Richard Dimbleby

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Richard Dimbleby

Dimbleby presents election night, 1964
Frederick Richard Dimbleby

(1913-05-25)25 May 1913
Richmond, Surrey, England
Died22 December 1965(1965-12-22) (aged 52)
St Thomas' Hospital, London, England
EducationMill Hill School, London
Dilys Thomas
(m. 1937)
Children4, including David and Jonathan
RelativesDimbleby family

Frederick Richard Dimbleby CBE (25 May 1913 – 22 December 1965) was an English journalist and broadcaster, who became the BBC's first war correspondent, and then its leading TV news commentator.

As host of the long-running current affairs programme Panorama, he pioneered a popular style of interviewing that was respectful but searching. At formal public events, he could combine gravitas with creative insights based on extensive research. He was also able to maintain interest throughout the all-night election specials.

The annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture was founded in his memory.


Early life[edit]

Dimbleby was born near Richmond, Surrey,[1] the son of Gwendoline Mabel (Bolwell) and Frederick Jabez George Dimbleby, a journalist.[2] He was educated at The Mall School, Twickenham, and at Mill Hill School, and began his career in 1931 on the Richmond and Twickenham Times, which his grandfather, Frederick William Dimbleby, had acquired in 1894.

He then worked as a news reporter on the Southern Evening Echo in Southampton, before joining the BBC as a radio news reporter in 1936, going on to cover the first Royal tour of Canada,[3] and becoming their first war correspondent. He accompanied the British Expeditionary Force to France and made broadcasts from the battle of El Alamein[4] and the Normandy beaches during the D-Day landings.

During the Second World War, he flew on some twenty raids as an observer with RAF Bomber Command, including one to Berlin, recording commentary for broadcast the following day. He was one of the first journalists to experiment with unconventional outside broadcasts, such as when flying in a de Havilland Mosquito accompanying a fighter aircraft raid on France, or being submerged in a diving suit.

In April 1945, as the BBC's war correspondent, he accompanied the British 11th Armoured Division to the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp making one of the first reports.[5][6] His description of what he saw there was so graphic the BBC declined to broadcast his despatch for four days, relenting only when he threatened to resign.[5] An edited version was eventually aired, with references to Jews removed:[7]

I passed through the barrier, and found myself in the world of a nightmare. Dead bodies, some of them in decay, lay strewn about the road and along the rutted tracks [...] Inside the huts it was even worse. I've seen many terrible sights in the last five years, but nothing, nothing approaching the dreadful interior of this hut at Belsen. The dead and the dying lay close together. I picked my way over corpse after corpse in the gloom, until I heard one voice that rose above the gentle, undulating moaning. I found a girl. She was a living skeleton, impossible to gauge her age, for she had practically no hair left on her head, and her face was only a yellow parchment sheet, with two holes in it for eyes [...] Babies were born at Belsen, some of them shrunken, wizened little things that could not live because their mothers could not feed them. One woman, distraught to the point of madness, flung herself at a British soldier who was on guard in the camp on the night that it was reached by the 11th Armoured Division. She begged him to give her some milk, for the tiny baby she held in her arms. She lay the mite on the ground, threw herself at the sentry's feet and kissed his boots. And when, in his distress, he asked her to get up, she put the baby in his arms and ran off, crying that she would find milk for it because there was no milk in her breast. And when the soldier opened the bundle of rags to look at the child, he found that it had been dead for days [...] I have never seen British soldiers so moved to cold fury as the men who opened the Belsen camp this week, and those of the police and the RAMC, who are now on duty there trying to save the prisoners who are not too far gone in starvation.[8]

He described, in another broadcast, the wrecked interior of Hitler's Reich Chancellery at the war's end.[9]

Broadcasting career[edit]

After the war, Dimbleby switched to television, eventually becoming the BBC's leading news commentator. He is perhaps best remembered as the commentator on a number of major public occasions, including the coronation of Queen 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 also wrote a London crime novel, Storm at the Hook, published in 1948.

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. In addition to heavyweight journalism, he took part in lighter sound radio programmes such as Twenty Questions (as a panel member) and Down Your Way (which he hosted).[10]

From 1955, he was the host of the flagship current affairs series Panorama.[11] 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 presenter for the programme.[citation needed] 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.

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.

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, until around 6 or 7am the following morning.

