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Dimbleby, Richard (1913-1965)

Journalist, Presenter

Main image of Dimbleby, Richard (1913-1965)

Initially more an identifiable radio voice than a television presence, Richard Dimbleby led BBC television news out of infancy and into maturity, ushering it from the confines of the newsroom into the whole wide world. Only the Americans, CBS's Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite, made as big an impact on the television screens of the English-speaking world during the 1950s and 1960s.

Born into a newspaper family which ran local newspapers in the South of England (his grandfather had acquired the Richmond and Twickenham Times in 1894), Dimbleby's own grounding in journalism came at first with the Southern Daily Echo (Southampton) and with the Advertisers' Weekly (London), becoming news editor for the latter at the age of 21. In 1936, he suggested to the BBC (radio) that they take on a news reporter for the first time. Although still small and experimental, the BBC appointed him and he became the world's first radio war correspondent (describing events during the Spanish Civil War). His voice became nationally known in the late 1930s, on such occasions as the coronation of King George VI (1937) and the royal tour of Canada by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939.

It was with the coming of war, however, that he quickly became recognised among his British and American colleagues, and in the Armed Services, as a correspondent of skill and courage. One of his greatest broadcasts described a raid over Berlin from the cockpit of a bomber. In June 1944, he transferred to the new War Reporting Unit which the BBC set up for the coming of the D-Day landing; he was one of the first over, remaining in France, on and off, until the end of the war.

He resigned from the BBC in 1946 so as to be freer for his newspaper interests in Richmond and remained a freelance from then on, though serving as an independent commentator for the Corporation. For The Victory Parade (BBC, tx. 8/6/1946), with television set up to capture the celebrations, Dimbleby added poignant words to the pictures. For the XIV Olympiad, held in London, he provided commentaries for the televised opening (BBC, tx. 29/7/1948) and closing ceremonies. The first TV election results (BBC, tx. 23/2/1950) saw him guide viewers through two gruelling live hours of the proceedings.

These had all been, for the most part, voice commentaries but with the increasing spread of television he moved over to the newer medium as on-screen presenter for the magazine programme London Town (BBC, 1950-51), guiding viewers along lesser-known tourist paths, and, later, Weekly Review (BBC, 1951), a Sunday recap of the week's major news stories. The public was able to identify for the first time the familiar voice with the bulky, rumpled form and broad face.

The popular late 1940s radio 'parlour game' Twenty Questions was introduced to BBC television in 1951, with Dimbleby continuing as one of the long-running panellists. The radio programme's enormous popularity spawned a film spin-off, The Twenty Questions Murder Mystery (d. Paul L. Stein, 1950), blending a whodunit with the real-life radio team (Dimbleby appearing as himself). In later years, he also appeared as 'himself' in the Ealingesque comedy Rockets Galore (d. Michael Relph, 1958) and in Anthony Asquith's dark courtroom drama Libel (1959).

Television's right to be present on major public occasions was established with the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (BBC, tx. 2/6/1953). The day was a personal triumph for Dimbleby, who described the Coronation Service in Westminster Abbey with a unique style of matching word to picture that brought the great event into the viewers' homes on their own terms. He became known as the 'Voice of England', our 'Public Orator', someone with a gift to command attention and to communicate with millions of people. It was from this time, behind the cameras (again) rather than in front of them, that he achieved an unmatched success, which made him a truly international figure.

For the ordinary viewer, it became difficult to imagine a state occasion without him. The marriage of actress Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco (BBC, tx. 19/4/1956); the wedding of Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones (BBC, tx. 6/5/1960), when, with a semblance of artless ease, he filled a 40-minute delay in her arrival; and the BBC's special programme about the increasingly alarming Russia v. America Cuban missile crisis (BBC, tx. 28/10/1962). While his comments tended to heighten the sense of occasion, his close association with royal functions, however, drew a great deal of fire from his detractors. He was seen by some as being pompous, politically naive, and unduly deferential to what was coming to be called 'the Establishment'.

Panorama had begun in 1953 as a fortnightly general arts/news magazine and was often criticised for being a 'hotch potch of this and that' until, in November 1958, Dimbleby was appointed the lead commentator and main anchor. From that moment the programme became a respected current affairs flagship for the BBC, only emulated by others but never surpassed in its heyday of the late 1950s and early 1960s. By the time of its 200th edition in June 1960, the programme had established a brisk presentation of polished, cleverly considered news and current affairs reports. The leading quartet of reporters were Robin Day (who had made his BBC/Panorama debut in November 1959), Robert Kee, James Mossman and Ludovic Kennedy. Under the Dimbleby-linkman/Michael Peacock-producer command, Panorama became an unbreakable Monday night fixture for some six to eight million viewers.

Despite all his BBC commitments he took an even closer interest in his newspapers after becoming managing director of the Richmond and Twickenham Times in 1954 as well as playing an active part as chairman in the production companies Film Partnership (active 1952 to 1964) and Puritan Films (active 1955 to 1966) in collaboration with producer Robert M. Angell. These companies turned out a succession of black and white informational shorts and colour travelogues (with Dimbleby as executive producer and narrator). For television, they produced the travelogue series About Europe (BBC, 1955) and the holiday showcase Passport (BBC, 1958-60), in which the Dimbleby family (wife Dilys and sons David and Jonathan) offered filmed accounts of their travels to various Continental resorts (Brittany, Portugal, etc.).

In early 1965, the dignified pageantry of The State Funeral of Sir Winston Churchill (BBC/ITV, tx. 30/1/1965) was seen, it was estimated, by over 350,000,000 viewers around the world. Dimbleby was the sole commentator for the four-hour BBC coverage. His profound words made the solemn images almost superfluous.

By a dark and unexpected turn, just some twelve months later, Dimbleby himself was the subject of national mourning. Considered a national television hero, he died at the age of 52 and was duly accorded a memorial service reminiscent of state occasions. The BBC (24 Hours edition, tx. 22/12/1965), with almost an air of theatrical royalty, used a spotlit empty chair to symbolise his loss to them.

The annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture was founded in 1972 in his memory. His sons also entered the TV news/current affairs field, David with the BBC in the 1960s and Jonathan with ITV in the 1970s.

Tise Vahimagi

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Thumbnail image of Dimbleby, David (1938-)Dimbleby, David (1938-)

Presenter, Interviewer, Reporter