define Britishness by the values that undergird the British way of life, “but for the ordinary white Briton, history is a key part of their identity, and yet they feel out of touch with it. They are not taught it any more”.

Stories of kings and queens are popular on TV, but in a decontextualised way. They are the adult equivalent of the Horrible Histories books for young children. Dimbleby’s nine-year-old son Fred is doing the Greeks and Romans at the moment. “And the Vikings.”

“What we wanted to do with the series was three things: present a chronological history of architecture, a chronological social history of Britain, and get across a feeling of the country’s regions. Each part is centred around one area, so we’re not dotting round all over the place and you can pull the threads of the story together in one region: the Middle Ages in East Anglia, centred around Ely cathedral and Norwich, which was very powerful and extremely rich in that era; the Tudor and Elizabethan period defined by where people built houses to attract the Queen to come to stay, in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Worcestershire; the Georgian era in Bath, Bristol and Dublin, though we could as easily have done it in Edinburgh. The idea was to create a narrative in one place, rather than doing ‘The Crown Jewels of British Architecture’ or ‘Our 100 Best Buildings’. “

The appetite for popular history, he suggests, is perhaps an antidote to the constant change of contemporary life, and the instantaneity of our communication culture. It is something, he believes, that we all experience. “It’s that feeling that you are fighting to stay on top all the time. We had it inside the BBC with the Birtean revolution and all the management-speak. But it’s the same if you work in a post office or a bank or an insurance company. We’re all being removed from our past.

“There’s a constant attempt to rubbish the ways things were done in our culture, even just 20 years ago. All change is good, as George Orwell might have said. But quite clearly, all change is Not Good. And yet, if you dare to say that, you won’t get on, you risk being sidelined.

“That may be what makes the idea of history more attractive. It tells us that there’s more to life than the modern world. And that we are part of the past as well, part of the buildings and the paintings and the history.”

By which he is not just talking about the grand end of things. One of the surprising aspects of the series was the extent to which Dimbleby – frequently described as “the voice of the nation” for his sacerdotal commentaries on great state occasions, such as the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, or the Queen’s Jubilee ceremony – allowed himself to unbutton in a way that endears him to those Middle England prime-time viewers. There was something avuncularly twinkly about him, whether he was taking tea in a stately home or sitting on the lavatory of the family who live in an extraordinary Georgian house in Henrietta Street, Dublin.

“They have lived there for 30 years, and brought up three children there. It has no heating whatsoever and is absolutely freezing in the winter. If you sit on the lavatory, you can see through a hole in the floor right through to the kitchen!

“But it’s just horses for courses. If you’re doing a political debate on Question Time, or interviewing the Prime Minister, you do it the way it has to be done. It’s not often that you can completely relax like that on TV – not for me, anyway.”

It was a far cry from all those royal weddings, and the election- night specials he has presented during every general election since 1979. So much so that Jeremy Paxman once quipped that it’s part of the constitution of this country that all major events have to be presented by a Dimbleby. (David’s brother Jonathan anchors ITV’s election coverage, and their father Richard invented the genre with his commentaries on the death of George VI, the funeral of Winston Churchill and the coronation of the Queen.) ” Some people may think of them as Voice of the Nation; I just think of them as reporting jobs.”

Never say that you are “just a reporter”, that great journalist Louis Heren once told me, taking me to lunch at the Garrick Club when I was a young reporter and he was the august deputy editor of The Times, in the days when it was still a great newspaper. He had risen to that position from being a messenger boy on the paper. But Dimbleby knows that reporting is the first draft of something greater. “We are watching history pass,” he murmured, as the gun-carriage bearing the Queen Mother’s coffin receded down the Mall.

In any case, he does far less of the grand stuff. “I used to do the State Opening of Parliament, but I stopped several years ago because I felt I’d done it enough; as an event, it’s unchanging and you can become stale. And I used to do the Trooping of the Colour. I was always making mistakes of tiny detail that got up the noses of the military. But then I did one impeccably, with not a single error – no button wrongly described, no tab wrongly identified.” There were no complaints at all, so he decided to quit while he was ahead.

