The BBC adores David Dimbleby because he is such a safe pair of hands. But actually, how do you interview a safe pair of hands? How do you interview someone who would rather cut out his own tongue than say anything controversial? At one point during our conversation the week before the death of Queen Elizabeth, I remarked that he seemed to think the BBC was too deferential to the Royal family and he said, ‘Deferential? Oh no, that’s far too strong. Maybe too cautious.’
The nearest he came to expressing an opinion was when I asked who he thought was the best political interviewer. He said Andrew Neil. What about Laura Kuenssberg? He said Andrew Neil. I remarked, ‘The one I can’t stand is Nick Robinson,’ and he beamed and mimed zipping his lips. ‘I can’t do dog-eat-dog with you, I don’t think it’s fair.’
He has written a memoir called Keep Talking and that’s what he does – keeps talking seamlessly so that it is very difficult to butt in with a question. He also has a three-part TV series called Days That Shook the BBC that discusses occasions when the BBC came under fire, for example over the Jimmy Savile case or the death of David Kelly or Martin Bashir’s Princess Diana interview. The TV critic for this newspaper called it ‘a fascinating exercise in self-flagellation’.
I met him at his house in Pimlico. His main home is a farm on the Sussex Downs near Lewes, but he and his wife Belinda come to London for work – she works as a counselling psychologist and she was just setting off to work when I arrived. She is younger than him but he looks very chipper for 83 and is wearing rather jazzy braces.
His book starts: ‘I have been a broadcaster probably for longer than anyone on earth.’ He made his first broadcast at the age of 11, reading out requests on Family Favourites, and received 70 fan letters. Of course it no doubt helped that his father, Richard Dimbleby, was a famous broadcaster.
David was born in 1938 but, because of the war, didn’t see much of his father till he was four or five, after which he acquired three younger siblings (including Jonathan, whose great coup was getting the then Prince of Wales to admit adultery).
Dimbleby describes his father as ‘supportive’ but often absent because he was so busy. Dimbleby senior didn’t really want his eldest son to go into broadcasting because he didn’t think it was serious. ‘During the war he’d done Bomber Command and reported on Belsen, but after the war he thought it had all become very trivial. He was doing this actually rather lovely radio programme called Down Your Way and he loved it, but he didn’t think it was a grown-up job. He thought I should either be a lawyer or in the FO. I wouldn’t have got into the FO and I would have hated being a lawyer!’
Dimbleby read PPE at Oxford and got a third – ‘I am not an intellectual’ – because he was too busy editing the student magazine Isis. He was a member of the Bullingdon Club but says they didn’t do anything outrageous in those days, it was all rather decorous. After Oxford, he strolled into broadcasting, as a freelance reporter for BBC Bristol. ‘They were strange times, the ’60s. The BBC was still quite small and producers thought, maybe because of my name, we’ll try him out, so I was tried on lots of different programmes, even reading the news. It was almost a priesthood when I went in. Everybody knew everybody.’
As a young man he wrote an article criticising the BBC governors, which led to a run-in with the then director of programmes, David Attenborough, whose nickname, Dimbleby claims, was ‘the baby-faced killer’. ‘He summoned me to see him and told me that unless I removed one particular passage from my critique I would never again be able to work in politics at the BBC, although he said a place might be found for me in children’s television.’
Dimbleby presumably deleted the offending passage because he was never banished to Blue Peter. But after a few years he felt that he could not really advance much further at the BBC because his father was always in the way. ‘He was just too big.’ So he was happy when, in 1965, CBS invited him to work in the States. But he had barely started when his father died and he moved back to look after his mother and his younger siblings, who were still at school. And there was the family’s regional newspaper business to run. (Dimbleby sold it in 2001 for a reported £12 million.)
So then, back to the BBC, where he did stints of foreign and political reporting, and was eventually entrusted with state occasions and general elections, which he describes as ‘the ultimate broadcasting thrill’ – he has covered 10 of them since 1979. The trick to general elections, he says, is to keep calm and carry on talking while producers pour instructions into your earpiece, whereas the trick to state occasions is to say as little as possible.
