Richard Dimbleby 

1 June 2001

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is more than 20 years old. The formatting may be strange, links broken and/or images missing. The text may have been superseded by subsequent events or later research.

For covering general elections, the BBC’s television producers knew that television was the ideal medium for the big event. Leaving aside the internal politics of the time that demanded radio news take precedence over the visual variety, the BBC would need to prove television election coverage could work and work well.

Only one man could do it. Richard Dimbleby, the BBC’s star television interviewer and the voice of radio news reports during the war, brought gravitas to the live production, but more importantly he provided his skills in live television and his practically unlimited stamina. The results programme he thus created became the benchmark by which all future election coverage would be measured – to the point that his sons continue his style as the voice of election night for the BBC and ITN.

The rehearsals for the 1955 election programme – which saw Eden returned as Conservative prime minister – had begun early on the Thursday morning. The BBC team continued to work through to the programme went on-air just after the polls closed, and Dimbleby was on-screen almost continuously until dawn. The BBC closed down briefly to allow the technicians and presenters to rest, before returning in the early morning for more coverage. Peacock reports that Dimbleby returned to the studio with the greeting “Short night, wasn’t it?”

The programme continued throughout Friday and finished with a final round-up on the Friday night. Dimbleby and his team had been in the studio for the best part of two days and the BBC had been given the idea of having him anchor Panorama every week from September of that year.

Richard Dimbleby’s two-day election programmes soon became famous all over the world and shaped how other broadcasters in the west covered their government’s elections. “The secret of his extraordinary command of the situation during these very complicated and exacting programmes”, according to Michael Peacock, “lay in the card index of information about each constituency, which was prepared for him beforehand.”

This card index went wrong in the 1959 election programme. As rehearsals got underway on the Wednesday before polling day, it became clear that the index was incorrect and vastly incomplete. The entire programme was based around the index, so it appeared to be an impossible situation.

But not for Dimbleby. “He took off his coat,” reports Peacock, “and lived with the index from then on, going through each constituency card with Stanley Hyland who was drafted in to help. Together they worked right through the Wednesday night. So in 1959 he had no sleep the night before he began his marathon. An extraordinary man!”

The October 1964 election – which brought Labour, under Harold Wilson, into Number 10 for the first time in over a decade – was to be Dimbleby’s last. By this time he was clearly dying of the cancer he had been suffering from for more than four years and would kill him in December 1965.

Despite this, Dimbleby would not listen to suggestions from management that he take greater rest periods. Instead, he saw the programme right through. For him, and the country as a whole, it was an exciting night. Not only did Alec Douglas-Hulme’s Tory party fall from power, but also Khrushchev was ousted – by somewhat different means – at the same time.

Dimbleby managed to combine both stories, and the programme used the opportunity of a foreign news story to obtain an interview with the soon-to-be Foreign Secretary, a tired and emotional George Brown. Mr Brown and Robin Day, the interviewer, managed to get into what may be the first recorded incidence of an out and out argument between broadcaster and interviewee.

When Day finally stopped Brown mid-rant and handed back to Dimbleby, the great man uttered one of the biggest “scene stealing” lines in televisual history – turning to the camera and saying “And a Merry Christmas to all our readers!”

But perhaps his most memorable election quip was during the morning lull in results. In this period, the news agencies used the quiet time to double check figures and publish corrections. From the teleprinter arrived a correction, which gave a single extra vote to the losing candidate in a two-horse race – no effect on the result at all.

It was handed to Dimbleby, and with a straight face he announced, “our apologies to the voter in this constituency whose vote I’m afraid we overlooked.”

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