QUENTIN LETTS: How I’ll miss the Dimbleby gravitas

David Dimbleby is the face of Question Time where he has spent over 20 years at the helm

David Dimbleby’s forthcoming departure as chairman of BBC1’s Question Time calls to mind a great Norma Desmond adage.

In Sunset Boulevard, silent movie legend Norma is confronted by a man who says: ‘Hey, you used to be big in pictures.’ Norma inhales magisterially and declares: ‘I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.’

Aged 79, David Dimbleby is still remarkably fit and lucid. He remains the most honeyed of British broadcasting’s presenters, and is seldom less than on top of his brief.

He has the handsome looks and hairline of a man 20 years his junior. Born in 1938, but still pulling off that boyish charm! And yet he is stepping down from what is supposed to be BBC Television’s flagship current affairs show. Why?

In 2010, declaring his intention to remain at Question Time, he said: ‘I shall be dragged kicking and screaming from the chair.’


Eight years on, the BBC has issued a respectful announcement that its grand inquisitor is calling it a day at the end of the year — though he will continue to work as a roving reporter, his ‘first love’. There is no kicking and screaming.

David Dimbleby pictured in 1974. The veteran TV presenter is standing down from the helm of the nationally loved Question Time

David Dimbleby pictured in 1974. The veteran TV presenter is standing down from the helm of the nationally loved Question Time

But when you heard the news that his quarter of a century running the Thursday night politics programme was ending, did you think, ‘Poor old Dimbleby, packed off to the glue factory’? Or did you think, ‘Good grief, that’s bad news for Question Time’? Many of us surely inclined to the latter.

Dimbleby deserves a rest. He has had an amazing innings and would not be human if he didn’t feel relief that he will no longer be schlepping up and down the kingdom on Thursdays. The logistics of Question Time are exhausting.

But has the programme itself not become distinctly patchy? As a result of its late hour and increasingly shrieky audience participation, it is no longer a must-watch event and no longer remotely elevating.

The thing has become a low-grade shouting match — and for months, Dimbleby has looked out of place amid all the caterwauling and grandstanding. It was the programme that got small, as Norma Desmond might have said.

Dimbleby was only the third Question Time chairman, following Sir Robin Day and Peter Sissons.

Bow-tied, big-spectacled Sir Robin was a vainglorious old boy, plainly considering himself several cuts above the ‘here today, gone tomorrow politicians’, as he called then Defence Secretary John Nott in an interview. Sissons was more the low-profile journeyman news presenter.

David Dimbley and his wife Belinda Giles at Browns Hotel. The pair wed in 2000, after first getting together in 1993

David Dimbley and his wife Belinda Giles at Browns Hotel. The pair wed in 2000, after first getting together in 1993

Dimbleby combined the merits of both men, adding a layer of good-humoured, lightly patrician tolerance.

Before he took over Question Time in 1994, the BBC wanted a woman to do the job — doesn’t it always? — but the idea of appointing Sue Lawley came to nothing.

The other candidate was Jeremy Paxman, who was felt to be a little disdainful, his salty scepticism verging on cynicism. The more positively engaged, classically balanced Dimbleby got the job.

The BBC sets, or used to set, great store by balance, which had nothing to do with your voice levels, though Dimbleby’s mellifluous tones are a large part of his TV appeal.

Nor is balance merely a question of party-political loyalties and avoiding them. That was always thought essential, at least until Andrew Marr, who was clearly a New Labour supporter, was made the BBC’s political editor at the height of Blairism in 2000.

Television presenters David Dimbleby and Selina Scott were pictured together on the Thames in London

Television presenters David Dimbleby and Selina Scott were pictured together on the Thames in London

Balance, for the old BBC, meant balance of temperament, of expression and of attitude to everything, from what you thought about judges to what you thought about the Royal Family and fashion. In all those things — with one exception — Dimbleby projected a convincing equanimity.

The exception was sport. He cannot abide it! ‘I hate all sport with an absolute passion,’ he once told a newspaper. ‘When the football season starts in August, I feel physically sick.’

His attitude to games was scarred by experiences as a schoolboy. In addition to the usual terror that some boys have of hard cricket balls and crunching rugby tackles, he was forced to play hockey, ‘which is a terrible game’.

He recounted: ‘I had to play in goal, which is extremely perilous, particularly if you are a man. They came at you with these great sticks held at crotch height.’

The Dimbleby crown jewels, happily, survived their encounter with the Charterhouse hockey pitches and Dimbleby has married twice — the first time to Josceline, who became a cookery writer, then to Belinda, a TV producer. With Josceline, Dimbleby has three adult children (Liza, Henry and Kate) and with Belinda he has a younger son, Fred.

It would certainly be fair to say there is a twinkle in Dimbleby’s eye. He is not quite suave, but he is certainly smoothly dashing. He has a hint of the bohemian, too — he recently had a scorpion tattoo inked on his shoulder.


After Charterhouse he went to Oxford University, also studying in Paris and Perugia in Italy, before joining the BBC in Bristol in the early Sixties.

Did he land his first job because he was the son of Richard Dimbleby, perhaps the most popular broadcaster of the immediate post-war years? Probably. But it would be quite wrong to suggest that David or his brother Jonathan, also a BBC presenter, owe their careers to nepotism.

