It’s a glorious late summer’s morning at David Dimbleby’s palatial Sussex residence on the edge of the South Downs. (At least I’m guessing it’s palatial – he did, after all, once sell his family newspaper business for £12 million – but our interview is being conducted well away from journalists’ prying eyes in the agreeable converted barn he uses as an office.)
Among the off-limits subjects we shan’t be discussing today are: His first wife, (cookery writer) Josceline; their three grown-up children (including successful restaurant entrepreneur Henry); his second wife, Belinda; their 11-year-old boy Fred; his little brother (and alleged massive rival) Jonathan; the BBC; his personal politics; his hobbies; pretty much any other aspect of his private life whatsoever.
You’d think these constraints would make him the interview subject from hell but they don’t in the slightest. First, because he has such a warm, friendly, thoroughly endearing way of ducking unwelcome questions. Secondly, because the subject we have come to discuss, the BBC’s political panel show Question Time, offers more than enough material to while away the next coffee-fuelled hour.
Dimbleby, 70, has been chairing it for 15 years now. Sufficient time to confound all those critics who predicted he was too genteel or too reserved (or even too old, some said) to make any impact in the role made famous by the irascible, flamboyant, bow-tie-wearing Sir Robin Day (and rather less famous by the interim office holder Peter Sissons).
‘I don’t think he’d approve at all of the way I do it,’ he says of Sir Robin. ‘Robin always placed himself at the centre of the programme, whereas I’ve tried to do the exact opposite.’
The two worked together for a decade, covering party conferences for the BBC. Dimbleby remembers Sir Robin coming back from an interview he’d done with the Home Secretary and asking what he thought. ‘Well I don’t think he said anything particularly new,’ said Dimbleby thoughtfully. ‘Not his answers, you fool. My questions,’ Sir Robin said.
Dimbleby has a mischievous sense of humour. Later, by way of illustrating the kind of routine he has heard perhaps just one time too many from the Question Time panel, he breaks into an impromptu impersonation of Tony Benn. ‘What people forget ish that I wash in the Shecond World War. Don’t tell me about war. I know what war ish like. I wash a fighter pilot. I know how terrible war is.’
Together with his quick, ready wit, this puckishness can make him a deadly host. We saw a splendid example of this recently in his skewering of Tory Party chairman Eric Pickles. Pickles was flounderingly attempting to justify why his parliamentary duties made it absolutely essential for him to keep a second taxpayer-subsidised home, despite the fact that his principal residence is only 37 miles from Westminster.
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