Controversy and comedy[edit]

During his time with Panorama, Dimbleby narrated the famous spaghetti-tree hoax on 1 April 1957, as an April Fool's Day joke.[12]

After commentating for half an hour on Elizabeth II's state visit in 1965 to Germany, Dimbleby uttered the mild expletive, "Jesus wept," unaware that the microphone was live, after discovering that the TV pictures had failed for all 30 minutes, meaning he would have to repeat the commentary.[13]

Private life and honours[edit]

Dimbleby married Dilys Thomas in Copthorne, West Sussex, in 1937.[14] The couple had four children, two of whom, David and Jonathan, have followed in his footsteps to become major broadcasting figures in their own right, both hosting election night broadcasts (David on the BBC, Jonathan on ITN). In addition, Dimbleby's third son, Nicholas, sculpted the plaque in his father's name that was placed in Poets' Corner in 1990. They also had a daughter, Sally. Dilys Dimbleby died in 2009.[15]

In June 1946, Dimbleby was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services as a war correspondent.[16] In the 1959 Queen's Birthday Honours, he was promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).[17]

Death and legacy[edit]

Blue plaque dedicated to Dimbleby

On 22 December 1965, Dimbleby died[18] at the age of 52. He had been suffering from testicular cancer which had been diagnosed five years earlier. In 1962 he had presented a documentary on the links between heavy tobacco smoking and lung cancer. Dimbleby decided to admit he was ill with cancer, which, at the time, was a taboo disease to mention.[19] 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. Dimbleby was cremated, the ceremony receiving national publicity.[20]

In 1986 "Celebration of a Broadcaster",[21] commemorating Dimbleby, was held in Westminster Abbey. In April 2013, he was honoured by the Royal Mail, as one of six people selected as subjects for the "Great Britons" commemorative postage stamp issue.[22]

Richard Dimbleby lecture[edit]

The Richard Dimbleby Lecture was founded in his memory in 1972 and is delivered every year by an influential public figure. Speakers have included:


  1. ^ GRO Register of Births: SEP 1913 3a 188 BRENTFORD – Frederick R Dimbleby, mmn = Bolwell
  2. ^ Barratt, Nick (3 February 2007). "Family detective". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 27 March 2007. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  3. ^ 'Royal Broadcast From Canada' The Times (London, England), Saturday, April 15, 1939, Issue 48280, p.12
  4. ^ Beckwith, Roger. "Planning for D-Day". Old BBC Radio Broadcasting Equipment and Memories. Retrieved 9 July 2015. Godfrey Talbot arrived in Cairo in August 1942, replacing Richard Dimbleby.
  5. ^ a b "How the first report from Belsen concentration camp shocked the world". Witness History. BBC News. 23 October 2022. Retrieved 23 October 2022.
  6. ^ "BBC NEWS – In Depth – Audio slideshow: Liberation of Belsen". 15 April 2005.
  7. ^ Object label for Belsen radio broadcast, by Richard Dimbleby. In permanent exhibition "The Holocaust Galleries" at the Imperial War Museum, London, United Kingdom. Retrieved 12 Jan 2023.
  8. ^ "Richard Dimbleby, "Liberation of Belsen", BBC News, April 15, 1945". BBC News. 15 April 2005. Retrieved 3 May 2013.
  9. ^ Molli, Mitchell (9 April 2020). "Return to Belsen documentary: Who was Richard Dimbleby? Meet the legendary broadcaster". Express. Retrieved 3 October 2021.
  10. ^  "Dimbleby, Richard Frederick". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  11. ^ "Dimbleby, Richard Frederick". Who's Who & Who Was Who. Vol. 1920–2016 (April 2014 online ed.). A & C Black. Retrieved 16 April 2019. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  12. ^ "ON THIS DAY – 1957: BBC fools the nation". BBC News. April 1957. Retrieved 31 March 2015.
  13. ^ Newcomb, Horace (2004). Encyclopedia of Television (2nd ed.). Routledge. p. 712. ISBN 9781579583941.
  14. ^ "Richard Dimbleby, Broadcaster", 1975. A biography written by Jonathan Dimbleby.
  15. ^ Shute, Joe (1 February 2019). "Jonathan Dimbleby on his brushes with cancer… and the lowest point of his life". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 5 June 2022.
  16. ^ "No. 37624". The London Gazette (Supplement). 21 June 1946. p. 3213.
  17. ^ "No. 41727". The London Gazette (Supplement). 5 June 1959. pp. 3706–3707.
  18. ^ "Mr. Dimbleby Dies At 52". The Times of London. 23 December 1965. p. 8.
  19. ^ Davis, Clifford (6 November 1965). "Dimbleby's illness is cancer, says son". Daily Mirror. London. p. 1. "he is very strongly opposed to the idea of cancer being an unmentionable disease..." Although the secret has been kept from viewers, it was known to friends at the BBC.
  20. ^ "Rapid expansion". Internet. The Cremation Society of Great Britain. Retrieved 2 December 2010.
  21. ^ [1] BBC Celebration of a Broadcaster, 1986
  22. ^ "Royal Mail celebrates 'Great Britons' with launch of latest special stamp collection". 17 April 2013. Retrieved 26 April 2013.

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