A history of David Dimbleby’s election nights on the BBC

It has been more than half a century since David Dimbleby made his first appearance in a BBC general election broadcast

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The 2015 election was meant to David Dimbleby’s swansong. He had anchored every general election for the BBC since 1979 and, with the next one not supposed to take place until 2020, it was time to step away. But then Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election for 8th June 2017 – and the 78-year-old couldn’t resist coming back for one more.

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A television career as long as Dimbleby’s has naturally left its trace in the Radio Times archives, which are stuffed with pictures of the young journalist climbing his way up the ranks and establishing himself as a BBC anchor.

RadioTimes.com took a look at Dimbleby’s journey – and this is what we found.

When was David Dimbleby’s first election night on the BBC?

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David Dimbleby first pops up on election night 1964, in very small type. He was stationed as a reporter in Exeter to provide one of the “O.B.”s – that is, outside broadcasts.

In that year, his dad Richard Dimbleby was anchoring BBC TV coverage for the final time, though he didn’t know it. The following year he would die of testicular cancer aged just 52. Richard Dimbleby had hosted BBC TV’s first-ever election night coverage in 1950 and was a giant of British broadcasting.

In 1966 Cliff Michelmore stepped in at the last minute to cover Richard Dimbleby’s spot, and David Dimbleby disappeared from the election night listings.

But he returned in 1970, heading a team of reporters in the run-up to the election with a nightly campaign report (in colour!) and followed this up in 1974 by spending the evening in Sidcup, hanging out with Prime Minister Edward Heath in his own constituency.

In 1979 David Dimbleby anchored the BBC’s coverage for the first time

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In 1979, David Dimbleby stepped into his father’s shoes and anchored the BBC’s overnight coverage of the general election. His co-host was Robin Day.

Four years later, as he returned as anchor for the second time, the Radio Times wrote: “For television, David Dimbleby continues a family association with election programmes that goes back to the first marathon election night programme in 1955.”

Here he is in 1987…

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By 1987 David Dimbleby had made his reputation. In 1994 he added another string to his bow when he became chairman of Question Time, a position he still holds.

David’s brother Jonathan Dimbleby was ‘on the other side’

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David’s younger brother Jonathan Dimbleby spent the 70s and 80s working for BBC rival ITV, and returned in 1995 with his own political and current affairs channel. He and David were in direct competition in 1997, 2001 and 2005 as Jonathan hosted ITV’s general election coverage.

In 1997, the Radio Times commented: “Whatever the outcome, the Dimbleby family will not lose out.”

In 1997 David Dimbleby had “X” appeal on a Radio Times cover

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He told the Radio Times: “Although it’s still all about politicians and trends and people clearing their throats and saying, ‘I, the returning officer,’ the interesting thing about election night is that each one is different from the one before.”

By 2001 he was being called ‘commander-in-chief’ 

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How does Dimbleby keep his cool? Easy. “It’s the editor’s job to give an impression of control in the studio. Fortunately I’m the sort of person who can chew gum and walk at the same time. It can be distracting for the people I’m interviewing, though: they may be giving an answer to a question while I’m muttering, ‘How many minutes to Torbay?’ or ‘How big was the swing in Sheffield?'”

… And Roger Woddis even once wrote a poem about him in Radio Times

Dimbleby gained a reputation for treating all politicians with dignity. Woddis wrote in 1979:

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“It’s strange how David Dimbleby contrives to be so courteous,
Though shaking hands with some of them would very likely dirty us.”