Frederick Richard Dimbleby, CBE 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.
Dimbleby was born near Richmond, Surrey, the son of Gwendoline Mabel (Bolwell) and Frederick Jabez George Dimbleby, a journalist. He was educated at Mill Hill School, and began his career in 1931 on the Richmond and Twickenham Times, which his grandfather 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 become their first war correspondent. He accompanied the British Expeditionary Force to France, and made broadcasts from the battle of El Alamein and the Normandy beaches during the D-Day landings.
During the 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. 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 de Havilland Mosquito accompanying a fighter aircraft raid on France, or being submerged in a diving suit, and also describing the wrecked interior of Hitler's Reich Chancellery at the war's end.
Married to Dilys Thomas in Copthorne, West Sussex in 1937, Dimbleby had four children, two of whom, David and Jonathan, have followed in his footsteps to become major broadcasting figures, both anchoring 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.
After the war Dimbleby switched to television, eventually becoming the BBC's leading news commentator, and is perhaps best remembered as the commentator on several major public occasions. These included 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 was the BBC's war correspondent who accompanied the British 11th Armoured Division to the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and described the scene in a report so graphic that the BBC declined to broadcast it for four days, relenting only when he threatened to resign:
...Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them ... Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.
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.
From 1955 he was the host of the flagship current affairs series Panorama. 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 programmed like the one dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Inevitably, because of his close association with establishment figures and royalty, some people criticized 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 programmed. Dimbleby also showed stamina and imperturbability in marathon election night broadcasts which ran from 10.00pm when the polls closed to around 6.00am or 7.00am the following morning.
During his time with Panorama, Dimbleby narrated the famous spaghetti-tree hoax on 1 April 1957, as an April Fool's Day joke. After commentating for half an hour on Elizabeth II's state visit in 1965 to Germany, Dimbleby uttered the minced oath, "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 again.
In June 1946, Dimbleby was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services as a war correspondent. In the 1959 Queen's Birthday Honours, he was promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
On December 22, 1965, Richard Dimbleby died in St Thomas' Hospital, London, at the age of 52.