David Dimbleby has his nose deep in a book, literally. He keeps turning the splendid crimson and gold tome over and over, almost inhaling it. It belonged to his broadcasting giant of a father, Richard – who died at the age of 52 in 1965 – but he is not trying to summon his spirit. Rather, he is trying to satisfy himself that this relic of the Queen’s coronation is made of leather – and despite garnering recent evidence, he is evidently still trying to convince himself. Or, maybe, he just likes its old scent.
“I took it down to Westminster, the other day,” he explains, “and I had a terrible feeling looking at it – because in the film [more anon], I said, ‘This is red Morocco leather’ and then I looked at the fray at the top and I thought, ‘Oh God, it’s not Morocco – it’s some artificial fabric…’”
So he took the book down to the librarian at Westminster Abbey who assured him that it was leather – “there are hundreds of old, leatherbound books, so they know their leather” – and then proceeded to rub some calf “food” on it. Do you have a good sense of smell, I ask him, trying to prise his face away from the book. “Yes, I have a very, very strong sense of smell, even though I smoke cigars,” he says. “I can tell you, for instance, that floor polish smells of rancid butter.”
His father’s book will feature in The People’s Coronation, a BBC1 documentary to mark the 60th anniversary of the historic event. Dimbleby fronts that and will also be commentating live on the coronation thanksgiving service, also on BBC1, the next day. From my experience of him, Dimbleby talks either at length (about a programme he is promoting) or gives very little away. The former is what he uses to deflect any questions of a personal nature, and Dimbleby’s definition of “personal’ is extremely broad.
We conduct the interview in his elegantly-proportioned third-floor flat near Victoria Station where he stays when he works, but his family home is near a village on the edge of the Sussex Downs. He never has much food in the fridge in London, he says, but doesn’t like eating in restaurants either. Do you cook? Silence. Can you cook? Silence. Then a strangulated, “Yessssssss.” But not very well? Further silence. What’s the matter? Are you thinking this is a trick question? “Yesss.” David, lighten up, please! He smiles, “I don’t like being interviewed… seeing things come out… seeing these words come out. Can we talk about the programme? I don’t like talking about myself.”
It was only afterwards that I remembered that Dimbleby’s first wife, Josceline, is a famous cookery writer. Perhaps her ex-husband felt that this whole subject would somehow lead back to her, and the fact that he had left her for his second wife, his production assistant, Belinda Giles. But that was a long time ago and he and Belinda have a son of their own, Fred, who is 15.
The night before the coronation in June 1953, the then 14-year-old David had stayed on his father’s boat at Westminster, in the middle of the Thames, where his father had spent the previous week, rehearsing for the big day. On the morning, David and his parents were picked up by a police launch and taken to Westminster Pier, from whence they walked up to Westminster Abbey dropping off Richard to do his commentary, mother and son continuing on to Regent Street to watch the crowning of the Queen on a 12-inch television set in the ante-room of Harry Hall, a specialist equestrian tailor, followed by the procession.
Does Dimbleby remember his father being anxious leading up to the day? “Not at all, as far as I could tell. He did say afterwards that he had been nervous and obviously there was a lot of weight on his shoulders because there had been this great argument about whether television should be allowed in… and had it not gone well, it would have been a nightmare, but it was a huge success.”
The red leather book contains the order of service and on each page are blue slips of paper, with the typed commentary, some with handwritten notes. His father was the BBC’s commentator for the funerals of King George VI and Winston Churchill, as well as the Queen’s coronation. His son fulfils a similar role, most recently with Baroness Thatcher’s funeral. “My father’s style for the commentary was very much unlike modern commentatary where we’re more used to these events now because they’ve been televised so much.”
Does it give him an emotional tug when looking at his father’s handwriting again? “Yes, well, there isn’t very much in his own handwriting… See, this is the language: ‘A signal is given and there enter the theatre from all sides, the pages’. The inversion is deliberate to make it more sacred, I suppose – as if he is a priest himself. And here it is,” he says excitedly. “‘Soon these and all other coronets will be put on, for the moment of the Queen’s crowning is come…’” He closes the book and gazes at it, with an expression of tenderness mixed with respect. “It is beautiful, isn’t it? It has been kept in the family, with my mother in Devon. It’s very, very grand, don’t you think? It looks so wonderful. I thought we should leave it to Westminster Abbey.”
Did it make an enormous imprint on both you and your family when your father died, I ask? (David, the oldest, was 27 – with three younger siblings, Jonathan – the most famous and fellow broadcaster – Nicholas and Sally.) “If I answer you in one word, you’ll forgive me? Yes. He was 52.” Were you close to him? “I don’t answer any questions about my family. I’m sorry. I just don’t.”
Later he says: “You can ask me anything you like” and I ask him what he was like as a little boy, he replies, “I told you… I don’t talk about my family at all.” I get a similar response – which was really getting a little bit silly – when I ask him what age he had been sent to boarding school. “What’s that got to do with anything?” It just interests me, I explain, and it’s also a perfectly legitimate question! “Of course it is.” Were you sent off at eight, say, or 11? An amiable laugh. “I can’t remember… seven.”
When I press him on why he is so very guarded, he responds dryly: “I’m saving it for my memoirs.” Is this reservation on your part? Englishness? “I’ve no idea. I’ve just never talked about my family [not true] and I don’t intend to – and I don’t see why I should.” Silence. But you’re an interviewer, wouldn’t you want your subjects to talk? “Oh Lord, yes, of course,” a big, sly grin emerges. Really, I tell him, he is impossible!
Dimbleby is clearly far more impressed by people in the arts than politicians, who don’t seem to excite him much – perhaps because they remind him too much of work. “I’m not in the adoration business for any politician,” he says. “I’m completely detached from it. I admire artists and singers and writers.” He is probably warm and affectionate with his family, I would guess, judging from a brief phone conversation he has with his son, by his first wife, Henry (chef and co-founder of the healthy fast-food chain, Leon).
