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Question: so how will you remember David Dimbleby as he steps down from iconic political panel show?

As David Dimbleby leaves the Question Time chair for the final time tonight, Leona O'Neill asks six Northern Ireland figures about the time they were grilled by the veteran broadcaster

David Dimbleby
David Dimbleby
Robert McCartney
Ken Maginnis
Brid Rodgers
Mark Durkan
Rev John Dunlop
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
Incoming host Fiona Bruce

David Dimbleby is set to present Question Time on BBC One Northern Ireland for the final time this evening, before being replaced in the chair by Fiona Bruce. The 80-year-old veteran presenter, who has been at the helm of the town hall-style debating forum for 25 years, leaves a legacy of being a cool, calm, collected chairman who took no nonsense from his guests or indeed his audiences.

Mr Dimbleby, who has been described as a "titan in British broadcasting" by the BBC director general Tony Hall, last year threw out an audience member for repeatedly interrupting a panel member during a show in Plymouth.

He is also known for his sharp wit and sense of humour. It was revealed that he got his first tattoo - a scorpion to mirror his star sign - at the age of 75.

And he certainly left his mark on several Northern Ireland politicians who look back on their experiences with the broadcaster.

Former UUP MP Ken Maginnis believes he treated everyone with fairness.

Ken Maginnis

"David was always well prepared," he says. "He had a flexibility in his approach so that you never felt you were tied to his line. He was excellent in that respect. I did a number of Question Times with David. It wasn't a daunting experience. I'm not a terribly self-conscious person. I've been in more terrifying experiences.

"David was the same person off camera and on. He'd a very high degree of concentration. You knew that he picked up everything that everyone said. He worked that together.

"He would play one off the other without having to have them at each other's throats.

"He was technically very good. He would bring you together with people, it wasn't a natural thing, but you would find you had things in common.

"I wish David well in his retirement. And I would look back on our interviews with great affection for his understanding and his attempt to give the audience a fair wind as to what was actually happening."

Former SDLP MLA Brid Rodgers says Dimbleby called her "feisty" on one occasion, which she took as a compliment.

Brid Rodgers

"I was on a few times with David," she recalls. "It was very daunting because David gave you absolutely no idea what the questions were going to be and you had to guess what might be topical. He is a very formidable figure, but he did put you at ease. He obviously knew everything about Northern Ireland, unlike some. He was well informed.

"I enjoyed being on Question Time because he gave everyone a fair crack. He was challenging at times. It was hard. You were faced, on the spot, with difficult questions. You had to be prepared. You had to read all the papers in the week running up to it to make sure you were up to speed on everything.

"There was no briefing. You just went to the green room and he told you that you would have no idea what was going to be asked. The only briefing he gave us was that everyone had to behave themselves and not talk over one another.

"David was very nice and a very easy person. He was friendly. He had a glint in his eye, I would say. There was a bit of humour with him. He said to me at the end of one programme 'that was a feisty performance'. I don't know what he meant by that, but I took it as a compliment. He was never easy on you when the cameras were rolling.

"He always made you feel at ease. I would arrive full of nerves because you think this is going out to an audience across the whole of Great Britain. But he had a way of putting you at your ease that when you sat down, you weren't nervous at all. I don't know how he did that.

"I wish David well as he bows out. He has been there a long time and he really is an institution. He has been through interesting times and is leaving at perhaps the most interesting time of all. I never missed Question Time and I think he always managed to throw light, rather than heat on discussions."

Former UK Unionist Party MP and QC Robert McCartney believes Dimbleby was popular and pleasant.

Robert McCartney

"I feel that unlike Stephen Nolan, Dimbleby can conduct a very civilised form of interview," he adds.

"He didn't encourage confrontation between his guests. Nolan's technique of engendering confrontation and excitement doesn't give any light but it generates a lot of fire.

"David is a very civilised man, very pleasant and easy to talk to. And was very popular and rightly so.

"David has become an iconic figure. If you are on a programme like Question Time for 25 years then obviously you'll have a place in the public mind. David had the capacity to get the best out of his panel, but was not afraid when a statement was made by a politician to come in with a fairly acute question that would sometimes break the bubble."

Former Deputy First Minister and leader of the SDLP Mark Durkan had a brief verbal tussle with Dimbleby over the pet peeve of politicians - being interrupted.

Mark Durkan

"I was on a few times post-Agreement with David Dimbleby," he recalls.

"You were never told what questions were awaiting or what would come up. You have your own stab at predicting what the likely subject areas are.

