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.
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.
The problem with parliament is that you have to be there at 9.30am on the dot, said Pickles. Dimbleby’s interjection was at once light-heartedly teasing and utterly merciless. ‘Like a job, you mean?’ he chipped in, to gales of audience laughter.
‘Eric Pickles did a thing which is absolutely fatal on Question Time: he tried to flatter and schmooze the audience,’ Dimbleby says. ‘You can’t do that because the audience is made up of people who watch Question Time. They’re up for it and well briefed.’
Personally, I find Question Time audiences terrifying. In another age, I can imagine them in mobs chasing old women down the street and baying: ‘Burn the witch!’
Not only do their politics come across as aggressively, cantishly liberal-left (the episode immediately post 9/11 being a particularly egregious offender, when a viciously anti-American audience howled down the US Ambassador), but they seem worryingly susceptible to cheering the most outrageous drivel, including the, to my mind, meaningless platitudes delivered by regular panellist Shami Chakrabarti.
Needless to say, Dimbleby begs to differ. Indeed, he believes the audience are the most important part of the programme. ‘I tell them this before it starts. I say: “It’s your programme and you must say what you think”,’ he says. And they generally do, groaning and booing and saying ‘rubbish’ whenever they sense one of the panellists is talking out of his hat.
‘Quite often you’ll have a minister coming up to me afterwards and saying: “I never realised they felt so strongly about that issue”.’ And no, he insists, the audience isn’t biased. How can it possibly be when it is carefully selected to represent as broad as possible a cross-section of society?
For the 150 places on each programme there are an average 500 applicants. These applications are then vetted by a ‘professional woman’ who spends an entire week sifting through them.
First, they are divided on party political lines; then by age, by sex and by ethnic make-up (the last weighted according to the broadcast location: for example, more blacks and Asians for an inner-London programme than for one in Cheltenham). Finally, to weed out any faint-hearts, they are told: ‘You realise this isn’t a programme to watch. It’s a programme to take part in.’
This month, Question Time celebrates its 30th birthday. It was born on September 25 1979, more by accident than design, and was never intended to last. The BBC had block-booked a London studio for the Parkinson show.
But, by Roy Hattersley’s account, ‘the governors decided that five consecutive nights of Michael Parkinson was more entertainment than the viewers could stand. So two days were set aside for something solemn. Robin Day – out of fashion but with years of his contract still to run – had nothing to do except write angry letters to the Director-General denouncing the declining standards of British television. Question Time was invented to make sure that for a week or two neither the theatre’s rent nor the performer’s retainer were paid in vain.’
The reason it has survived so long, believes Dimbleby, is its ‘simple formula’. ‘It meets an obvious public need: for politicians to be questioned by the public.’ But what it very much isn’t, he adds, is an updated version of the Brains Trust. ‘This isn’t a BBC presentation of British politics as the BBC sees it. It’s an entertainment programme, designed to excite people about political ideas.’
To this end, Dimbleby is not averse to encouraging a bit of argy bargy. Sometimes, he jabs in the sword himself; sometimes it comes from the mutual animosity of the panellists, as during the infamous episode when Private Eyeeditor Ian Hislop laid into Mary Archer (voted by viewers as their all-time favourite Question Time moment); and sometimes from his beloved audience, as when during the memorable broadcast from Grimsby – just as the Telegraph’s MP expenses scandal story was beginning to break – they tore into the MPs on the panel with relentless savagery.
‘Mrs Beckett, when are you going to give back the £72,000 you’ve taken after your mealie-mouthed answer trying to explain yourself? And Mr Campbell, how the HELL do you get through £800 a month on food?’ asked an angry-sounding woman.
‘It was an electrifying edition,’ Dimbleby recalls. ‘Everybody’s eyes were out on stalks, for here was the voice that terrified politicians. It was the first time they had met an audience since the expenses scandal broke, and the audience were ready to tell them exactly what they thought.’
It had a dramatic effect on the ratings too, causing audience figures to leap from 2.8 million to 3.8 million – a level at which it has more or less held since. To Dimbleby, this is further evidence that the expenses scandal marks a watershed in political history. ‘In 45 years I’ve never seen such a great gulf between politicians and the public.’
Indeed, he feels almost sorry for them. ‘It’s difficult for politicians. They claim to be part of the real world but they’re so protected from it their contact actually tends to be a bit sketchy. What they all believe and what the public believe are not the same thing.’
The best Question Times, he says, are ones where there’s a ‘whiff of danger – a feeling that someone is going to be derailed or fight a good point’. He likes the idea of a show ‘living on its nerves, unleashing the audience on an unsuspecting politician and encouraging intellectual conflict’. At the same time, he wants to give everyone a fair say – but not to the point where they start ‘pontificating’.
