John Walsh meets... Jill Morrell, a nation's sweetheart

She fought for John McCarthy - now it's the Bridgewater Four. Photograph by Nick Sinclair
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Is there an appropriate role for an ex-Nation's Sweetheart? Honey- blonde fringe a-gleam in the sunny midday glow of Camden's Cafe Delancey, Jill Morrell considers the conundrum. "Well, yes, where do you go from there?" she says. "I hope there's somewhere."

Other holders of the Former National Sweetheart poisoned chalice have chosen a variety of different paths that lead from fame towards blissful obscurity: Vera Lynn took to singing to an ever-dwindling band of soldiery, Princess Diana shed all her charities, Joanna Lumley got embraced by America and Jayne Torvill disappeared from view completely. Jill Morrell, by contrast with the former quartet, never courted a public role for herself or craved the trappings of glamour, but for five years, at the end of the Eighties, she was the plucky British heroine incarnate, as she conducted a ceaselessly inventive campaign to free her WTN colleague and inamoratus John McCarthy from imprisonment by terrorists in downtown Beirut. Undaunted by the Foreign Office's blend of apathy and condescension (they told her to lie low and say nothing), she threw herself into Middle Eastern politics, travelled to Nicosia and Damascus, hung out with Kalashnikov-toting terrorists and supine diplomats, distributed photographs of McCarthy's handsome features to Palestinian refugees, banged on doors from Syria to Denmark and, from a tiny office at the National Union of Journalists, made the Friends of John McCarthy a world-famous concern. For five years, she was Jill Morrell "the well-known fiancee", like Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. She and McCarthy were, in the immortal words of an anonymous profile-writer, "the most publicised office romance since Anthony and Cleopatra!".

"It was all very amateur," she says now. "We'd get a slot on television to talk about John and people used to think we were part of a great big organisation, a huge campaigning group - they were always shocked when they discovered we were so few in a grotty little rented room. I don't think we had as much as a computer for three years." What was she proudest of doing? "Being able to think strategically," she said, "planning what we should be doing, having an instinct about what would be effective. We planned this rally in Trafalgar Square, for instance, and quite a few people said it wasn't a good idea and that worried me. We met outside the Foreign Office, walked down Whitehall and had speeches in the square. Edward Heath came, and Jon Snow and Brian Keenan, who'd just been released, and about five thousand people, so it was really quite a moving occasion..."

Ms Morrell is a tiny but formidable Yorkshire woman with china blue eyes, a Chris Evert haircut and a square jaw. To visit upon her the usual Northern stereotypes of no-nonsense realism and arms-akimbo down-to-earthness is to ignore her friendly manner and delicious giggle. She laughs like an old girlfriend. She is, however, militantly unpretentious, surveying the menu ("Pan-fried monkfish medallions on a bed of spinach leaves, frisee lettuce, new potatoes and celery tossed in pesto...") with scorn ("That all sounds a bit fussy") and wanting her steak well done.

We order some chips. "We don't do chips," says the waiter, "Rushdie?" Ms Morrell and I look at each other blankly. Why drag Salman into it? Was there some special vegetable for incarceration victims and their friends? But no, it turns out to be a mangling of "rosti", a hash-brown cake that's apparently all the rage in Switzerland. "A restaurant that doesn't have chips? I don't believe it," says Ms Morrell disapprovingly.

While we're at it, I asked her what it was like lunching with Yasser Arafat. "Fascinating - but there were loads of people there. That's just the way it works in the Arab world - he invites you to lunch and you discover there's 30 other people there, hanging around: minders, PLO members, people who'd come to put their case to him, all round a great big table. Arafat came and served the food himself. We sat and listened to him talk and eventually someone said to me, 'Do it now, go up and sit beside him and talk to him'." Was he helpful? Her eyes twinkled. "He did this great theatrical thing. He sent off one of his people and said 'Go and telephone the Lebanon now and ask about John McCarthy', and there's part of you thinking, My God, he's going to do something, it's all sorted, and over lunch' - even though you know the world doesn't work like that."

Confronting the way of the world, however, is what Ms Morrell is good at. She is currently directing her energies at the Bridgewater Four Support Group, who for 18 years have been trying to secure a release and a pardon for Vincent and Michael Hickey and James Robinson who, with Pat Molloy (who died in prison in 1981) were jailed for life in 1979 for the murder of Carl Bridgewater, a 13-year-old newspaper boy. Earlier this year, Ms Morrell brought out a little book called The Wrong Men, in which she tells the group's version of events: Vincent Hickey's pretence that he and the others knew about the murder, a decoy that was taken seriously; Pat Molloy's confession, allegedly extracted by force and unretractable in court; the extraordinary array of prosecution witnesses that changed or simply retracted their evidence; the reliance on "incriminating remarks" made while on remand and duly reported by other prisoners. Despite the release of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, amid revelations of "unsafe" evidence, despite the gradual shredding of the prosecution's case, despite a book by Paul Foot and umpteen television reconstructions of the events of 1979, despite the lobbying of successive Home Secretaries, the men remain behind bars - indeed the Hickey cousins refuse offers of parole, preferring to wait until their innocence is proved.

