Peter Dimmock: Television pioneer and master of the deal

The death of Peter Dimmock, age 94, should be marked as the passing of a remarkable television pioneer. Among many firsts in television, Dimmock was the man behind the remarkable images of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation and the man who negotiated, smooth talked and cajoled a host of sports administrators and promoters to allow the BBC in to their events and on to our screens.

I interviewed Peter at his home in Norfolk on three occasions between 2008 and 2009 as part of my research into the history of television sport. His generosity of time, his razor sharp memory and his humour shone through many hours of conversation, and helped reveal to me why over a period of three decades he blazed a trail in television outside broadcasting.

As the Head of Television Outside Broadcast’s, a role he later designated as ‘General Manager’, Dimmock oversaw the first live broadcast from an aeroplane, the first trans-continental television transmission, the first international satellite transmission, presented the first regular television sports magazine programme Sportsview, was the first on British television to use a ‘teleprompter’ (autocue) and the first to negotiate television coverage of the Grand National and many other sporting events on television.

At one time, in the late-1960’s, he was arguably among the most experienced and most powerful people in the BBC and British broadcasting more broadly. His own modesty, however, would not allow him to concede he held such a position, but his international reputation in brokering deals for the Olympic Games and the World Cup ultimately led him to be head hunted by American networks keen to capitalise on the Dimmock charm.

Dimmock went to school at Dulwich College in South London, following in the footsteps of other distinguished Old Alleynians including Sir Ernest Shackleton and P.G. Wodehouse. He subsequently studied in France before the outbreak of war. As a member of the Territorial Army he was called up for service in 1939 but in 1941 transferred to the Royal Air Force as a pilot for Army Co-operation Command.

In 1942 he became a flight-lieutenant flying instructor, and by the end of the War was a staff officer in the Air Ministry working for the Directorate of Flying Training. It was here, as a strident young firebrand officer, that he learned how to manage other young men, and foster his own style of charismatic leadership.

On demobilisation, Dimmock weighed up his options and took inspiration from his journalist mother. “I was in the Air Force”, he once told me, “and couldn’t decide whether or not to get a job or go to university. My mother had been a writer, she wrote for The Strand magazine and she was a very good writer. I must have ended up with some of her genes. I wanted to be a journalist so I joined the Press Association straight from the Air Ministry.” He became a junior racing correspondent for the Press Association sitting across the desk from Peter O’Sullevan, later the voice of horse racing on the BBC.

He didn’t stay long in the PA, and soon joined the BBC to work in the recently relaunched Television Service. He revealed how his RAF background helped him get a foot in the door: “Of the four of us called to the final interview, two of us had been in the Air Force, the other two hadn’t. Of the three people doing the interviews two had been in the Air Force, so guess who got the jobs? I and Keith Rogers who was the other chap. He and I got the jobs.”

At this time, the BBC remained staunchly focused on radio broadcasting, with television something of a novelty sideshow. The BBC’s attitude to sport was framed by its public service tradition, which Reith famously believed would educate, inform and entertain its audiences in equal measure. The role of the BBC was to act as ‘social cement’, producing a common culture shared by all. In an interview for the BBC’s oral history project from the 1980’s, Dimmock revealed what it was like in the pioneering years of television just after the war.

Dimmock revealed why sport and outside broadcasts became so important to the BBC: “With OB, dash it, they depended on us enormously for the overall audience figures. Sportsview, I suppose when you think about it now and it may sound ridiculous, but we had a regular audience of about 11 million. Which in those days was huge. All our events, our royal events and things in those days, they all got enormous audiences.”

Dimmock spearheaded the BBC’s television coverage of the Coronation in 1953, an event that boosted television ownership across the UK. The major coup was getting the BBC’s cameras in to Westminster Abbey. As he recalled, the establishment view was against such coverage, although the young monarch was not as resistant as many have since reported: “A Channel 4 programme had claimed Prince Philip wasn’t keen on TV. Not the case. Both he and the Queen from the outset said they would agree to whatever the Cabinet decided. The real problem was Churchill. He said to me across the table, ‘Peter, why should the public see more than I when my own view is not that great.’ Churchill’s was very much the establishment view. It was all about privilege. My greatest ally was George Campey of the Evening Standard. I kept feeding him all manner of things, which I probably shouldn’t have done. But he was very important in getting cameras in to the Abbey.” The sixtieth anniversary of the coverage was celebrated in this short BBC news item on ‘How the Coronation Transformed TV’ which includes an interview with Dimmock in 2013.