He’s covered nearly all the big state occasions. He remembers the sudden flurry of ‘ridiculous’ planning meetings for Diana’s funeral when someone asked what tone the BBC should adopt. ‘Some people thought the reaction to Diana’s death was mawkish but I was terribly moved by it.’ He never went to any planning meetings for Queen Elizabeth’s. ‘Not at all, never. I did the Jubilee in St Paul’s Cathedral. And I love doing the Cenotaph, because you know that a lot of people are listening and they’ll mind if you don’t get it right. And then I walk back here and people stop me in the street and say, “I just listened to your Cenotaph broadcast,” and you think “Oh, I’m not just going out into the void.”’
One of his criticisms of the BBC is that he thinks it is more frightened of the Palace than it is of No 10. ‘It knows that No 10 is the enemy, whatever government is in power. It suits politicians to blame the BBC when there’s bad news and to try and cow them to do their bidding. That’s obvious. But I think the BBC finds the Palace more difficult. They regard it as a no-go area whereas I think they ought to probe a little further into, say, the costs of the Royal family and whether the monarchy is serving its purpose…
‘Young people are tending to think we should become a Republic. So it’s an important subject; you can’t just say we won’t go there.’
I speak to Dimbleby again a week after Queen Elizabeth’s death, when he has had time to reflect further on this subject, and shortly before he broadcast the final stage of the funeral for the BBC. Her death was expected, he says, but nonetheless a great personal shock. ‘It shook me, because it was so abrupt. Having seen her engaging with Boris Johnson and Liz Truss [two days earlier] – so clearly engaging with them, smiling and talking – it was a big shock.
‘Her role as head of state was carried out in public without her private feelings ever intruding on what she had to do as sovereign,’ he adds. ‘So I think people really respect that ability to define what your duty is and then keep to it impeccably through all sorts of storms.’
It remains to be seen whether King Charles will continue in this regard, Dimbleby adds, but says, ‘I was impressed by the way that Charles took over immediately. I thought that was both thoughtful and dignified, and also reminded one that whoever is sovereign, it’s the idea of a sovereign that is part of our constitution.
‘Some people seemed to feel that Britain had fallen off the end of a cliff with the death of the Queen; on the contrary it seemed to suggest that our constitution was in quite good nick.’
In Days that Shook the BBC, Dimbleby shows quite a lot of the Maitlis interview with Prince Andrew, but none of the Bashir interview with Princess Diana. I get the impression that he was slightly sympathetic to Bashir, and felt the BBC treated him badly? ‘No. Certainly not.’ It was an absolutely gripping interview though, wasn’t it? ‘It was well done.’ And she was perfectly willing to do it? ‘Yes, that’s my view. Because she had tried to get Max Hastings to tell her story and he said she shouldn’t do it and he wouldn’t touch it.’ So no one could say she was coerced? ‘No. Because I think Bashir’s questions were quite open, he wasn’t trying to steer her. But it must be pretty horrible for William having to listen to that – three of us in this marriage – all that intimate stuff.’
He says in his book that political interviewing risks terminal decline, partly because there are few long-form interviews and also so many refuseniks. He was shocked that Liz Truss pulled out of her interview with Nick Robinson last month. ‘Unbelievable. Boris did exactly the same: he let Corbyn be interviewed by Andrew Neil but when it was his turn to have his feet held to the fire, he pulled out. I really think that’s awful. I think it’s dangerous actually, the manipulation… Johnson is a particularly egregious example of someone who manipulates – over the proroguing, and the Owen Paterson business – this unnervingly dishonourable behaviour all the time.’
Margaret Thatcher used to do an interview with him on Panorama every year and although she found it was nerve-racking, she did it because she believed that politicians ought to put their case across. ‘So I am very critical if it becomes just soundbites or – worse in a way – the sort of pretence of being open, doing phone-ins and talk-ins where actually you rule. The worst thing in the world is a one-to-one interview… like you’re doing.’
Eh? ‘I mean if you’re a politician and you’ve got more than one interviewer it’s easy because you can play them off against each other, but if you’ve got, say, Andrew Neil quizzing you face to face that is really testing, and it’s also really important.’
