Growing up with Richard Dimbleby as your father was a strange business, says Jonathan Dimbleby. Though it was, of course, the only type of growing up he knew.
The Any Questions presenter recalls: “People would come up to my father in the street, take hold of his sleeve, and say, ‘Just touching you for luck, Richard.’ Or we’d go into a restaurant and the restaurateur would refuse to let us pay.
“Once, when I was about ten years old, we went to see Arthur Askey in pantomime. Suddenly, a searchlight shone on us. Askey said something like: ‘It’s Richard Dimbleby. Let’s give him a big welcome!’ My father was required to stand up and wave.” And the young Jonathan? In that painful moment, none of the pride and love he felt (and still does) for his father could shield him from the sheer embarrassment of being singled out. “I shrank down into my seat.”
Back in the 1950s and early 60s, there was no one else on radio or TV who engendered so much respect. Richard Dimbleby was more than a “television star”. Much more.
“I don’t know of any public figure in the serious end of radio or television today who is anything like as well known as he was.”
Dimbleby’s broadcasting career began with a speculative letter to the BBC, nimbly suggesting that the organisation could improve its news bulletins by reporting things first-hand, rather than merely reading out the printed despatches that arrived on the news wires. He later recalled: “I thought, why don’t they have a man of their own who goes out and reports things and comes back to the microphone and gives his story?”
Richard Dimbleby and Ludovic Kennedy on BBC Panorama
His life story is told by his son in Dimbleby on Dimbleby, in this week’s Archive on 4. It’s timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his father’s memorial service at Westminster Abbey – the first time a journalist had been honoured in this way.
It tells the story of how Richard, who died aged just 52 in 1965, was the BBC’s first war correspondent, the first reporter to fly with RAF Bomber Command (the other two didn’t come back alive) and – more famously – how he was the first reporter to witness the liberation of a Nazi death camp.
The BBC initially refused to broadcast his dispatch from Belsen because it was so horrifying, and Dimbleby, recognising its importance, vowed to resign if it didn’t. He championed postwar compassion for the German people, but the war left a mark. “He belonged to that generation that when he was in a position to buy a big car, he absolutely refused to buy a Mercedes-Benz because they were German cars.”
The programme is presented in a spirit of love and affection. But it also, on occasions, prods the reputation of Dimbleby senior, asking, for example, whether he was too deferential. There’s an amusing clip of him beginning an interview with King Hussein of Jordan while almost audibly tugging a forelock: “Your Majesty. You were kind enough to say that you would answer some questions from us this evening…”
Jonathan, 72, says that his father had a “reverence for monarchy, the church and Parliament”.
Such an attitude, I suggest, would not be cherished in a broadcast journalist today.
“I agree with you. Completely. And in a way, I think, more’s the pity. I think we rubbish institutions at our peril.
“For example, I think there’s a tendency to forget that Parliament is what we have. And while there is [some] malfeasance and there are [some] second-rate people, if we go around believing that corruption is the norm in Parliament, we’re feeding a bear. And we’re also misleading people. It’s very easy to sneer. A sneer is very powerful. Particularly in the medium of television.”
General Election live coverage at Lime Grove Studios in 1955
Dimbleby stresses that he’s “not talking specifically about any broadcaster”, but he is quite critical of the “simplistic” manner in which, he says, the EU referendum was covered on TV: “It was too easily reduced to ‘they say this and the others say that – take your pick’.
There were important exceptions – Nick Robinson’s documentary and much of Newsnight – but too often the broadcasters seemed to fall into the trap of accepting that only the economic implications or immigration mattered. There was very little context or analysis of competing claims, very little forensic examination of issues like sovereignty, security and defence: claim and counterclaim were held to be suffice.”
Dimbleby ponders what his father would make of today’s politics and the media coverage of it. One thing’s for certain, no broadcaster will ever command so much public admiration.
“He was surprised by the esteem in which he was held. He was self-mocking about it. When he was weak in hospital, he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection and support for him from the public. Absolutely overwhelmed by it. Touched beyond words.”
Archive on 4: Dimbleby on Dimbleby is on Radio 4 at 8pm Saturday 13 August