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Britain and the States: TV probes the special link. Host David Dimbleby talks about new series and its aims

By Arthur UngerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 12, 1988



New York

``Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan have established the closest relationship of any American president and British prime minister in history,'' said David Dimbleby, the BBC's major political commentator. ``However,'' he added, ``the Churchill-Roosevelt relationship will turn out to be far more significant in the long run.'' Mr. Dimbleby was in New York to interview inside observers of recent history for his seven-part series, ``An Ocean Apart,'' which delves into the changing relations between the United States and Britain from the World War I to the present day. (It starts airing on the Public Broadcasting Service on Monday, 9-10 p.m.)

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Like many British hosts of PBS series, Dimbleby has discovered that a little promotion goes a long way in selling the book that invariably accompanies the series - in this case, the companion volume he wrote, with the same title as the series.

Mr. Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher - closer than Roosevelt and Churchill? Can that really be true?

``In this series, we investigate both those relationships,'' Dimbleby explains. ``Of course, the stress on Roosevelt and Churchill was far greater, the issues much larger. And the characters were much grander. But it was never forgotten by either Roosevelt or Churchill that Roosevelt was an anti-colonial Democrat and Churchill an old-fashioned high-Tory colonialist. Therefore, their political instincts were diametrically opposed. Neither forgot it, and they had to override that to achieve what special relationship they did manage to achieve.

``But there was no natural affection. In the series, Churchill's secretary reveals that Churchill once said: `Never did a man study the whims of his mistress as carefully as I studied the whims of Roosevelt.' It was a deliberate plan to flatter and cajole and eventually persuade, whereas with Thatcher and Reagan you have an instant collusion of identical political views. They're far closer than Churchill and Roosevelt ever were, but, of course, in circumstances that, while troubling, are not on quite the same gigantic scale as conducting a world war.''

Dimbleby, a ``presenter'' of current-affairs programs on BBC, is the eldest son of Richard Dimbleby, the BBC's chief correspondent and commentator during World War II. The elder Dimbleby was known to millions of Americans as the voice announcing the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. His son has been the presenter for ``Panorama,'' ``24 Hours,'' and ``This Week Next Week,'' as well as host of ``The Dimbleby Talk-In.''

In researching the series, Dimbleby and Cambridge historian David Reynolds tried to concentrate on people on the periphery of history talking about recent events as history, rather than going to Thatcher and Reagan, for instance, to ask them to talk about themselves.

``We got a nice interview with Richard Perle [US assistant secretary of defense from 1981 to '87] about Mrs. Thatcher's visit to Camp David, for example. He told us they spent a lot of time talking about things like the Strategic Defense Initiative. The great thing about having President Reagan confer with PM Thatcher was that she was the only person the President would listen to on some issues. I think when he came into office he was thrilled to find a fellow spirit in Mrs. Thatcher, one who believed, as he does, that Russia is indeed an evil empire intent on world domination and must be stopped. At that time, most of Europe didn't agree. So there was a political reason for their instant closeness.''