It was under a brilliant Beirut sky in May 1991 that I first met Sunnie Mann. She turned on her heel with a flourish 'Was that OK, darling?'. She had just finished picking her way through the pockmarked ruins in the Place des Martyrs for the benefit of the This Week film crew. We were to call the film 'The Forgotten Hostage.' Frustrated by the British government's continued inability to free her husband Jackie, she had decided to go public.
'You were magnificent, Sunnie, a real star,' I replied. 'Now you must do the whole thing again so we can shoot it from a second angle.' In a gesture of mock theatricality she placed the back of her left hand against her forehead and leaning on our camera tripod with her right hand, she barked: 'Absolutely not. Take one, take two, take three, when will it all end? I'm bloody exhausted and I want a beer.'
Five minutes later Take Two proceeded. I watched as the spotless, waif-like figure dressed entirely in white, drifted through the filth of Beirut's civil war. Clasping her handbag tightly to her side, she peered into the bleak cavernous ruins as if she half expected to find Jackie there. The silence of a thousand departed souls was broken only by the rumble of Syrian armoured personnel carriers and Sunnie's calm voice. 'I know he's here somewhere' she told our reporter Margaret Gilmore, in one of the most moving interviews I have ever heard. 'And I'm not leaving until I see him again. You see, he would know if I left.'
Sunnie Mann was a tough woman who knew precisely what she was doing. Of course, she loved being a star but she was doing it to get Jackie free and to earn enough money to survive in Beirut. It was her honesty that endeared her to millions and that same honesty which so dwarfed the array of bearded cowards who claimed to speak for Jackie's captors. Those blinkered fundamentalists who treated her husband like an animal for 865 days of solitary captivity. In the face of unanimous pleas for her to quit Beirut she held on, defending that tiny corner of a foreign field that would ever be hers until Jackie was free.
A poll we conducted for 'Forgotten Hostage' showed only one in 10 people in Britain had heard of Jackie Mann in May 1991. Four months later when he arrived at RAF Lyneham with Sunnie by his side they were household names: he was no longer forgotten, he was no longer a hostage. It was the man's finest hour.
At yesterday's moving ceremony the Prime Minister, John Major, paid tribute to the man's courage and fighting spirit which had made them both national figures. He expressed the sadness that we all feel that the Manns had had so little time to catch up on the stolen years.
Although she told no one, Sunnie feared in October she might be seriously ill. She asked her doctor to postpone an in-depth investigation until after Jackie and she had enjoyed a Mediterranean cruise on the QE2. 'A free trip love]' she wrote in her last letter to me. The night before they left, Margaret Gilmore and I had dinner with them for the last time. The twinkle was back in their eyes, they were at peace with each other. We ate not a stone's throw from the Dorchester Hotel where they fell in love 50 years ago as the band played:
'Yours till the stars lose their glory. . .
Yours till the end of life's story'
Perhaps only Sunnie knew as we tottered back along Piccadilly quite how soon the end of her story might be. For those who loved her she was a star who never lost her glory.