British Public Affairs Programme

The longest-running current affairs programme anywhere in the world, Panorama has long been among the most influential of all British political commentaries. The first programme was broadcast in 1953, but the format was quite different then, with a magazine-style approach. The original presenter was newspaper journalist Patrick Murphy, though he was soon replaced by Max Robertson. Alongside them were roving interviewer Malcolm Muggeridge, art critic Denis Mathews, book reviewer Nancy Spain, and theatre critic Lionel Hale, who all made their varied contributions to the fortnightly programme.

Everything changed in 1955, when the programme was relaunched under the slogan "window on the world". With the new look came a new anchorman, Richard Dimbleby, who over the next few years did much to establish Panorama's reputation for determined investigation into important political and social matters on behalf of the viewing public. Politicians were suddenly obliged to take the programme seriously, and senior members of the government soon learnt that their standing in the polls could very easily depend on their performance on this, the BBC's current affairs flagship.

In 1961 Panorama achieved a notable first when Prince Philip agreed to be interviewed by Dimbleby, thus becoming the first member of the royal family to make such a television appearance. Dimbleby was impeccably courteous, but nonetheless extracted from the royal guest the sort of things the viewing public wanted to hear.

The show has had its lighter moments, however. Perhaps the most memorable of these was the April Fool hoax perpetrated by Richard Dimbleby when he delivered a straight-faced report on the state of the Swiss spaghetti harvest, delivered while walking between trees festooned with strings of spaghetti. Many viewers were taken in and rang the programme to ask how they may obtain their own spaghetti plants; the producer suggested that planting a tin of spaghetti in tomato sauce might do the trick.

The late 1950s and early 1960s are sometimes looked upon as the "golden era" for the programme, but this belittles its continuing achievement, which has kept it at the forefront of investigative programmes, despite the burgeoning of often very competent rival programmes on other networks. It remains the case that the headlines on the morning after the programme often reflect what has been discussed on Panorama the night before, and prominent politicians freely admit that appearances on the programme have played a key role in furthering or hindering their careers and even in deciding the results of both local and national elections over the years. In view of the influence wielded by the programme, any political bias that has been perceived in its editorial approach has led to furious rows in Parliament, and to repeated affirmations by the BBC that this, perhaps still their best-known current affairs programme, will remain resolutely non-affiliated.

Among the most notable of Richard Dimbleby's successors in the chair of Panorama have been his son David Dimbleby, Robin Day, who set a new standard in the hostile interviewing of reluctant political guests, Alastair Burnet, Charles Wheeler and Robert Kee.

-David Pickering


Photo courtesy of BBC


Patrick Murphy, Max Robinson, Richard Dimbleby, Nancy Spain, Denis Matthews, Lionel Hale, Christopher Chataway, John Freeman, Michael Barratt, Michael Charlton, Trevor Philpott, Leonard Parkin, Robin Day, David Dimbleby, and others




See also British Programming; Dimbelby, Richard; Royalty and Royals and Television