They would not have been so successful if they had lacked talent, and David would not have been entrusted with commentating on events such as Princess Diana’s funeral and election night broadcasts.

For years, David — the eldest child — had to endure being described as Richard Dimbleby’s son, long after many viewers had forgotten Dimbleby Sr (who died in 1965).

So far as I know, David never resented that. In fact, he has been a proud defender of his father’s memory. Perhaps the old man taught him something of his effortless ease around politicians.

David Dimbleby David Dimbleby receives an honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Brighton in 2009

David Dimbleby David Dimbleby receives an honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Brighton in 2009

There have been memorable moments already this year on Question Time, including his recent ejection of a Left-wing member of the public who was making a nuisance of himself. This won cheers and it should, one hopes, be a caution to QT producers not to try to whip their audiences into a frenzy.

A production assistant once confessed to me that QT selects audience members for the vehemence of their views, as the shouting is ‘good telly’. Dimbleby may have taken a more mature view that it just made the show look oafish.


Then there was the time he tried lightly to tease Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg for being pukka, and Rees-Mogg replied that he had been at Eton with one of Dimbleby’s sons. Dimbleby took the riposte well. He could laugh at himself.

Some Brexiteers and some Labour supporters claimed Dimbleby was a wet Tory. But it is hard to make a convincing charge of bias against him from what he said in the studio.

For someone who spent so many hours in front of a live camera, he managed to keep his personal views remarkably quiet. And when he announced the result of the EU referendum in 2016, it wasn’t possible to tell what he felt about it. His performance was spotless.

Dignified, professional, reassuringly avuncular, he has been a steadying presence at our great national occasions and through some years of tempestuous politics. The BBC will miss him badly.

The nation should, too, for he is one of the last of the generation of broadcasters of genuine stature who reassure us that we are celebrating or mourning together.

That kind of presence is sometimes only appreciated when it is absent, as with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee river pageant in 2012, almost spoiled by the inanity of much younger BBC presenters. And if there is one thing David Dimbleby has never been, it’s inane.

Who could replace David Dimbleby on Question Time? 

Victoria Derbyshire is tipped to be in the running to take David Dimbleby's job

Victoria Derbyshire is tipped to be in the running to take David Dimbleby’s job

Victoria Derbyshire

Victoria Derbyshire, 49, a Bafta-winning journalist and presenter, is also thought to be on the shortlist. The former Newsnight presenter is famed for her gentle but dogged interview technique. She won plaudits for making video diaries of her treatment for breast cancer. 

Kirsty Young

Kirsty Young, 49, may be in with a chance after her widely-praised Royal Wedding coverage last month. The Desert Island Discs presenter was one of the original newsreaders on Channel 5 News. She also previously presented Crimewatch on BBC One. 

Evan Davis 

Mr Davis, 56, is a presenter of Newsnight. But having been found guilty of breaching the BBC’s impartiality rules last year after seemingly favouring Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election, Mr Davis’s likelihood of getting the role may be threatened.  

Kirsty Wark

Kirsty Wark is also no stranger to current affairs and news programmes, having presented Newsnight since for over two decades, since 1993.

Mrs Wark, 63, has an ascerbic, efficient interview style. Many may remember when she came to blows with the then-First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond during an interview in 2007. The BBC subsequently received over 100 complaints.

She has spoken openly about dealing with the menopause and has advocated we have a four-day work week so we have time to learn new skills. 

Newsnight's Emily Maitlis is also in the running

Dragons' Den host Evan Davis is also in the running

Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis and Dragons’ Den host Evan Davis are also in the running

Emily Maitlis

In the running for the coveted position is Newsnight presenter and BBC election coverage extraordinaire, Emily Maitlis.

The Cambridge-educated journalist, 47, has already worked closely with current host David Dimbleby when they covered the US elections together in 2012.

The mother-of-two has suffered at the hand of a persistent stalker, Edward Vines, who she met as a platonic friend at university. In January this year, he breached his third restraining order against the television star and was jailed for three years and nine months.

Mrs Maitlis was a central figure in the BBC’s recent gender pay gap row, with her agent saying it was ‘beyond madness’ that she was not among some of the best paid presenters at the corporation. 

Andrew Marr

Following a stroke in January 2013, Andrew Marr, 58, has suffered from ill health, but his efforts to continue with his Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 every Sunday have tested – and proven –his dedication to political interviewing and commentary. Marr, who earns more than £400,000, used to be editor of The Independent newspaper.

Veteran broadcaster Andrew Marr has also been tipped for the role

Jeremy Vine has also been tipped for the role

Veteran broadcasters Andrew Marr and Jeremy Vine have also been tipped for the role

Jeremy Vine

Jeremy Vine, 53, shocked the nation when he decided to take a hiatus from broadcasting to star on BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing.

Partnered with Karen Clifton, he wowed audiences with his salsa to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ on the Halloween episode.

But Mr Vine was previously known as an altogether more serious character, having presented the BBC’s The Politics Show from 2003 to 2005.

As a journalist, he has reported on the Angolan Civil War, interviewed Robert Mugabe and covered elections in Algiers and Kenya.

In September he will take over from Matthew Wright as the presenter The Wright Stuff on Channel 5. 


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