Obituary: Jill Dando

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The Independent Culture
THE COVER of this week's Radio Times shows a 37-year-old woman at the prime of her professional career and about to take the most significant step of her personal life. Jill Dando was moving on from the Holiday programme, where she had become part of the nation's consciousness, synonymous with entertaining, yet insightful, reports from around the world, to her new series, Antiques Inspectors. The move was in part because she planned to marry her boyfriend, Alan Farthing, in September. She told the magazine that "getting married this autumn was certainly an additional incentive to spend rather more time in England".

Jill Dando was born in Weston-super-Mare in 1961. When she was a few months old, she was diagnosed as having a hole in the heart. She received major surgery at the age of three, from which she made a complete recovery. At Worle comprehensive school in the Somerset resort she was, by all accounts, an unremarkable schoolgirl with an uncommon interest in television: she once wrote to Jimmy Savile asking him to fix it for her to appear on TV. After taking her O levels, she moved to Broadoak Sixth-Form Centre where she became head girl in 1979.

Her single-mindedness steered her straight from A levels to a journalism course at the South Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education and a job on her local newspaper, the Weston and Somerset Mercury. In terms of her later career, the time she spent as a print journalist there was relatively languid, though she did became an accomplished member of the local amateur dramatic society.

In 1985 Dando's potential as a broadcaster was spotted by John Lilley of BBC Radio Devon. Her appointment as a reporter marked the start of a highly productive and successful career with the corporation. She became presenter of the station's breakfast programme, and was soon signed up by BBC South West's television news magazine, Spotlight.

Her ability to glide seemingly effortlessly from one medium to another was a testament to her professionalism and sheer hard work, unimpeded by the kind of complicated personal life that often blights the career of rising stars. In 1986, when she was 24, her mother died after an 18- month battle with leukaemia; her father still lives in Weston-super-Mare.

Dando's personal and professional roles converged when she moved to network television in 1988, aged 26. Bob Wheaton, then editor of Breakfast Time, recruited her initially as an occasional stand-in presenter on the BBC1 morning news magazine. As her presenting shifts became more regular, she began a long and occasionally stormy relationship with Wheaton that was to last for most of the Nineties.

BBC executives spotted her potential for other, higher-profile shows. In 1993 she rejuvenated the long-established Holiday programme by bringing a mix of journalistic integrity and genuine charm to travel television. She thrived on punishing filming schedules - 80,000 miles or more in a year - combined with regular stints as BBC1 newscaster and Crimewatch presenter.

Her fellow Crimewatch presenter, Nick Ross, said yesterday, "You will only ever hear kind things about Jill, because there were only ever kind things to say about her." This sentiment is echoed throughout the television and travel industries, and beyond. When Tony Blair expressed his deep shock at her death, he was speaking for a nation which regarded her as an adopted and adored sister.

I met Jill Dando only once while travelling, but the encounter was telling. In 1994 I was on holiday at a resort in Jordan when a coachload of tourists, plus film crew, suddenly turned up. Dando was making a film about a high- speed holiday dash, and was obliged to work in real time to fit in with the tour operator's schedule. Under intense pressure to get everything right on the first take, she remained both shiningly professional and resonantly human - as modest, decent and dignified off camera as she was on screen.

Throughout her rise to fame, Dando remained down-to-earth and caring; she worked hard for charity as well as for the BBC. Recently, her personal life became ascendant; in January this year Dando's new boyfriend, the gynaecologist Alan Farthing, proposed to her. She accepted, and the couple had planned to marry in a church ceremony in September after her stint presenting the Holiday spin-off Summer Holiday.

Only very rarely does a broadcaster become so much a part of our lives that the mere mention of the name is enough to conjure up an instant and wholly positive image. Jill Dando achieved this in a television career that lasted barely a decade.

Jill Dando, broadcaster: born Weston-super-Mare, Somerset 9 November 1961; died London 26 April 1999.