Richard Dimbleby, Remembered

Richard Dimbleby has been commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at Cedar Court, Sheen Lane, East Sheen; the flat he first lived in with his wife Dyls when he was delivering some of his earliest radio reports, including that on Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s return from Munich.

 

On behalf of the family, David Dimbleby said “We are delighted that our father has been recognised in this way.  It makes London so interesting to know where people lived. Long live the blue plaque scheme.”

Richard, had a 30 year career in radio and television. By the time of his death at the age of 52, he had become the nation’s most famous broadcaster. He joined the BBC in 1936 as its first reporter – a “news observer” as he was called – filing on-the-spot reports from all over Britain and soon establishing his reputation as a ground-breaking broadcaster. He became the BBC’s first war correspondent and reported from some fourteen countries during the Second World War, notably from the Middle East, with Bomber Command, when he recorded the first broadcast description of a bombing raid (Berlin in 1943). Two years later, he was the first reporter to describe the horror of the Belsen concentration camp. Later he was among the first to enter Berlin, where he broadcast from the ruins of Hitler’s bunker.

Perhaps Dimbleby’s greatest impact was on the fledgling medium of television: he was the BBC’s commentator at the Victory Parade of June 1946, the funerals of George VI, Queen Mary and President Kennedy and the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953, a landmark event in the history of British broadcasting which attracted 20 million viewers. Another of his memorable commentaries was on Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965, when he himself was gravely ill. From 1955 until his death, Dimbleby anchored the BBC’s new flagship current affairs programme Panorama; among his best remembered of these broadcasts was the spoof documentary on spaghetti growing shown on April Fools’ Day in 1957. He was also anchorman for the BBC’s coverage of the 1955, 1959 and 1964 general elections.

Dimbleby was born into a journalistic family; his grandfather was the owner of the Richmond and Twickenham Times and it remained in the family until 2002. His first job was on this paper, when his father was editor; it was here that he met his future wife, Dilys. Dimbleby then graduated to the Bournemouth Echo and the Advertisers’ Weekly, before joining the BBC in 1936 as a sub-editor in the news department. After the war, he left the BBC’s payroll to become editor-in-chief, and later Managing Director, of the family newspaper firm. He worked freelance for the BBC from then on, becoming a fixture on the radio programmes Twenty Questions and Down Your Way, for which programme he reckoned to have interviewed five thousand people.

Early in 1960, Dimbleby noted the first symptoms of what turned out to be testicular cancer. Despite treatment and a period of remission, the cancer returned, but he worked until just a few weeks before his death, when he went public with his illness which was still largely taboo. When he died in December 1965, his memorial service at Westminster was broadcast live by the BBC and shown later on ITV as well. He is the only broadcaster to have been honoured with a plaque in Poets Corner. After his death, using funds donated from the public, his family set up the Richard Dimbleby Cancer Fund, re-launched as Dimbleby Cancer Care in 2008.

Jonathan Dimbleby, chair of Dimbleby Cancer Care added: “I think my father would be delighted that the projects supported by Dimbleby Cancer Care, which were made possible initially as a result of public donations after his death, continue to this day. This is due in large measure to that original support and to the funds we continue to seek to sustain this vital work.”’

Howard Spencer, blue plaques historian said: “Dimbleby was at the forefront of the BBC’s early television coverage of current affairs and politics and became one of the best known post-war television commentators. At his death, a tribute book published by the BBC ventured that ‘great broadcasters are ephemeral. They are enjoyed and, sooner or later, forgotten.’ Nearly half a century later, this has been proved wrong: Dimbleby’s work is not only remembered, but frequently cited as having set a benchmark for broadcasting standards.”

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