He has a fairly relaxed policy on personal abuse. ‘Politicians have got broad shoulders. Douglas Alexander didn’t seem to mind too much when David Starkey called him a “silly little man”.’
Starkey, in turn, was expected to take it on the chin when Dimbleby told him to ‘shut up’. (‘It’s the sort of language he uses and he was being so rude to the audience.’)
As for the episode when Hislop had a go at Mary Archer (‘Whenever the Prime Minister is accused of sleaze his first response is: “Look at all the Tories who are in jail.” Your husband is the reason Tony Blair gets away with it in parliament’), Dimbleby felt no urge to step in. ‘She tried to play the “poor me” card and Ian called her on it,’ he says.
I try to draw Dimbleby on his favourite Question Time moments but it’s no use – first, because he doesn’t remember (‘I never watch the programme and when it’s over all I’m thinking about is making the next one as good as it can be’) and second, because of his cautiousness when venturing anything that might sound like a political opinion.
Reading between the lines, though, it’s obvious that the politicians who most delight him are the Machiavellian operators (at one point, he goes into near raptures about the way someone like Lord Mandelson can say one thing with words, and the opposite with his ‘wryness of tone’ and his ‘signals with his hands and eyes’) and the ‘principled’ ones, like Geoff Hoon and Harriet Harman, who don’t run away from trouble. ‘However rough the water is, they’ll always come on the programme because they believe in their cause,’ Dimbleby says.
It’s a safe bet that he holds what he calls the ‘refuseniks’ – politicians who won’t come on the programme – in much lower esteem. Among these are Gordon Brown (no appearance since Labour came to power in 1997), Tony Blair (last appeared 2001), John Prescott, Jack Straw, John Reid and David Blunkett.
According to one of the show’s producers, politicians are more scared of going on Question Time than they are of being on Newsnight. Ann Widdecombe still shudders at an episode recorded in the dog days of the Major government when, as she sat down, the audience booed. Frank Dobson said his advice to a colleague about the show would be not to go on it.
Dimbleby’s explanation is that politicians can’t bear being out of control. ‘What they most dislike is the unexpected, the question that catches them off guard and the humiliation of being publicly mocked. BBC interviewers do not mock, Question Time audiences sometimes do,’ he once said.
The politicians prepared to brave the programme are provided by their parliamentary offices with extensive briefing notes and often coaching sessions, too, so that they know what their party’s official line is on any issue likely to arise. No panellist knows what the questions will be until they’re asked. Audience members submit a question the night before and the production team decides which ones to put forward.
Some subjects seem to excite an audience far more than others. As a rule, Dimbleby says, you won’t get much of a response if you talk about parliamentary matters, the BBC, or tricky ethical issues like euthanasia, abortion or IVF.
Far more ‘bankable’ are subjects like knife crime, drunkenness, drugs, the NHS, Afghanistan and, above all, the Iraq war. ‘That always gets people going,’ he says of the latter.
The biggest improvement to the programme since he has been at the helm, Dimbleby says, was the decision to increase the size of the panel from four to five. ‘The politicians all hate it because they have less time to speak and it means they can no longer gang up as they did to squash the hapless journalist or comedian on the panel.’
Doesn’t he find himself cringing, though, at the inanities that sometimes pour forth from celebrity panellists like Jarvis Cocker or Will Young?
‘Of course we’re taking a big risk when we have comedians and singers and showbiz types generally, but it’s a risk worth taking. Some of them, like Frank Skinner and Marcus Brigstocke, are excellent. And when you have someone like Will Young on, you’ll get perhaps 300,000 to 400,000 new viewers, none of whom will have watched the programme before.’
It has a high proportion of under 25 viewers, giving it by far the biggest youth profile of any political programme. Among the most popular guests, as voted for mostly by its younger viewers, are Tony Benn, Shirley Williams, Michael Heseltine, Boris Johnson and, yes, Shami Chakrabarti.
Needless to say, Dimbleby won’t tell me what he thinks of any of these people himself. He once said that he thought journalists with too strong a political position sometimes blinded themselves to important stories. Does this mean that over the years he has managed so perfectly to hone his position of neutrality that he no longer has any political views of his own?
‘I do have very strong political views,’ he says. ‘But as with most people, I’m a muddle of opinions, with views that don’t tally precisely with those of any particular party. I never tell anyone how I vote. Not my children. Nor my wife.’
As he says this, his eyes twinkle in that familiar David Dimbleby way you see on television when he’s said something catty and wants to soften the blow.
‘Crikey, what an operator!’ I think, at the end, when he engages me in some mildly flattering banter about an article of mine. He charms but never lays it on so thick that you feel you’re being practised on.
Imagine if he’d gone into politics: he could have been so devastatingly manipulative that he would have made even Lord Mandelson look like a clumsier version of John Prescott. Thank the Lord that instead he stuck to television.