“It’s a reporting job, doing live commentary. The big events are terrific, being there and knowing that you are unfolding the story of what is happening is very exciting. Election nights are terrific. Ditto the Queen Mother’s funeral, which was fascinating. There’s a story to tell. It’s sometimes thought of as cheerleading for the nation, but it’s not, and if there was even a whiff of that it would be a disaster.

“I remember when the Diana funeral was being planned, there were endless debates at the BBC about what tone to adopt. And I said, ‘Don’t bother. It’s a national event. You show it and I’ll simply describe what happens. Don’t fret about “what’s the right tone”. There is no right tone’.”

Except, sometimes, that of silence? “Yes, silence is the great secret. In TV commentary, silence isn’t golden, it’s platinum. Television is cursed by too much noise. One of the great complaints about How We Built Britain was that we used too much background music. People wrote to ask why we couldn’t just hear the ticking of the clocks or the wonderful sound of the pump in the Pump Room in Bath. There is an awful tendency in TV to have too much talking, too much music, too much noise.”

At one point, it seemed a sea-change taking place on royalty at the BBC. At the turn of the millennium, on the tide of anti-royal family feeling that grew after the death of Diana, the BBC decided not to cover the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday celebrations, and then, at the last minute, lost its collective nerve and cobbled something half-hearted together. Jonathan Dimbleby – always more outspoken than his big brother – publicly attacked the trendy stubble-bearded, tieless executives he branded “cool young Turks” who found royal coverage “embarrassing”.

“That was a big mistake,” says Dimbleby senior now, “and they admitted that afterwards. It was very stupid. God knows where that came from, and God knows why somebody in a position of authority at the BBC didn’t say, ‘Come on, of course we’ve got to cover it’.”

That anti-royal tide turned after the Queen Mother’s death, which became another natural excrescence of deep public sentiment, this time affectionate. This may partly explain why last week’s episode over trailing “The Queen vs. Annie Leibowitz” caused so much fuss. Of the decision to suggest that the Queen walked out on the photographer, Dimbleby says: ” How anyone thought they could get away with that is beyond me. It was either extremely crass or extremely careless.”

He acknowledges that the BBC is less traditional in its coverage of the monarchy than it used to be. “Its news bulletins don’t automatically follow every footstep of the Queen as they once did. But my suspicion is that it gauges these events by the public appetite for them – and by whether they’ll get more stick for not doing a thing than for doing it.”

Perhaps that will change as the atomisation of contemporary society continues and, as a nation, we decreasingly share in common experiences. The multiple channels of digital television are part of that fragmentation, but Dimbleby is sanguine about that: “You can’t buck it or prevent it, and I’m not sure I even regret it. But one of the things that has been exciting about How We Built Britain has been the number of people who’ve told me that they are watching it with their children. That’s very rare – most TV nowadays divides families.”

So, is the series an anachronism? “In a way… no that’s not true. It’s not. The BBC’s audiences may have fallen [now that there are so many digital channels for people to choose from], yet it still gets a very catholic audience. Question Time still gets all ages and all classes – of all the BBC’s current-affairs programmes, it has the best profile across ABCD, and all that nonsense. And it has the highest profile of younger viewers of any current-affairs programme. So you do still have programmes that have a broader appeal. And Mark Thompson has just said that we’re going to have more higher- quality programmes.

“I don’t think you can fight against the idea of choice any more than you can fight against the idea of people accessing their information through blogs on the internet. People are free to do what they want. But I don’t think it’s the end of broadcasting as we know it. There’ll always be an appetite for programmes like How We Built Britain, where a lot of money is spent on shooting things really beautifully and editing them really well so that they just sparkle compared with a lot of television-documentary work that gets done on the cheap.”

So what, then, is the future of public-service broadcasting? “What it has always been: to go where others won’t go, where others’ commercial instincts won’t take them. It will always be a decision by people trying to act for the public good, so to speak”.

It sounds Reithian. “Absolutely. As long as you’ve got public-service broadcasting, you’ve got that. Everything else is secondary. It’s not that complex; it may be when you’re trying to define it for politicians when you’re arguing for the licence fee, but everybody in the BBC knows viscerally what public-service broadcasting is. And they know when they’re not doing it, when they are cheapening it.