Why had Jill Morrell got involved? "Once you get involved in one area of injustice, it opens your eyes to many others," she says. "I didn't get involved in this until John was out of prison a couple of years ago. I saw Bad Company, the dramatised documentary in 1993, just after Kenneth Clarke had said he wasn't going to send the case back to the Court of Appeal, and it seemed so unjust. I really respected Ann Whelan [mother of Michael Hickey, youngest of the prisoners] for having campaigned for so many years. And of course I felt sad about the waste of life that was involved." Ms Morrell's jaw seems to become firmer by the minute. "I know what it's like to have your life on hold, to have your life hijacked and to lose years, just as John lost years. It just seemed wrong and unfair..."

One small problem for supporters of the Bridgewater case is that the unfortunate defendants come across as a nasty crew of petty criminals capable of lying, perjuring and grassing up each other from selfish motives that backfired. In eliciting human sympathy, they're some way removed from the handsome, smiling - and of course innocent - figure of John McCarthy. "It was a bit of an uphill struggle at first," says Morrell, "but after all these years so many people have read about the case and can see the men are innocent. And, of course, the principle remains the same - they didn't do the murder and they shouldn't be in prison."

She hasn't met the three remaining incarceratees, but knows their families well. Her voice shakes when she describes what life has been like for, say, Nick Molloy, son of the man who died in prison. "It's ruined their lives in many ways. They were ostracised by the community, ostracised at school, they were spat on, local children would be told, 'That's the house where the murderer's family lives...'" Fired by sympathy, she has just returned from the European Parliament where she has been stirring up members to apply pressure to the Home Office. But you can tell she is enervated by the flannel of resolutions and human rights reports, and frustrated by the obduracy of the Secretary of State. "I think Mr Howard's interest, his emphasis, is in putting people behind bars. I don't think he's particularly interested in justice working the other way," she sighed. "I don't know what it is about him that isn't prepared to treat this case fairly. Maybe it's too much to admit that this is a mistake that's been going on for far too long. They've staked a lot on insisting the convictions were sound. Maybe it's just too much to turn round and let it go back to Appeal, where they're sure to be released."

For a rare second, pessimism clouds Ms Morrell's face. Her liking for community action goes back to her upbringing in a Yorkshire mining village called Woodlands, where her father was a draughtsman in a engineering firm. A sporty, tomboyish kid, her life was bounded by the local grammar school, the Miners' Welfare Association, the Church Girls' Brigade, the neighbours... "I'm not saying that Yorkshire people are especially keen on right and wrong, but there's definitely a sense of looking out for people that's lacking in London." When did she first feel moral outrage about some public event? "I remember when the Palestinians shot the Israeli athletes at the Olympics in 1972, I remember being shocked. It was my first inkling that the world worked like that, that it wasn't how it should be..." How odd, indeed, that the first political villains she identified should be the same people from whom she solicited help nearly 20 years later.

Some people, I ventured, might think Ms Morrell was a bit of a righteous indignation junkie, and that her involvement with the prisoners simply her finding a new cause to attach herself to. "No, no. Some organisations came and asked me to help, but I haven't felt like getting involved in anything but the Bridgewater case. I don't want to give my life over to another cause again. I just didn't feel ready for it." But she wouldn't consider her years with the Friends of John McCarthy as a waste of time, would she? She mused. "It was a very interesting time, yeah, meeting a lot of interesting people and doing things, but when I think of it, it's as a very anxious time, there's a constant underlying anxiety all through those years. The best thing about them was that you were living your life with one large overall aim. Normally, your life isn't like that - you're just fumbling along from day to day."

These days, she has a part-time job, editing the house journal of the Industrial Society and making little television programmes about gardening for a cable station called The Learning Channel. She's lived in Camden for nine years, still goes home to Doncaster the odd weekend and plays a lot of tennis. After John McCarthy's release in 1991, the couple moved into a rented cottage in a quiet village near Oxford where they wrote their massive-selling book, Some Other Rainbow, and lived off the proceeds while keeping out of the way of the world's attention. They officially split up last summer, but still see each other, "and there's always some aspect of the past that comes up". How is he? "Very well. He's been doing programmes for the World Service and loves it. He's the same person that he was before the kidnap, only much more serious and with a strength and a kind of inner toughness." She is tired of answering impertinent enquiries about whom she's sleeping with these days, or whether she's found true love, but says she wants to have children. It's all rather a quiet life. Was she surprised, looking back, by all the nationwide fuss? "People get fascinated by other people's private lives, don't they? It's completely understandable. But, of course, it was overwhelming, the expectations people had of you." Such as? "People would come to see me and John at the book signings, and they'd burst into tears and get really emotional. I wondered why and I realised it was just people's lives. Most people, you see, don't get a second chance when they've lost someone they've loved, their husband, some member of their family. And seeing us there well, the idea of getting them back from the dead, it's a bit overwhelming really." And the former Nation's Sweetheart did her most sensible that's-sorted- then smile

'The Wrong Men' is available from the Support Group, 723 Pershore Road, Selly Park, Birmingham 29 7NY