Sunday’s great fiasco on the Thames


By Kenneth Roy

The memory of Richard Dimbleby has been much invoked in the last few days, since Sunday’s great fiasco on the Thames, as someone who would have conferred the necessary gravitas on a gravitas-free occasion. Failing the father, who enjoys the marginal advantage of having been dead for some time, it is widely suggested that the sons David or Jonathan – perhaps both for the price of one in these double-dip times – would have done the trick. That leaves the holy ghost as the understudy.

Jonathan’s former wife Bel, one of those ranting about the inadequacies of the BBC’s coverage of the great fiasco, would have favoured some form of Dimbleby. I see where she’s coming from (as they say), but I am not at all convinced she’s right. In the socialist household of my upbringing there was an anti-Dimbleby prejudice from which I have struggled to recover. He was never forgiven in this household for his performance on the night of the 1955 general election when he assured us – though I was only a wee boy at the time – that he was a ‘professional neutralist’. He failed to repeat this assurance later in the night, when Churchill was returned as the member for Woodford and the professional neutralist announced to the nation: ‘Biased as it may sound, I say hear hear to that’.

We have to be grateful that people like Paxman and Wark, the professional neutralists of our time, do not say ‘hear hear’ to anything or anyone very much. Scepticism is the essential lubricant of modern journalism and Dimbleby didn’t do it. He was built for a more deferential age, when institutions and traditions seriously mattered. He has been replaced by a ceremonial remnant, wall-to-wall showbiz, and a bladder infection.

He would have sounded – well, more than a little odd. With his copious notes he would have made the regatta even more boring than regattas usually are. He was a man of his time. That time is as utterly changed as the skyline of the City of London, more dramatically transformed than I suppose most of us had imagined. We had hours to look in wonder, or despair, or disgust, at those shining new temples to Mammon in the financial crucible of the most divided city, socially and economically, in the western world; so divided that a group of young workers (on £2.60 an hour) were abandoned under a bridge at 3 in the morning in the service of Her Majesty. The camera lingered on these distant temples, though not of course on their human victims, because, paradoxically, the opportunities for visual restlessness were restricted by the stasis of the platform party.

Would I, as the live OB practitioner I used to be, have changed the narrative in a similar situation? How close would I have come to admitting that the platform party looked cold, uncomfortable, even unwell?

How grimly stoical the old queen looked. But then she had a lot to be grimly stoical about. Eamonn Holmes, the Northern Irishman on Sky News, said that the royal barge reminded him of a floating Chinese restaurant on which he had once dined. The resemblance was so strong that Holmes wondered if it might have been the same barge. The thrones left vacant by the monarch and her husband, presumably on grounds of taste, seemed to me more Las Vegas than Chinatown. But it was brave of Holmes to utter the only irreverence. When the ordeal became almost unendurable, he dared to hope that it would end soon. Did he speak at that moment for Britain? I fear not. A seizure almost orgasmic in nature had overwhelmed our friends in the south. But he probably spoke for the faintly detached rest of us.

The more grimly stoical the old queen looked – though she looked more miserable still during the exhibition of comic singers the following night – the more the broadcasters were at pains to emphasise that she was thoroughly enjoying herself. It is always difficult to depart from a narrative, the narrative in this case drawing on hopes – of sunlight, heat, the good health of the main protagonists, national unity – none of which the divided city delivered. So the BBC and Sky stuck to this narrative even as the evidence before our eyes suggested that all was not well with the old folk in the Chinese restaurant.

Would I, as the live OB practitioner I used to be, have changed the narrative in a similar situation? How close would I have come to admitting that the platform party looked cold, uncomfortable, even unwell? Would I have been true to journalism or true to patriotism? The broadcasters in this real situation came down on the side of patriotism, and I expect the pressures on them to do so must have been intense. Even the cheeky chappie Holmes, whose employer is a republican, stopped short of the brutal truth – that someone was very likely to end up in the A and E department.

And – or but – it was an inexcusably English afternoon. I kept thinking of all the theatrical producers who might have made something of it. The choreography was woeful. The Englishness was, however, damagingly worse than the rotten production. I believe the Waverley is still afloat. The sight of that old paddle steamer, reminding us of Rothesay holidays in 1952, would have cheered Scottish hearts; and it would not have been hard to rustle up a Welsh male voice choir; and no doubt the same Eamonn Holmes would have been delighted to arrange some rousing cultural ambassadors from Northern Ireland.

Four performing boats would have been enough, including the English one we actually got, which carried the London Phil and six hypothermia victims on deck. The absence of that variety of national cultures which once gave lustre and meaning to the union was surprisingly upsetting. It might well be over as an idea, this union – but if this was the symbolic end it was a feeble one.

Once all the boats had come home, there was a bleak and haunting sound – of ships’ horns over the river. It was a sound to make the angels weep, assuming they had not already taken cover. It had the quality of an elegy. For what, or whom, is still to be worked out.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review