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Jonathan Dimbleby’s final Any Questions? review: He will be much missed

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Jonathan Dimbleby
Jonathan Dimbleby Credit: Andrew Crowley

After 32 years in charge, Jonathan Dimbleby concluded his final appearance as the chair of Radio 4’s Any Questions with a rousing endorsement of the BBC and its values. “People say that Any Questions is a jewel in Radio 4’s crown,” said Dimbleby in wrapping up Friday night’s instalment of the touring panel discussion programme, which had taken place at Hope Chapel in Bristol. 

“Radio 4 is a jewel in the BBC’s crown,” he continued, “and is one of many, and that’s because for all of its flaws, the BBC remains a peerless public service broadcaster. And though navigating through very choppy waters, is still committed to those founding principles: education, information and entertainment. Long may these, and Any Questions, flourish.”

Any review of Dimbleby’s final outing on Any Questions will inevitably also be a review of the whole 32 years of his place at the helm. It’s a testament to his professionalism that this episode was, until the unexpected but passionate homily in the closing moments, a civil discussion between people with different views, just as it usually is. 

The final edition of Dimbleby’s tenure was an accurate representation of his three decades on the programme. The pace was brisk, the opinions incisive and Dimbleby was amiable but in control. If he had to clear his throat right at the beginning to get rid of a few nerves — or was it a flicker of emotion? — his command of the programme was never in doubt.

Jonathan Dimbleby Credit: JAY WILLIAMS

As a host, Dimbleby has shaped the debates on Any Questions to be more constructive and less formal than its combative BBC counterpart, Question Time, which was until recently chaired by his brother David. Question Time is about fireworks, whereas Any Questions has more of the spirit of the old-fashioned public meeting about it, with an attendant sense of community and respect. 

The panel comprised David Blunkett, Chris Patten, and newspaper columnists Amanda Platell and Polly Toynbee. They were broadly evenly split politically, yet their voices were almost as one in criticism of Boris Johnson and the potential for a no-deal Brexit, opinions which went down very well with a clearly Remain-supporting audience (Bristol West voted strongly Remain in the referendum).

There was a relaxed, end-of-term feel to proceedings as Dimbleby let his panel get away with slightly more than he might otherwise have done, only chipping in to challenge them when things really did veer off course.

And what of the future? Dimbleby was briefly interviewed on the Today programme on Friday morning, where he said emphatically that he believed the general quality of public debate had worsened and that social media has coarsened discourse.

Perhaps he’s bowing out of Any Questions before the dying art of civil discussion is lost forever. But Dimbleby's message was not to give up on it just yet. Tellingly, his sign-off was full of optimism: “For now, from Bristol -- and Hope Chapel, which happens to be close by Joy Hill -- goodbye.” He will be much missed.