The London flat is full of work by his daughter, Liza, an artist who lives in Glasgow, including some wonderful nudes. His other daughter, Kate, is a jazz and folk singer. He has a Damien Hirst spin-painting of a butterfly (a legacy of a programme he did with the artist), and a dramatic Maggi Hambling of angry-looking waves, which he gestures to when we are talking about Question Time, the BBC1 debate show he has chaired for the past 20 years. “I just stand on the beach and try to breast each wave as it comes.”
He doesn’t watch much television, certainly not at home in Sussex. “You know what family life is like. There’s only one television on and it’s normally turned to Family Guy whenever I want to watch it.” He and his wife go to Glyndebourne, “usually picking up tickets very late in the day from people who’ve cancelled for one reason or another… divorce…” One person’s misfortune is another person’s gift? “Well, not necessarily, misfortune,” he says. “Could be good fortune.”
Although he admires singers, he doesn’t sing himself, but he does play the piano. I tell him I did spot the keyboard, “So sharp of you,” he says, with a smirk. Well, it is bang in front of you when you step into the hallway, I counter. “There should be an arrow over it saying, ‘Notice! I have an artistic temperament!’” he laughs. He plays some of the things he learned as a 16-year-old. What were his favourite songs at that time? “Chopin polonaises and mazurkas, Beethoven piano sonatas, that sort of thing.”
So no popular music, then? “ No, not at all, no.” Have you ever been to a disco? Eleven-second silence. “Yes, of course.” Do you like dancing? “Yes, I like to dance very much. Rock ’n’ roll is what I like – I do my own brand.”
As a young man, he learnt French in Paris and Italian in Perugia before reading philosophy, politics and economics at Christ Church Oxford, where he edited the student magazine Isis, and graduated with a third-class degree. He is also a former (and most unembarrassed) member of the Bullingdon Club.
“I loved being elected to the Bullingdon Club and I’m very proud of the uniform that I can still get into. We never broke windows or got wildly drunk. It was a completely different organisation from what it clearly became when Boris Johnson, David Cameron and George Osborne joined, who seem to be ashamed of it, pulling their photographs and so on. But we never did these disgusting, disgraceful things that Boris did,” he says in his jocular way.
The secret to good commentary, he says, is not talking. “What you get paid for is shutting up.” He says that he loved commentating on Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, “although it was the most difficult commentary I’d ever done because of the huge differences of opinion – not just about her – but about whether the event itself was appropriate.” I ask him whether he is thin-skinned. “I’ve no idea.” It’s just that you were criticised a bit. “For what?” Now don’t get cross, because you made the odd mistake. “I’ve always made mistakes.” Nothing to do with ageing then? (He will be 75 in October.) “It’s a family trait. My father described Ted Heath and his wife at one ceremony [Heath was famously single]. I think my mistake at Thatcher’s funeral was, ‘And now her favourite film’ instead of hymn. My father made those mistakes, too. It’s easy pickings for journalists. They sit there watching for the mistakes. That’s the name of the game. I don’t mind at all.”
Is he vain? “Well, I suppose that anyone who puts themselves out on television, week after week after week, obviously enjoys the limelight,” he says. Whenever he goes down the street, he will be stopped a couple of times by people commenting on the programmes or saying something about his work. “And I love that. It makes you feel that it’s worthwhile if people enjoy it. TV is a stage, in a way and you’re there putting on a performance. It’s not like going to the office.”
I mention former newsreader Anna Ford who gets cross about ageism against women in TV. (In 2011, when Dimbleby was awarded a five-year extension of his contract at the BBC, worth £3.5 million, she branded him “a charming dinosaur”.) “Well, I don’t know that she does. I think she gets terribly cross about not being on television herself, I think,” he says. Are you being bitchy? “No, that’s what she says,” he says, with the precise look of a pet that has just been caught raiding the larder.
“Why should age matter with women?” he continues. “Women mature elegantly and better than men, very often. I don’t think age should be a factor for women appearing on television. There is a section among television executives who are always being hammered – quite wrongly in my view – to get the biggest possible audience, and [they are told] attractive young women will bring in a bigger audience than less attractive, older women – to say nothing of less attractive older men, like me.
“That’s the way the TV – not just the BBC – industry works. And I think it’s wrong. If you look at American TV you’ll find it keeps women at work. They use their experience in that same way that they would use John Simpson’s experience or mine, such as it is. It’s just a cultural shift that’s needed. And I agree that it is demeaning to women and I also think it’s a crazy loss of talent.”
It’s time for him to go – “I’m not being beastly, but we’ve both got things to do, haven’t we?” I take a closer look at the Hambling painting on my way out and spot a Christmas card on the mantlepiece of David Cameron and family. “What’s this, David? Is it a spoof ?” “What do you think?” he says.
His most telling remark, in a way, was when we were discussing his friend John Bridcut’s programme on the late conductor Sir Colin Davis. “Although Davis was flamboyant all his life, he was also reserved and cautious. John asked him something like, ‘And do you think you’re a difficult man?’ And he said, ‘What do you mean? What kind of interviewer are you?’ He wasn’t offended it was just that people don’t know what they’re like. Who knows what they’re like? Who knows what anybody’s like?” Indeed.
Browse through the 60-year-old Coronation edition of Radio Times
The People’s Coronation with David Dimbleby is on Monday at 9pm on BBC1
Other coronation highlights include Coronation Year in Colour (Sunday, 5:30pm, ITV), The Princess Elizabeth in Canada (Sunday, 9:00pm, BBC4) and The Coronation (Sunday, 10:10am, BBC Parliament).