The Greatest TV Reporter in History
My wife, Peggy, and I are unabashed royal watchers. We subscribe—and look forward to every month—the Brit magazine, Majesty. Whenever we are in London, we try to visit the Queen’s Gallery off Buckingham Palace, because the Royal Family has one of the greatest private art collections in the world and the exhibitions there are changed regularly.
So surfing DirecTV over early morning coffee on Friday, August 31, I stumbled on the BBC live coverage of the memorial service commemorating the 10th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana and was hooked.
It is the BBC that invented TV coverage of great national events—funerals, coronations, state visits and weddings. In terms of preparation, what to say, when to speak and when to shut the hell up and let events unfold, no one does it better than the BBC.
If you are ever called upon to make a speech or give a business presentation, the person to emulate is the BBC’s—and television’s—greatest broadcast journalist, Richard Dimbleby.
The Dawn of Television
The beginning of the television age can be pegged to a precise date: June 2, 1953. Remarkably, the place was not the United States, but Westminster Abbey, London. The event was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and the question of television coverage generated a serious brouhaha.
In the first place, it was felt by British upper classes that the coronation ceremony itself should not be available to the lower classes, because it might be watched by people drinking beer, wearing hats and carrying on conversations. In the words of the British Web site, www.whirligig-tv.co.uk:
The Coronation Joint Executive Committee was the body ultimately responsible for the Coronation arrangements and epitomized the Establishment of the times. This august group decided in the summer of 1952 that to have live television inside the Abbey during the Coronation would impose an intolerable emotional strain on the young Queen. The bright lights and their heat could easily prove to be a disastrously heavy burden on a long exhausting day.
Moreover, it would deprive a then privileged class of peers and peeresses of the exclusive opportunity of witnessing at first hand the crowning of the new Queen. The Cabinet reviewing the Coronation arrangements on 10 July 1952, agreed that no facilities should be provided for television inside the Abbey.
When [Prime Minister] Sir Winston Churchill conveyed to the Queen in October the unanimous view of her leading advisors, and of the Cabinet, that she should not be subjected to the ordeal of live television during the Coronation, she courteously reminded him that it was she who was being crowned, not the Cabinet, and she felt that all her subjects should have the opportunity of seeing it.
Not many television sets were available at the time, but those Brits that had one invited the neighbors in. Other viewers crowded into movie theaters, public halls and pubs, making up an estimated audience of 20 million. It was the first time that more people saw a program on television than heard it on radio, and following the broadcast, the sale of TV sets in the UK shot through the roof. The marathon broadcast was transmitted from 10:15 a.m. to 5:20 p.m., and was a triumph. Much of its success was due to the camera work under the direction of Peter Dimmock and the flawless narration of England’s most famous commentator, Richard Dimbleby.
(At the end of this story, you will find several hyperlinks to Dimbleby’s broadcasts, including a snippet from Westminster Abbey that June morning in 1953.)
Dimbleby and Murrow: Two of a Kind
Broadcast journalism was born in World War II. I can remember the family clustered around the radio listening to the broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow from London, frequently punctuated by the explosions of German bombs.
Where CBS had Murrow and his “boys”—Eric Sevareid, Robert Trout, Charles Collingwood and William L. Shirer, to name a few—the BBC had Richard Dimbleby. To the British, Dimbleby’s voice was as famous as Murrow’s was to Americans. He broadcast radio dispatches throughout the War, from Africa, Normandy on D-Day and Europe. In addition, he flew 20 bombing missions with the RAF.
When television replaced radio as the news medium of choice, it was Richard Dimbleby who set a standard of broadcast excellence that has never been duplicated. In 1962, New York Times writer James Feron described the hulking Dimbleby as a Falstaffian figure “who dominates the nation’s television in a way that has no equivalent in the United States. Richard Dimbleby’s success has been attributed to an inhuman mastery of the job and ability to maintain command over any television situation.” Feron wrote.
