Saturday, 25 May 2013

A beneficent incubus

Today is the centenary of Richard Dimbleby’s birth. (The anniversary is being commemorated with this new stamp from the Royal Mail.) And on 2 June it will be 60 years since his famous television broadcast of the coronation. (So he was only just 40 when he did it – he sounds older.) Dimbleby’s style – mellifluous, paternalistic, reassuring – is often seen as symbolic of an era of broadcasting that is lost forever, for good and ill. During the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, an anxious mother rang the editor of Panorama, Paul Fox. ‘There’s only one thing I want Richard Dimbleby to do,’ she said. ‘I want him to tell me if it’s safe for my daughter to go to school tomorrow.’

Actually, there were some critical voices even while Dimbleby was in his prime. In 1956, the Daily Mirror’s Cassandra wrote that he ‘shimmers in his own unction … he swells in a glycerine respect for his subject that makes the Royal Family look like an advertisement for an immensely costly hair tonic … platitudes coming hushed, honeyed from their author, standing at waistcoated attention’.

Anthony Burgess complained of ‘those periodical Dimbleby Ubiquity Weeks’ characterised by ‘a surfect of omnicompetence mingled with upper-middle-class decency and articulacy, bulkily incarnated – an excessive dispensation of Better Self, a beneficent incubus that, lying so heavily on the chest, is bound to act like a nightmare … The Dimbleby lineaments comprise quiet decency, literacy without intellectuality, staidness untempered by quirkiness, above all an aura of utter integrity. These are rare qualities, and we have to pay heavily to get them. We have to yield our right to what makes life worth living and television viewable – namely, the unpredictable, the lunatic, the indiscreet, the inefficient.’

It’s true that about the nearest Dimbleby came to controversy was when he was told off by his bosses for mentioning his tailor on air. And it’s true that he was a Burkean conservative who liked the gentle changing of the seasons and the continuities of English traditions. His experience at Belsen, where he had delivered an unforgettable radio report as the BBC’s war correspondent, had persuaded him of the value of tradition as a way of ensuring that barbarism would never again triumph over civilisation. His coronation commentary wasn’t oleaginous, nor was it even hushed as Cassandra claimed; but its reverence was implicit.

But Dimbleby was also an absolutely wonderful broadcaster. The rhetorical flourish with which he matched words to pictures, an adaptation of the older techniques of radio to the new medium, has not been equalled since. And if you don’t believe me, listen to his masterly commentary on Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965:

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