Issues & Ideas | 12th September 2014

50 years of David Dimbleby

Next year will be David Dimbleby’s 51st since he first took part in an […]


Next year will be David Dimbleby’s 51st since he first took part in an election broadcast.

It will also be his last; the presenter will be 76 by May and the BBC has announced Huw Edwards will take over thereafter. Here are five highlights from his five-decade career:

1964 — He first took part in a broadcast with his dad aged 25

The US was mired in Vietnam, the Beatles were on their first world tour and Chairman Mao still ran China.

Dimbleby had graduated from Oxford – where he was a member of the Bullingdon Club and left with a third – only a few years earlier. He may have been helped by having his father, the former war correspondent Richard Dimbleby, anchor the broadcast.

In an eager and polished pre-prepared speech from a count in Exeter, he spoke of how ‘Scrutineers and counters between them are checking the votes, not so much to get them done in a hurry out of civic pride, as to collect their fifteen schillings and get back home’.

‘Thank you son’, Richard said, as David handed back to the studio.

1970 — Interviewing Prime Minister Wilson as results come in

‘Prime Minister, Mr Heath has just said that he’s very much encouraged by the way the election’s going, what’s your feeling?’

Wilson wasn’t very much encouraged. The night ended with a near 5 per cent swing to Edward Heath’s Tories, who ended up with a 15-seat majority. Wilson would be back four years later for two more battles with Heath.

‘Prime Minister are you prepared to concede defeat?’ Dimbleby asked. ‘No, certainly not’ Wilson replied, pointing to the wild variations in the BBC’s computer throughout the night. (You can explore our seats calculator– and all the possibilities and predictions being made ahead of May 2015 – here.)

1979 — First broadcast as anchor for Thatcher’s election

‘A high poll we’re told, despite bad weather’, Dimbleby began, as he hosted his first of eight consecutive broadcasts, fifteen years after reporting from the West Country for his father in ’64.

The first co-host he turned to was David Butler, the election statistician and co-founder of the swingometer, who had been part of the ’64 broadcast and first appeared on the show as an Oxford research fellow in 1950.

He would return to Dimbleby’s side for a post-match analysis in 2010 – aged 89.

But the greatest sign of the times came when he turned to another ’64 alum: the Jeremy Paxman of the time, Robin Day – puffing on his cigar, resplendent in black bow tie, square spectacles and red pocket square.

‘It looks very much as if the Conservatives on this basis will get the votes they need…’, Dimbleby commented, as the BBC’s prophetic exit poll came in. Thatcher won and has defined every election since.

1997 — A new approach in the nineties

Not withstanding 1983’s golden set and election night’s first few female reporters, Dimbleby didn’t truly enter another era until the 1990s, when he was joined by a new generation of co-hosts; Peter Snow and Anthony King replaced Butler and Mackenzie on the results tables and Jeremy Paxman took over the interviewer’s chair.

And, in a move fitting for the decade, Rory Bremner and Frank Skinner were thrown by the corporation in for cameo appearances. Bremner popped up with a round of impressions in ’92 before giving way to Skinner’s live-broadcast-from-a-helicopter.

‘Hallo David! We’re in mid-air at the moment, where are we Alec? Might pop down for a cake. … It’s still light in the North of England, isn’t that odd?’ shouted Skinner.

While Dimbleby manned the set, Blair, Campbell and company were sitting on a private runway in Sedgefield, waiting to take off for London and slowly realising they would win in a landslide…


Another era later and New Labour was gone. Dimbleby was back in his 1997 studio, albeit with his latest cast.

All change, but David remains.