Where another announcer would be content with a general description of the route that some dignitary is taking though London, Mr. Dimbleby knows the names of the horses in the procession, the names of the flowers at Victoria Station and countless other seemingly meaningless details that add color and vigor to the program.
TIME titled its story about the BBC television coverage of Princess Margaret’s marriage to Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, “The Flight of the Dimbleby.”
As Americans watched the wedding of Britain’s Princess Margaret on NBC-TV last week (see FOREIGN NEWS), they heard a flow of murmured Mayfairisms that were almost as impressive as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s solemnity. It was the sable-tongued voice of Richard Dimbleby, a tall, benign, Pickwickian commentator so unfailingly proper that he all but calls the thing in his hand a Michael. Dropping sterling syllables into the air from his glass-paneled aerie 60 ft. above Westminster Abbey’s nave, Dimbleby lived up not only to his reputation as England’s best commentator, but to his nicknames—”Bishop Dimbleby,” “Dick Dimbleboom,” and “The Royal Plum Pudding.”
Winston Churchill’s Funeral
I was first aware of Richard Dimbleby on January 30, 1965, when I watched the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill on a tiny black-and-white television set in my fourth-floor walk-up in Manhattan. This was long before satellite transmissions, and the kinescopes were flown by jet from London to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they were relayed to the United States. “Richard Dimbleby, the veteran BBC reporter of state events, offered a superb commentary,” wrote New York Times TV critic Jack Gould. “His detailed knowledge of every unit in the procession and his eye for accurate detail left his American counterparts far behind.”
Fast Forward 40 Years
In October of 2004 I noticed the 40th anniversary of Churchill’s passing was coming up and I called Jim Mundy, archivist of the Union League Club in Philadelphia, to suggest the event be marked with a dinner. Mundy agreed. We put together a program that featured author James C. Humes, who has written numerous books on Churchill, and is a splendid lecturer. Humes so looks and sounds like Churchill that by the end of his lecture, you’d swear you had spent the evening in the presence of the great man.
The Union League managed to serve a truly dreadful dinner—rubbery roast beef, overcooked vegetables and a tasteless pudding for dessert—hardly befitting the memory of the savior of Western Civilization, who was, among other things, a great trencherman.
Prior to Humes’ talk, we ran excerpts from the BBC’s coverage of the funeral: the procession from St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Tower Hill dock, with commentary by Richard Dimbleby, and an inspiring tribute by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower to his World War II colleague.
Richard Dimbleby gave a magnificent history lesson as he described in fascinating and exhaustive detail the campaigns of every military unit that marched as well as the origin and meaning of every stripe, medal, weapon, insignia, button and bearskin hat of the uniforms as they went by and the landmarks passed. When Dimbleby had something to say, he said it in low-key, mellifluous tones, as though he were a private guide whispering into your ear. More often than not, he remained silent, allowing the worldwide audience of 350 million to savor the pageantry and music and to gather our personal reflections on a grand life and the inevitability of death.
During the 45-minute video, the 150 members of the Union League and our guests sat in rapt silence. Dimbleby did not engage in idle chitchat with other reporters. He did not refer to Lady Clementine Churchill as “Clemmie.” Randolph Churchill’s alcoholism and contentious relationship with his late father were not mentioned. Neither were the amorous escapades of Randolph’s ex-wife, Pamela Digby, with Edward R. Murrow, Averell Harriman, John Hay “Jock” Whitney and Fiat’s Gianni Agnelli, earning her the sobriquet, “The Last of the Great Horizontals.”
The Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan Funerals
In contrast, at President Ford’s funeral, all the highly-paid television news personalities referred to the former First Lady as “Betty”—as though they were chums. These colossal egotists assumed that ad lib prattle was far more interesting than the beautifully rehearsed marching military units. So they blathered on about Ford’s mastectomy and drug and alcohol addiction.
At Ronald Reagan’s funeral I recall Paula Zahn’s voice-over during the prelude in the Washington Cathedral mentioning that one of the stained glass windows contained a piece of moon rock brought back by one of the astronauts that someone had given to the cathedral.