The popularity of television convinced the then Conservative Government that the BBC required competition from commercial television to help the medium grow to all parts of the UK. In response to the threat the BBC launched Sportsview in 1954, a topical studio-based sports programme fronted by Dimmock and edited by the programmes originator Paul Fox.

The programme landed a coup on its second outing when Fox received a tip off from Norris McWhirter, later of Guinness World Records fame, that Roger Bannister was attempting to break the 4-minute mile. Although the programme could not show the filmed race that evening, they whisked Bannister to the studio straight from Iffey Road in Oxford to be interviewed by Dimmock at Lime Grove in London. It popularised the programme which Dimmock presented for a decade and confirmed the BBC’s place at the centre of British sporting achievement.

Dimmock also fronted the first episode of a Grandstand in 1958 as a safe pair of hands, before giving way to the new face of sport David Coleman. Here, in an interview with Steve Rider in celebration of the programme’s fortieth anniversary, Dimmock recalls how the programme began.

Through the late-1950’s and into the 1960’s Dimmock’s role as negotiator became vital to keeping the BBC ahead of its commercial rival. Following the launch of Eurovision in 1954 Dimmock became the head of sports negotiations on behalf of the European Broadcasting Union, frequently travelling the globe to meet and smooth talk international administrators of sport. Again, his modesty in opening the way for global television coverage of sport shone through in his praise for the institution he worked for: “When I travelled all round the world, it was so wonderful. It was the fact that I was from the BBC that they gave me a great deal of respect, and help, and courtesy. Which was entirely because I was BBC, nothing to do with me.”

There were tricky moments, such as the years of negotiating with the Topham family for coverage of the Grand National. Or the time when due to illness he could not fly to Paris to sign the television deal for the 1970 Mexico World Cup and was temporarily usurped by ITV who signed an exclusive deal, only for this to be reneged by the EBU\. On a more inauspicious occasion, Dimmock passed a local newsagents in London to see headlines that the BBC had been sued by boxing promoter Jack Solomons for breach of contract. Angry and confused Dimmock called the promoter to complain only to learn it was all a promotional ruse to boost tickets sales for a major championship fight.

ITV repeatedly courted Dimmock offering him a much larger salary. “I very nearly went”, he revealed, “but they would not give me in my contract the right to call in regional outside broadcast units.” Granada in the north wouldn’t agree, so he stayed with the BBC.

After moving on from Outside Broadcasts in the early seventies Dimmock spent a couple of years establishing the international sales of BBC programmes for the new BBC Enterprises. Again, Dimmock was ahead of his time establishing a new commercial revenue stream for the BBC now so crucial to its top line of income. He was so good at his job that he soon had major American networks headhunting him for his negotiating skills. Dimmock employed a New York lawyer who let the bidding war commence. Dimmock sat back and awaited a lucrative deal with ABC to became one of the highest paid British executives in television.

The legacy of Peter Dimmock reaches far in television outside broadcasting. Under Dimmock’s management, and with the support of innovative editors and producers such as Paul Fox and Bryan Cowgill, the BBC set the standard for the coverage of sport in Britain in the middle-to-late twentieth century. But more than that, he helped shape the way the BBC addressed a national audience through televised sporting events. It was often paternalistic, but the emphasis on promoting the positive values of sport to a broad audience, sharing key moments of victory and defeat, and opening up a wider international perspective on sport from across the world, were Dimmock’s major feats. They are values that remain at the heart of public service broadcasting, and represent one of the few remaining occasions where significantly large numbers of people share in the communal ritual of watching sport on the box.

Richard Haynes is author of BBC Sport in Black and White to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016.

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