Dando Murder: Plain-girl image was secret of her fame

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The Independent Online
JOHN BETJEMAN, the late poet laureate, would have had no difficulty explaining Jill Dando'sappeal. She was precisely the kind of English girl about whom he enthused in his poems: cheerful, sporty and fresh-faced, with a hint of sexiness beneath the surface.

Ms Dando was one of television's most successful and best-paid personalities, but she came across as down-to-earth. She was famous yet ordinary; attractive but not glamorous; clever without being an intellectual. And all this was not an artificially cultivated image, according to those who knew her well. It was, and remained, the real Jill.

This, perhaps, was the secret of her popularity, the reason why she endeared herself to men and women alike, why she was loved and admired by people who knew her only from afar as well as by friends, why she always topped opinion polls as the ideal female companion with whom to have dinner or go on holiday.

If the late Diana, Princess of Wales was the fairytale princess to millions of strangers who mourned her as if she had been close family, Ms Dando was the wholesome girl-next-door to her legions of fans. She had the sensible haircut, the tombstone teeth, the jolly hockey sticks, no-nonsense manner. She made men, or many of them, go weak at the knees; women liked her because she was charming yet unpredatory.

Two sentiments were repeated time after time yesterday by her shellshocked BBC colleagues. First, that Ms Dando remained the same unpretentious woman when the microphones were switched off and the cameras stopped recording. Second, that she had "no side" to her. What you saw was what you got.

When her career took off and she made the transition from news presenter to "personality", with all the accompanying column inches in the tabloid press, she appeared genuinely nonplussed by the attention.

"I'm a very ordinary person," she said in an interview a couple of years ago. "I am still surprised when people come up to me in the street and put me on a pedestal. I don't see myself other than I have always been.

"It's nice to think that people see me as a mate. I think people would trust me with their key if they went away."

The range of programmes that Ms Dando presented - including Holiday, Crimewatch UK, Six O'Clock News and Songs of Praise - was testament to the universality of her appeal, as well as to her professional versatility.

Ms Dando, a committed Christian, was born in Weston-super-Mare in 1961. Hers was a family with journalistic connections; her father, Jack, was a compositor on the local newspaper, the Weston & Somerset Mercury, and her older brother, Nigel, went on to become chief reporter at the Bristol Evening Post. Her mother, Jean, died of leukaemia when Jill was 24.

Born with a hole in her heart and not given a clean bill of health until the age of 10, Ms Dando once recalled herself as "rather an ugly little girl with canine teeth, glasses and an extremely old-fashioned dress sense". At 17, she got herself some contact lenses and a perm. "Suddenly nobody recognised me," she said. "I couldn't believe it when the heart-throb at the church youth group asked me out."

That sense of incredulity persisted when she became famous and learnt that she was a national sex symbol. "I'm not `telly totty', so I don't know what the appeal is," she said in a recent interview.

"I suppose I have that girl-next-door demeanour that some people like and which others find a turn-off. I don't think I'm all things to all men."

After a stint as a trainee reporter at the Weston & Somerset Mercury, Ms Dando moved to BBC Radio Devon, where she presented the breakfast programme. In 1988, she got her first job in television, as a presenter with BBC South-west, a traditional showcase for national talent.

With a face and a voice that were perfect for television, she was quickly noticed and lured to London, where she presented a series of news programmes including BBC Breakfast News. She recently pulled out of the running to present the revamped Six O'Clock News, after suggestions that she was not sufficiently heavyweight (the job went to Huw Edwards).

One of the most poignant aspects of her violent and premature death is that she had finally found happiness in her personal life, to match her professional success.

After a seven-year relationship with Bob Wheaton, a television executive, and a brief fling with Simon Bassil, a game warden whom she met while on safari in Kenya, Ms Dando was introduced by a mutual friend last year to Alan Farthing, a consultant gynaecologist at a London hospital.

The couple were photographed in a passionate embrace by paparazzi who tracked them on a skiing holiday in France. Three months ago, they announced that they planned to marry in September. Ms Dando said that the relationship had "changed the way I look on life"; she planned to scale back her television work after the wedding.

It is axiomatic that one speaks well of the dead, particularly of a popular young woman brutally murdered outside her home. Yet, as one of Ms Dando's BBC colleagues said yesterday, you could not find anything bad to say about her, were you to try.

The word "nice", which went out of fashion long ago, was on everyone's lips as friends and colleagues struggled to come to terms with her death. Ms Dando was nice, she was ordinary, she was supremely likeable. She was, as her brother once put it, "an all-round good egg".