Richard Dimbleby CBE (May 25, 1913 – December 22, 1965) was an English journalist and broadcaster widely acknowledged as one of the greatest figures in British broadcasting history.
Frederick Richard Dimbleby was born near Richmond
, in the western suburbs of London
, the son of Gwendoline Mabel (Bolwell) and Frederick Jabez George Dimbleby, a journalist. He was educated at Mill Hill School
in North London
. He did not go to university. His great grandfather Jabez Bunting (J.B.) Dimbleby, born in Beverley
, was the first of the Dimbleby family to become involved in journalism. He was editor of the journal All Past Time
"A journal devoted to the application of Astronomy to the measurement of time" and was described as the premier chronologist to the "British Chronological and Astronomical Association
". He wrote a number of works on chronology
, including The Appointed Time
(translated into Swedish and Norwegian), and the anti-darwinian
"The Bible’s Astronomical Chronology versus Evolution
" (1905). Richard's grandfather Frederick William Dimbleby joined the Richmond and Twickenham Times
in 1874 and bought the newspaper in 1894 after its founder, Edward King was declared insane.
Richard Dimbleby began his career at The Richmond and Twickenham Times in 1931. He joined the BBC as a radio news reporter in 1936, and in 1939, accompanied the British Expeditionary Force to France. During the war, he flew some 20 raids as an observer with Bomber command, including one to Berlin, recording commentary for broadcast the following day.
In 1945, he broadcast the first reports from Belsen concentration camp. He also was one of the first journalists to experiment with unconventional outside broadcasts, such as when flying in a fighter plane, or being submerged in a diving suit, and also describing the wrecked interior of Hitler's Reich Chancellery at the war's end.
He was a contemporary of fellow commentator Brian Johnston who, while better known for sports commentary and light journalism, also shared the job of covering national events with him. Dimbleby was, unlike Johnston, not a traditional 'establishment' figure; he was one of the first well-known media professionals not to have attended a major public school or Oxbridge.
Career in television
Journalism and politics
After the war Dimbleby switched to television
, eventually becoming the BBC's leading news commentator, and is perhaps best remembered as the commentator on a number of major public occasions. These included the coronation of Elizabeth II
in 1953 and the funerals of George VI
, John F. Kennedy
, and Winston Churchill
. He wrote a book about the coronation, Elizabeth Our Queen
, which was given free to many schoolchildren at the time.
He took part in the first Eurovision television relay in 1951 and appeared in the first live television broadcast from the Soviet Union in 1961. He also introduced a special programme in July 1962 showing the first live television signal from the United States via the Telstar satellite. His commentary: "there is a face... it's a man's face! I can see a man's face!" became iconic. In addition to heavyweight journalism, he hosted lighter programmes such as Twenty Questions and Down Your Way.
During the same period, he was the host of the flagship current affairs series Panorama. This programme saw him use his journalistic skills to full advantage in conducting searching, but polite interviews with key figures of the day, while acting as an urbane anchorman for the programme. He was able to maintain his reporting talents by visiting places like Berlin, standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate a week before the Berlin Wall was erected across it by the communist authorities of East Germany.
Chronicling historic events
Richard Dimbleby's reputation was built upon his ability to describe events clearly yet with a sense of the drama and poetry of the many state occasions he covered. Examples included the Lying-in-State of George VI in Westminster Hall
where he depicted the stillness of the guardsmen standing like statues at the four corners of the catafalque
, or the description of the drums at Kennedy's funeral which, he said, "beat as the pulse of a man's heart." His commentary for the funeral of Churchill in January 1965 was the last state event he commentated upon.
To produce his commentaries he carried out encyclopedic research on all aspects of the venues of great events, their history and that of the ceremonies taking place, and the personalities involved. This was a necessary part of radio commentary, which transferred well to television coverage. He could also improvise extensively if there were delays in the schedule. His audience always felt that they were in "safe hands", especially in Panorama programmes like the one dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Identified with the Establishment
Inevitably, because of his close association with establishment figures and royalty, some people criticised his "hushed tones" style of speaking at state occasions, claiming he was pompous. In an interview he laughed-off such attacks explaining that, even though he had to use a special microphone which covered his mouth to obviate his speaking disrupting the solemn atmosphere, he still had to pitch his voice low to avoid his voice carrying. A more common touch was demonstrated in his friendly broadcasts like Down Your Way
where he met thousands of ordinary people in towns and villages, and the many trade unionists, politicians and industrialists etc who appeared on Panorama
and other programmes. Dimbleby also showed stamina and imperturbability in marathon election night broadcasts which ran from 10pm when the polls closed to around 6 or 7 the following morning.
Controversy and comedy
An infamous, if isolated, incident occurred had Dimbleby mildly swearing ("Jesus wept
") while unaware the microphone was live. He had been commentating for half an hour during the 1965 state visit of HM Queen Elizabeth II to West Berlin, without knowing that the TV pictures had failed for all that time. It meant he would have to cover much ground all over again.
During his time with Panorama Dimbleby also reported the famous spaghetti tree hoax on April 1, 1957, as an April Fool's Day joke.
He was appointed an OBE
in 1945 and advanced to CBE
in 1959. This was one rank below Knighthood in the Order. At the time Knighthood was reserved for those who rendered service to government or retired from office in important public bodies, a case in point being Sir John Reith
, former Director General of the BBC.
Death and legacy
Richard Dimbleby died in St Thomas' Hospital
, London , at the age of 52, from, according to Action on Smoking and Health
, lung cancer
, attributed to his habit of smoking
a day . However, in an interview with the Daily Mail
, his son David reportedly said "treatment then wasn't as good as it is now, but he had testicular cancer
which spread because he left it". Two weeks before his death, he presented a documentary on the links between heavy tobacco
smoking and lung cancer. Dimbleby decided to admit he was ill with cancer, which, in those days, was a taboo disease to mention. It was helpful in building public consciousness of the disease and investing more resources in finding a cure. The Richard Dimbleby Cancer Fund
was founded in his memory.
Married to Dilys Thomas in Copthorne, West Sussex
in 1937, Dimbleby had four children, two of whom, David
, have followed in his footsteps to become major broadcasting figures in their own right, both anchoring
election night broadcasts (David on the BBC, Jonathan on ITN
Richard Dimbleby lecture
The Richard Dimbleby Lecture
was founded in his memory and is delivered every year by an influential public figure. The 2004 lecture was delivered by vacuum cleaner tycoon
, James Dyson
; in 2005 by Metropolitan Police
Commissioner Sir Ian Blair
; by General Sir Mike Jackson
in 2006 and by genetics pioneer Dr J Craig Venter