"David would have had a short chat with everyone beforehand, nothing too chummy or familiar, just making sure everyone understood the format alright and that everyone on the panel knew of each other. He would have issued a warning on a Northern Ireland panel about people remembering that it was a network audience and not to trade in too many local arguments.

"I remember in one of the programmes Martin McGuinness kept interrupting me. And then I came back on a point and David called me out on it. And I told him he wasn't chairing the debate very well because he was allowing someone to keep interrupting.

"That was the only bristle point I ever found myself having with him."

There has been some criticism of Question Time "dumbing down" with the inclusion of celebrities on the panels in recent years. Hugh Grant, Charlotte Church, Will Young, Jarvis Cocker, Steve Coogan, Carol Vorderman and Russell Brand have made appearances.

But Mr Durkan thinks this criticism is unfair. "There is probably enough talk from political heads on programmes at times so I don't think it's dumbing down as such to have celebrities on," he says. "When you look at some of the Brexit exchanges there are between politicians you can't get much dumber than those.

"Sometimes what we call celebrities are people with different insights from their own social or cultural experiences, people with their own personal, family or community background and perspective that you don't maybe find in Parliament, and that provides a different side light on an issue."

He feels new presenter Fiona Bruce will have her work cut out.

"I think, like everyone else, she'll spend the first few weeks suffering from comparisons and a lot of them won't be fair and indeed will be contrived and exaggerated," he says. "We'll all pretend that we are experts on David Dimbleby and how he would have handled every question and every argument.

"I would wish David well and no doubt he will turn up in all sorts of ways. His broadcasting persona is a good one. It's personable and affable, whether he is doing it as a panel chair or as a commentator, he has an easy broadcasting manner which is why people naturally warm to him."

Retired Presbyterian Minister the Rev John Dunlop appeared on the show at a pivotal moment in history.

Rev John Dunlop

"I was on with Gerry Adams and two other people," he says. "It was coming towards the end of the Troubles.

"I would imagine that Adams was the main attraction because that would have been the first time he was on UK television. He would have been well known by name and reputation to a UK audience.

"I think I said to Adams on the programme that his problem was not with London, it was with his neighbours, people like me. And he would need to make peace with people like me.

"I found David professional, confident, assured as one would expect. Confidence can sometimes shade over into arrogance and I found on one occasion that he interrupted me in the middle of saying something that was, to my mind, quite important.

"And I thought to myself, I know more about Northern Ireland than you ever will!

"You don't know ahead of time what the questions are going to be, so you have to be prepared for what you are going to be asked. You just have to do your best, that is the nature of the programme.

"You always have to have a certain amount of nerves in a programme like that. Nerves are good. I was used to being on television so it didn't scare me as such. But you go on those programmes thinking you have something important to say and hope that you get an opportunity to say it.

"I wish David well. He is a very good and distinguished broadcaster. And I wish Fiona Bruce well. It will dominate her life, her life will never be the same again if she is travelling around the country to a different city every week. It is a very formidable undertaking."

The DUP's Sir Jeffrey Donaldson remembers having many "robust" discussions on Question Time.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

"Question Time is probably the most daunting programme that a politician can appear on," he says. "Because you are never sure what the audience is going to throw at you. I always found David Dimbleby utterly professional in the way that he handled the programme. He is quite an incisive panel chair who has a reputation for taking no prisoners, but at the same time I think that he has managed to maintain the prestige of Question Time, following on from the likes of Robin Day, who was always going to be a hard act to follow.

"David was the same behind the scenes as he was when the cameras were rolling. He was very down-to-earth and very friendly. He was one of those media personalities who perhaps was more grounded than others despite him being a personality in his own right in the public view. I found him to be quite a humble person.

"I remember doing a programme just after the Saville Inquiry had reported and it was quite a robust programme about the events of that Sunday in Londonderry and I thought he handled it very well."

Mr Donaldson says that Mr Dimbleby has "earned his retirement".

"I've always had a high admiration for Fiona Bruce," he adds. "I think she will continue in the tradition of Robin Day and David Dimbleby. I think Question Time will continue to be a very popular programme for audiences that are very difficult to attract these days for politics. I think Fiona Bruce is more than capable of keeping Question Time up there in terms of its audience share.

"And I think David has earned his retirement well and I'm sure he will continue to keep a close watch on politics. He is leaving at a time when politics in the UK has become utterly fascinating. I'm sure in some respects he probably has reservations about leaving now but he's going out on top of his game."

David Dimbleby's final Question Time airs tonight at 11.20pm on BBC One Northern Ireland

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