James Kirkup

Jonathan Dimbleby’s Any Questions? was the BBC at its best

Jonathan Dimbleby's Any Questions? was the BBC at its best
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The recent history of the BBC is a tale of two Dimblebies. David, the elder, enjoyed the higher profile on television, but at a terrible price: his latter years at Question Time saw him acting as ringmaster for a programme that had become a 'show', a three-ring circus of shallow anger and offence.

Now Jonathan, the younger, is retiring from Any Questions?, the Radio Four programme that served as a weekly reminder of what the BBC can be when it remembers its real purpose and stops worrying about being popular.

For a generation – 32 years, to be exact – Jonathan has spent Friday nights in town halls, schools and scout huts, chairing with acerbic asperity a serious conversation between serious people about serious things.  If it was David’s fate to oversee the decline of British political culture into vitriol and Twitter, Jonathan was the angel of our better nature.

A glance at the list of AQ shows in the last year offers a reminder that this was a programme that was looking far beyond the comfortable liberal metropolis long before London started sipping lattes and the political class fixated on the quiet and (in the best way) provincial folk who live far from the capital and ultimately decide the outcomes of elections and referendums.

Henfield Hall in West Sussex; The Fisher Theatre in Bungay, Suffolk; The Dunoon Burgh Hall; Bridlington Priory in East Yorkshire.  These are the places you could find Jonathan Dimbleby on Friday nights, refereeing a debate between cabinet ministers and senior backbenchers, fielding questions from retired teachers and members of the Women’s Institute.

Smug, elitist, complacent?  No doubt a certain sort of BBC manager recoils from the idea of AQ, a self-selecting group of people interested enough in politics and current affairs to take themselves along to the village hall of Ottery St Mary on a damp November evening in the hope of being called by the great man to ask a question about the hypothecation of tax or the situation in Yemen.

But AQ was surely what the BBC should be, the essence of public service broadcasting: unapologetically earnest, constant in format and tone.

Not only that, it was doing 'audience engagement' long before the term was even invented; Any Answers? is sometimes a glimpse into Hell itself, and it was telling that Jonathan D gave it up long before the main programme. But again, it gave the people who cared enough to call up the chance to talk – in depth – about the things that they thought important.

The retirement of another Dimbleby gives the BBC another chance to reflect on its purpose and mission. At Question Time, the appointment of the excellent Fiona Bruce has restored a bit of pride and severity, but the programme is still a long way away from what it was under Robin Day: too many 'personalities', too many panellists with 'controversial' opinions.

So what should the BBC do with the post-Dimbleby Any Questions?. Absolutely nothing.

Doubtless, given the Corporation’s unquenchable thirst for change, the temptation will be to change things, to pick a chair who will take a new and refreshingly different approach, or even – please, God, no – 'update' the format. Edward Stourton, Anita Anand, perhaps my old colleague Emma Barnett: these are the serious, no-nonsense broadcasters AQ needs next – journalists who understand why Jonathan Dimbleby was so good at what he did, and want to be as good themselves.

As a true supporter of the BBC and a devoted fan of AQ, my heartfelt wish is to turn on the radio one Friday night this autumn and get half-way through an episode of AQ before I even notice that there’s someone else sitting in the Dimbleby chair.  Life is change, but change doesn’t have to mean difference.

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of the Scotsman and the Daily Telegraph.

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