Many believe a Dimbleby should have headed the BBC’s Diamond Jubilee coverage. Does ‘Any Questions’ presenter Jonathan agree?
The framed political cartoons are what you expect to find on the walls in Jonathan Dimbleby’s house, a former parsonage in Devon. So are the photographs of him showjumping, and the small wind turbine in his garden (he’s a friend of the Prince of Wales, remember). Even the Mozart score on the piano seems in keeping. But the children’s paintings? Not so much. He is 67, after all. Yet his children from his second marriage are four and two.
We’ll come to them. For now, I should explain that I meet him here before the Jubilee weekend, and then talk to him again afterwards, over the phone. This is because I’d like to know his reaction to the deluge of criticism the BBC has received for its “inane” and “dumbed down” coverage of the Diamond Jubilee – 4,500 complaints and counting – specifically the suggestion that what it really lacked was “the Dimbleby treatment”. His brother, David, is the traditional BBC voice for such occasions, as was their father, the legendary broadcaster Richard Dimbleby.
As Jonathan Dimbleby became a grandfather for the first time on Tuesday, he was a little distracted. “But yes, I gather my family name has been taken in vain. My father would have loved the weekend. His commentary at the Coronation spoke for the nation and he would have been able to do exactly the same for the Diamond Jubilee. There has been a lot of comment about the way in which the pageant was covered. To my mind, great occasions need to have the right tone and balance and, clearly, a lot of people feel the BBC got that wrong. People have said that to me, too.”
He’s being diplomatic because he works for the BBC. But I get the impression that he wasn’t exactly enamoured of the coverage. When I suggest that it was lamentable and that the failure of judgment at the BBC can be put down to a lack of empathy by the young Turks there, he doesn’t gainsay me.
But what about that little distraction he mentioned – how does it feel to be a grandfather? “I was looking forward to it, but I didn’t know how it would feel until I picked Barnaby up and held him in my arms. It was a thrill and a delight, like holding your own baby, but without the same responsibility.”
His grandson will be able to play with his young daughters. So is he the oldest father on the school run? “I’m older than most parents at the schoolgates, it’s true, but I notice no difference in their treatment of me. I enjoy the school run, a 15-minute journey that gives me the chance to be with the girls and talk with them.”
And how, I ask, does being a father second time around compare? “I can’t remember how much energy I had before, but it doesn’t feel so different. I’m not sleep deprived. I think I am extraordinarily fortunate to have two young children as well as two grown-up ones. Because I am no longer seeking to climb the greasy poles, I probably appreciate more the miracle of children developing, and seeing them change day by day than I did, or had time to do, first time around.”
This is how he talks, by the way, in dense yet precise passages of thought bulging with subclauses, punctuated by crisp rolls of self-conscious laughter. “I adore my grown-up children,” he says. “But I sometimes think that I didn’t give them enough of my clear focus. I remember my son couldn’t bear me to go away when he was four, and the little one is like that now.”
His young children are the reason he has just given up hosting Any Answers on Radio 4 after 24 years. He is still doing Any Questions, its sister show. Surely it should have been the other way round, I say, given that it is Any Questions that takes him away from home to a different town every Friday, whereas he broadcasts Any Answers from his home on a Saturday.
“The debate of Any Questions is not something I would easily give up. You have to retain information and cross-question and challenge, not just act as a cipher for the four people on the panel. I will miss Any Answers, but it does destroy the weekend, which is the only time I can see my wife and children properly.”
We talk about bias at the BBC. Is it true the place is a nest of Left-wing vipers? “Well, Guardian readers think the bias is the other way, so we must be reasonably well balanced.”
But is there anyone who works at the BBC who doesn’t regard The Guardian as the in-house newspaper? “I just don’t buy that. Yes, of course there will be people whose natural empathy is for the views in The Guardian, but there will be just as many whose natural instinct is to read the Telegraph or The Spectator. Look at Rod Liddle. Where did he used to work?”
The Guardian! “Yes, but also the BBC, where he was editor of Today, and you wouldn’t associate his views in The Spectator with the assertion that the BBC is filled with dangerous Lefties.”
Dimbleby was intending to do more of his Journey series for BBC2, which has so far covered Africa, Russia and South America. “But I have come up against the brick wall of cuts, a fact I learnt from reading a newspaper, rather than from someone at the BBC who had remembered to tell me.”
His frustration about BBC cuts is palpable. He thinks the “bizarre marriage” between the BBC Trust (set up after the Iraq war) and the BBC is “a dog’s breakfast” and “an own goal”.
“Had there been a board of governors in place, it is inconceivable that the senior executives of the BBC would have decided that their levels of pay had to be so astronomical in relation to everyone else in the BBC,” he says. “That created great damage because it led to the perception that the BBC is filled with fat and can be slimmed down. It’s simply not true. BBC radio is strapped. My entire team to produce a weekly programme consists of a producer and an assistant. And the television programme I’ve just been filming has to work within the 20 per cent cuts, which means that my producer is also my director, sound engineer and cameraman.”
It is a film to accompany his book about El Alamein, which is being published in the autumn to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the battle. His father was a war correspondent there. One of his earlier books was a biography of Richard Dimbleby. It included some childhood memories. Has he considered writing a memoir himself? “I think the difficulty with memoir is that either you play safe and they are boring, or you are as honest as you would be with your psychiatrist and that is when they are good, but I would not wish to inflict that on family and friends.”
Blimey, I say. Jonathan Dimbleby: the dark side. “I don’t think particularly dark, but I’m not sure you can impose on others without giving them the right to respond, and if you have had a complicated life, you want to protect your children from the complications.”
It sounds opaque, but I think what he is alluding to is the break-up of his 35-year marriage to the writer Bel Mooney, a subject he declines to talk about on the grounds that there is nothing more to say. In 2003 he had an affair with the opera singer Susan Chilcott, with whom he lived until her death from breast cancer just seven months after they met. His marriage to Mooney never recovered and he has referred to the “double grief” of losing his girlfriend and his wife at the same time.
In 2007 he married Jessica Ray, who is more than 30 years his junior. How does he find the age‑gap problem of not sharing the same terms of reference? “Private life,” he says, politely but firmly.
He prefers not to discuss his interview with the Prince of Wales either, the one in which the heir to the throne admitted to adultery, on the grounds that it is “old news”. But he will tell me what he made of the Prince’s Jubilee speech. “It didn’t surprise me that it was beautifully judged. What surprises me is when people so often fail to see how good he is. He’s droll and witty. But he also knows how to be serious and I thought he showed true popular understanding to say to the crowd that if they shout loud enough his father might hear them. That was very touching. He was confident that that was exactly how that large crowd would want to respond. It showed a skill of communication that many politicians could never aspire to.”
Can he remember his father’s commentary for the Coronation? “Yes, I remember as a child being at home with a big television set with doors that closed and there was I, nine years old, thinking, ‘Oh this is so boring, let me out of here’, and my aunt kept dragging me back in to watch it, saying, ‘You must watch this, darling. It’s a very important day.’ ”
The Windsors and the Dimblebys, two dynasties linked by a microphone. There’s just something about the timbre of that voice, I say. “My brother and I make a rule not to talk about each other, but I think it is OK to say that I think he has a great gift of not only being able to describe accurately what is going on, but to have a touch that is appropriate to the occasion, quite often a light touch when necessary, and sombre when necessary. The words just come to him and he uses them well.”