I remember wondering, which window? Which moon walk? Which astronauts? Why was a moon rock in a window to start with? Who gave it to the cathedral?
Were Richard Dimbleby narrating the event, he would have prearranged with the director to have a camera pan over the windows and pause at the “Scientists and Technicians Window,” designed by Rodney Winfield of St. Louis. Embedded therein is a 7.18-gram basalt lunar rock from the Sea of Tranquility donated to the Cathedral by the crew of Apollo 11—Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin and Michael Collins, who was an alumnus of St. Albans School, which is part of the Cathedral complex.
Instead of Zahn’s uninformed drivel, we would all have learned something and felt enriched by this bit of knowledge. Mercifully Zahn was recently fired by CNN for abysmally low ratings.
The Worst of the Worst
The worst reportage of such an event was the state funeral of Ronald Reagan. Throughout the day, all the television reporters called the former First Lady “Nancy”—not Mrs. Reagan—as though they were on a first-name basis with her. They chatted about her movie career, her marriage and her style.
Meanwhile the cameras continually zeroed in for close-ups of this frail, elegant lady, who was obviously distraught and wearing huge eyeglasses that made her look like a deer in headlights as she clutched the arm of her official escort, Army Major General Galen Jackman.
For Mrs. Reagan and the entire cortege, it was a horrifically long day. It began with the state funeral in Washington, D.C., and ended with the internment at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., 3,000 miles away in a time zone that added three hours to the length of the day.
In the late California afternoon following an early start in the nation’s capital and a five-hour flight to California, the prying television cameras continued to violate Mrs. Reagan’s privacy with their obscene close-ups. Finally, at the very end of the day, the nattering news ghouls, like hunters after a quarry, got what they were hoping for—a shot of Mrs. Reagan collapsing by the coffin in tears and exhaustion as her children rushed up to grasp and comfort her.
This was sleaze journalism at its worst.
The Princess Diana Memorial
This column was triggered by chance—my stumbling onto the memorial service for Princess Diana on the 10th anniversary of her death, with the details and guest list arranged by her sons, the Princes William and Harry.
In true BBC style, the service was allowed to proceed without interruption, so that we felt we were actually there. Since television viewers did not have printed programs, the BBC hosts quietly announced each selection of music—Rachmaninov, Mozart and four hymns, concluding with Diana’s favorite, “I Vow To Thee, My Country.” In addition, the speakers were quietly identified as they stepped to the podium: Prince William; Prince Harry; Diana’s sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale; and The Right Reverend Dr Richard Chartres, Bishop of London.
My only regret: Dimbleby was not there. During the arrivals and departures before and after the service, the BBC people clearly did not know who all the attendees were. They might point out Prince Michael of Kent and his children, but I wanted to know precisely who was who. Dimbleby would have known and in his reverential and unobtrusive manner, would have quietly identified everyone—not just Elton John and David Frost, but also the royals, Princess Diana’s friends and representatives of the many charities that the late Princess espoused.
Winston Churchill’s funeral on January 30, 1965, was Richard Dimbleby’s farewell appearance. A heavy smoker—40 cigarettes a day—Dimbleby died the following December at the age of 52 after a five-year battle with lung cancer. In June of that year, Edward R. Murrow—who was never seen without a lighted cigarette—died of lung cancer at age 57.
Both men were masters of the broadcast media who intuitively understood and respected the intelligence of their audiences. They were aware that the news event, and not themselves, was of paramount importance. Their words were chosen with precision, their diction flawless and their message always easily understood.
We shall not see their like again.
- Anthony Armstrong-Jones
- Charles Collingwood
- Dick Dimbleboom
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
- Edward R. Murrow
- Eric Sevareid
- Gerald Ford
- Jack Gould
- James C. Humes
- James Feron
- Jim Mundy
- Michael Collins
- Passing Winston Churchill
- Paula Zahn
- Peter Dimmock
- Princes William
- Princess Margaret
- Queen Elizabeth II
- Richard Dimbleby Narrating Queen Elizabeth
- Robert Trout
- Ronald Reagan Funerals
- William L. Shirer