Dimbleby is probably best known for chairing Question Time, which he did for 25 years. The downside was that it meant he was often recognised in the street. ‘I have never resented it, but it has a price. I lost my privacy in public places and became self-conscious. And it was sometimes difficult for family or friends. If I’m in Paris or Rome I can relax and stop and look in shop windows and browse in bookshops but in London I can’t. That’s the curse of TV. But it’s the only curse. Otherwise it’s a blessing.’
Were his children embarrassed by having a famous father? ‘I don’t know. I certainly was by my father. It’s an odd idea and it probably makes me very private when you ask these questions.’
He doesn’t want to talk about his divorce from his first wife Josceline because of the children. (He has three by Josceline – Henry, who co-founded Leon restaurants and wrote the National Food Strategy; Liza, an artist in Glasgow; and Kate, a singer. Then he has a son by Belinda, Fred, who works for ITN in Washington. He says they are kind enough to tell him he was a good dad.) And his book is quite startlingly un-introspective. Dimbleby shrugs. ‘I don’t know what introspection would be. I’m really interested in my work and that’s my main driving force. So that’s what I write about.’
Has he sailed serenely through life then? ‘Not at all, no. But I mean if I reach my work, it’s my solace. If I feel miserable when I’m contemplating my death, or thinking that I’m very old now, I perk up as soon as I’ve got a job to do. I feel alive when I’m broadcasting. It makes me feel that I’m doing something useful.’
So retiring from Question Time must have left a big gap in his life? ‘Yes, yes. It did. But I’d had enough of it, I’d done it for so long. There are only so many times you can get on the train with joy in your heart. And I felt I should go before I was pushed, that was important.’
They’d tried to sack him from television years earlier because they felt they should have younger presenters. ‘Several years before I left, I was taken out to lunch at a suspiciously expensive London restaurant by my immediate boss. Straight to the point, he told me that my time was up,’ he writes in his book.
‘It had apparently been decided that BBC One should take steps to appeal to a younger audience, and having younger presenters was one way of doing this.’ He was narrowly saved when the new director-general Mark Thompson came in and told him he could go on doing Question Time for as long as he liked. But eventually he chose to leave.
Did he get depressed afterwards? ‘I had a couple of years of thinking, “What am I for?” I suppose. I thought I’d get back to drawing and painting, and reading more. And I did more sailing round Devon, which is my favourite thing. The other thing I love is chairing [the board of trustees of] the Towner Eastbourne art gallery. We went through some difficult times… but we’ve now got the Turner Prize coming to us! It’s a wonderful place, full of energy and buzz, so that kept me going a bit. And then along came these projects – the book and the TV series.’
Though he enjoyed making the series, he won’t necessarily watch it. ‘I don’t actually watch much television. I find it a bit too much in your face.’ He does remember enjoying the BBC spoof W1A and thinking that it had the ring of truth, but he wouldn’t know for sure because he never goes into the TV centre these days.
Recently he had a W1A-ish moment when someone rang and said that in order to make the series, he had to go on an impartiality course. ‘He was apologetic but said it’s the new rule. So I said, “Fine. I’ll do it if I can film it and put it into the series.” And I never heard back. So I’m not impartial! I’m not cleared for impartiality!’
Of course he has been a huge BBC loyalist all his life, and its most vocal public champion. ‘That sounds a bit grand,’ he protests, ‘but I’ve always believed that the BBC is more good than it’s bad. They sometimes get things wrong but they’re not the Daily Mail, they’re not a Murdoch paper with an axe to grind.
‘The intention always is to be truthful and accurate, which is more important than ever now when there is so much misinformation, disinformation, all that “my truth” rubbish, being spread on the internet. So I feel incredibly lucky to have worked for it all my life and to keep doing for so long.
'The word privilege is overdone but it is a huge privilege to do the kind of broadcasting I’ve done and I’ve loved it.’
Keep Talking: A Broadcasting Life is out on Sept 29 (Hodder & Stoughton, £25); preorder at books.telegraph.co.uk. Read an exclusive extract in Review and tomorrow’s Sunday Telegraph