Adventures with Dimbleby 

20 February 2017

From The Television Annual for 1955, published by Odhams Press and edited by Kenneth Baily.

Richard Dimbleby on the TV job. Left-to-right: In an iron-ore mine in the Lake District; aboard a Port of London fire-fighting vessel; weighed in an old London wine shop; and doing a fireman’s slide at the London Fire Brigade Headquarters.

Producer STEPHEN McCORMACK reveals what has gone on in making the London Town and About Britain programmes

For five years I have presented Richard Dimbleby in London Town and About Britain. We have gone together to dozens of widely different locations; and I have never found him to be anything but the genial, accomplished professional that he appears on your screens. It has been a happy partnership — but then, I have looked after him so well!

For instance, I dressed him in a diving suit to go under the Thames, and I squeezed him down a manhole into the sewers below the streets of Clapham! I gave him a bus to drive on the “skid patch” at Chiswick, and had him race on a fire-engine round Piccadilly Circus. In the City we have been to the Stock Exchange and to Lloyd’s, to the great warehouses of the Port of London Authority, to the Whispering Gallery at St. Paul’s. Ever solicitous, I have weighed him on the scales at an old wine shop in St. James’s. It was interesting to find from the records there that Richard was heavier than the Aga Khan, and that Beau Brummel was a mere stripling by comparison.

But don’t let me suggest that London Town has been merely the vehicle for a lot of light-hearted adventures. We both have affection and respect for the history and traditions of our capital city. The underlying idea of all our programmes has been to quicken in the Londoner — if he needed it — some new interest in the romance of his birthplace, and to show the rest of Britain some of the varied stories in the life of the world’s greatest city.

As a documentary producer I had one major problem to overcome before we could launch such a series. I was determined to let some air blow through the programmes, and to get more action and excitement into the stories than could possibly be arranged in front of our studio cameras.

The blending of film shots into studio sequences, a technique that we helped to pioneer, is now an accepted part of television; but when we began to experiment there was very little experience to build upon. It has been fun proving that we can have any exterior location we wish, filmed in advance, and then add our studio reconstructions to complete the story.

Film background of a London street makes a studio reconstruction of Richard Dimbleby’s tour of London’s dustmen. This blending of film and studio work has been a feature of the ‘London Town’ and ‘About Britain’ programmes.

I still receive letters from viewers saying “Will you please settle a family argument — my husband says that when Richard Dimbleby appeared to be on the river he was really in the studios, but I insist that he was really in the boat.” The answer, of course, is that both the indignant wife and her husband are right! My job as producer is to plan in advance with my scriptwriters — Peter Hunt and Stephen Hearst — the vital second when we cut from film to the reconstruction of the same location in the studio. I would like to explain that we use this technique so that we may roam about at will and yet save time and money—two vitally important considerations.

It was in January, 1952, that we extended our programmes to cover the whole of Britain, and we have moved about using this technique as each new area was opened to viewers by the increasing chain of transmitters. We have been able to range from the heart of England — in Warwickshire — to early spring in the Lake District, and to high summer in Scotland. We have also visited North Wales and the Scilly Isles; taken the waters at Bath; travelled down the south coast of Cornwall to Land’s End; and visited Edinburgh, as the capital of Scotland prepared for the Coronation visit of Her Majesty the Queen.

Sometimes the business of getting our heavy sound cameras to remote locations has led to a few complications.

To travel to Rothesay, in the Isle of Bute, we had to use a tank-landing craft (provided by Lord Bute) to ferry our large truck over from Colintraive to Rudhabodach. I cherish the sight of an imperturbable BBC driver, sitting at the wheel as he drove on to the ferry. As the front wheels ran down the ramp, the ferry sank, until the waters of the loch were lapping over his front wings. And then the ferry began to move away from the shore! Some wild heaving on the tail end of the van followed, with wild Scottish cries mixing with our soft “southern” voices; but, suddenly, the dead weight of the truck slid forward with a lurch, and we were triumphantly afloat.

We had a problem getting the same van away from our locations when “hound trailing” in the Lake District. Heavy rain during the end of our filming quickly converted the slopes of the hill farm into a morass. The rear wheels skidded hopelessly, and we had to ask the farmer to lend to us, to put under the wheels, some new wire mesh which he had ready to make a fence. Another farmer produced a tractor, and we inched our way agonizingly slowly back on to the main road. When I got back to London there was a certain amount of correspondence concerning the ruined wire mesh. I liked the memo I got from our Administrator: “Don’t get enmeshed in this business!”

‘About Britain’ takes Dimbleby to Edinburgh. Here producer Stephen McCormack’s film unit is seen shooting Richard in an old part of the Scottish capital – Gladstone’s Land in the Lawn Market.

We once filmed a rescue scene on the top of Snowdon. I used two film cameras shooting simultaneously to get good continuity, and also to save repeating the dizzy climb. We sent the film off to the labs in London, and waited for the report. Back it came: “One camera giving some fine night sequences, but how are you going to join them together?” The altitude and cold had affected one camera. Sadly we assembled the rescue team and went up to the top again.