“Sometimes they have sophisticated arguments for cheapening it, overpopularising it and all that, but in their hearts, most broadcasters know what they ought to be doing, even if they are sometimes not quite able to do it.”

In the end, is he optimistic that the BBC will maintain that sense, or will the cheapening and dumbing-down eventually erode it? “I don’t know, but I was very struck by how the younger members of my family were watching Andrew Marr’s Modern History of Britain. They were absolutely gripped by it. And I find that very encouraging because it’s an argument that they are following, not just a lot of bits and pieces strung together.

“The BBC is not an extraneous part of British culture. It’s absolutely central to it. If people want to go off an watch 853 different digital channels, that’s fine, but my instinct is that they’ll still come back for these things that nobody else will be doing. Public-service broadcasting is there to do the things that the market can’t make a profit from, the things where the profit is for society as a whole, for the common good.”

At 68, David Dimbleby is glad to make a vigorous and varied contribution to programme-making. “There was a time when I wanted to get involved in management, and two or three moments when I even tried to do so – I applied once for the director-generalship way back, and twice for the chairmanship. There were values that I understood about the BBC that I wanted to get across, when I thought that the BBC was faltering, such as after the Hutton Inquiry.

“When you’ve been involved in broadcasting as long as I have [he joined the BBC as a trainee in 1960, starting on science and children’s programmes at BBC Bristol, and has stayed with the corporation ever since], you get a sort of conviction that you know how things should be done.

“But in truth, I think I would have hated the committee work. And I’ve enjoyed the broadcasting so much that quite a large part of me says, thank God you didn’t get those jobs.”

Large numbers of the viewing public will wholeheartedly agree.

‘How We Built Britain’ is available on BBC DVD, priced £19.99


Dimbleby: The family business 

Richard Dimbleby

Richard Dimbleby, father of Daivid and Jonathan, was the first giant of TV news, presenting Panorama and commentating on state events including the Coronation and Winston Churchill’s funeral. He never attended university, preferring to start work at 19 for the family’s newspaper, the Richmond and Twickenham Times, in 1931. He moved to the BBC five years later.  

During the Second World War, he reported from France, Egypt and Greece, and in 1945 was the first to report from the Belsen concentration camp. He became the face of the BBC when it began live broadcasts of general elections, a role taken on by both his sons. His last election broadcast was in 1964.

The trust that the nation placed in him was demonstrated by the infamous “spaghetti tree” April Fool’s Day hoax of 1957, when the unsuspecting public swallowed Dimbleby’s Panorama item reporting on the bumper spaghetti tree harvest in Ticino, Switzerland.

Dimbleby was a pioneer of the outside broadcast, reporting from an RAF bomber, in a diving suit and from the Eiffel Tower. He also covered the first Eurovision Song Contest in 1956. He continued broadcasting until the end of his life. Two weeks before his death from lung cancer in 1965, he presented a programme examining the links between the disease and smoking.


Jonathan Dimbleby

David’s younger brother Jonathan, 63, has also carried on the family’s journalistic tradition, starting at the BBC as a reporter in Bristol and then presenting Radio 4’s The World at One in 1970. Since then, he has become the regular host of Any Questions?, BBC radio’s version of Question Time, and also hosts its sister phone-in programme, Any Answers?.

Jonathan’s most notable achievement came in 1994, when in an interview with Prince Charles, the prince admitted that he had committed adultery and that his marriage to Diana, Princess of Wales, had “irretrievably broken down “. Jonathan’s accompanying biography of the prince was officially endorsed.

On television, Jonathan has been an ITV man, having presented the channel’s main political Sunday morning programme until last year. He has also been ITV’s anchor for its election night coverage since the 1997 election, a job which puts him in direct competition with his older brother.

Like his father, Jonathan has focused on foreign affairs, making documentaries on Ethiopia in the 1970s and Kosovo in the 1990s.

Despite his prolific output of books, documentaries and presenting, he still finds time to run an organic farm in Somerset and is president of the Soil Association.




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