When we went to the Isles of Scilly the only regular boat, The Scillonian, was short of the heavy lifting gear required to hoist the camera car on board, and we were helpless until the Trinity House vessel Satellite — on a journey to Bishop’s Rock Lighthouse — came to our rescue.

Down in Cornwall we had arranged to film the romantic St. Michael’s Mount — the home of Lord and Lady St. Leven. The Mount is joined to the mainland by a narrow causeway over which one can walk at low tide; but the tide comes in very fast. On the day in question we got the vehicles over safely; but Richard Dimbleby was late. I saw him arrive at the mainland end of the causeway, and drive on to the sands. His car promptly sank up to its hub-caps! It was interesting to watch the pantomime that followed.

Realizing that the tide would not be high enough to get across by boat, Richard abandoned his car to some fishermen on the shore and began to run across the causeway as the tide began to cover it. A cynical cameraman began to offer bets as to whether he would get across without a soaking, and we stood and cheered on this bulky figure skipping agilely along the causeway. He got across in time, but for the last few yards every step was accompanied by fountains of sea and foam.

On my previous visit to the area I had been with Peter Hunt to Mevagissey, a lovely little fishing village. We were looking at the road that winds round the cliff, and at the colour-washed houses that hang over the harbour, when I noticed a fisherman joining us. I imagined that he was going to offer us a trip round the bay, and prepared to answer him. He took his pipe out of his mouth, tipped his blue peaked cap on to the back of his head, and said: “Are you gentlemen looking for your back-projection shots?” This, from a local fisherman, startled us. But it turned out that he had advised on a Clark Gable film that had been shot there, and he had been up to London to keep an eye on the studio reconstructions.

A studio reconstruction of the Dimblebys’ Dutch barge, ‘Vabel’, on the Thames, in a programme about London’s river. Mrs. Dilys Dimbleby, Sir Alan Herbert and Richard toast the fourth anniversary of the ‘London Town’ series.

Last year we were allowed to board the Walmer Lifeboat to go out with a crew to the sinister wrecks on the Goodwin Sands. It was a glorious day, with a stiff breeze and a good swell, and we looked forward to some fine action pictures. We neared the wrecks, and the coxswain turned the lifeboat so that we could get close to the spars of the wrecks sticking out from the boiling seas. We were hanging on with excitement and getting some lovely shots when, without warning, a huge wave came up and completely engulfed the boat!

I can tell you that it is an odd feeling to find salt water running down inside one’s neck and pouring away over one’s shoes. As the wave cleared I looked to see if Ken Higgins, the cameraman, was still with us. He had been hanging out over the side rather perilously. Yes, he was there all right. He wiped the water from his face, looked rather glumly at his saturated camera and said, “Stephen, it’s not a film camera you need for this job — you should have asked for a flipping underwater television camera!”

My long association with Richard Dimbleby prompted him to ask for me to be with him in Westminster Abbey, when he learned that he was to be given a “Number Two” for his Coronation commentary. My job was to keep a telephone line open to the producer, Peter Dimmock, and to make sure that at every important change of camera angle Richard had the proper place in the official list of personages. I had also to be a general dogsbody. It was the most exciting day in my television career.

From our cubicle in the Triforium, high above the Altar, we could look down on that most solemn and glittering scene. On our television monitors we could pre-view all the shots covered by our cameras in the Abbey, and could see the excitement of the crowds as they roared a welcome to the Queen as she left Buckingham Palace. I know that we had the most complete and exciting view of the whole wonderful ceremony, and I shall always be grateful to Richard for asking for me to share it. Some of my friends, who know nothing of the skill and art of a Dimbleby commentary, assumed that being “Number Two” to Richard meant that I would take over the commentary, if for any reason he could not continue. I was able to tell them that my instructions, if such an unfortunate event happened, were very simple. I was to ring Peter Dimmock at once — so that he could plug in immediately to John Snagge’s commentary on sound radio!

I have only seen Dimbleby at a loss for words once. It happened during our first visit to Stratford-upon-Avon. We were filming an interview at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre with Sir Ralph Richardson, Mary Ellis and Anthony Quayle. This distinguished trio were filled with admiration for Richard’s quick grasp of their explanation of the problems involved in their new season — then just about to open.

“We’re all actors,” said Sir Ralph, “and we can go on the stage to speak lines that we’ve learned, but the thought of this impromptu conversation in front of a camera is terrifying.” Richard replied, modestly enough, that after all he had had a lot of experience in this apparently casual business and that he was sure they would soon feel at home. “O.K., camera — action!” called out John Rhodes, our film director, and the interview began. But it did not continue for long, for Richard forgot his questions and “dried up” completely! The good-natured laughter that followed put everyone at ease, and after that the filming was completed in record time.

For our kind of programme we are eternally interested in people, seen in their own surroundings as themselves. I believe that as new television stations open in the Commonwealth countries there will be a great opportunity for us to exchange programmes; and I should like to think that some of our journeys across London Town or About Britain could be shared by British people wherever they may be.

External links

  • See Radio Times listings for London Town over on the BBC’s Genome Project.
  • See Radio Times listings for About Britain over on the BBC’s Genome Project.

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