Nigel Dando was in the newsroom of the local Bristol newspaper where he worked, when he got a call about his younger sister, Jill, from a colleague in the national press. “He said, had I heard Jill had been involved in an accident in London?” he recalls. “I said no. I rang her phone and couldn’t get any reply. Then the colleague called me back and said, ‘have you spoken to Jill? Because I think it’s more serious.’ Panic bells started to ring.”
There had been no accident; the truth was far more shocking.
On April 26 1999, Jill Dando, the popular BBC television presenter, had been shot dead on her doorstep in Fulham, at the age of 37. The television screens in Nigel’s office soon started broadcasting the story. “There was a newsflash saying Jill had been stabbed to death. Then all hell broke loose,” he says. “My main thought was to get to Weston-super-Mare to see my dad and make sure he was ok.”
The murder (wrongly reported as a stabbing at first), horrified not only friends, family and colleagues, but also a public that had taken Jill into their hearts. Described as the “golden girl” of television, she had presented the Six O’Clock News, Breakfast News, Crimewatch and Holiday, winning over audiences with her down to earth charm.
“It’s a trite expression, but the ‘girl next door’ was probably a label you could attach to her,” says Nigel, now 67. “What you saw was what you got. The camera loved her and she had a natural ability to do whatever was asked of her. It was a job she loved.”
Tonight, almost two decades after her murder, a new BBC One documentary, The Murder of Jill Dando, revisits a crime that shook the nation, and which to this day remains unsolved. It retells the story of how a local man named Barry George was initially convicted of the killing, only to be acquitted at a retrial seven years later. The now retired Detective Chief Inspector Hamish Campbell, who was in charge of the investigation, tells the programme he does not believe anyone new will ever be brought to justice. Nigel is inclined to agree.
“I’m not optimistic anyone else will ever appear in the dock now, charged with Jill’s murder,” he says. “It is disappointing but... I don’t blame the police at all, when you see the maze of material they had to deal with and the decisions they had to take.”
A number of different theories as to who murdered Jill, and why, have been considered - one of which centres around a professional hit. But Nigel is sceptical.
“I think it was someone who was on the street at that time, who knew where Jill lived and struck lucky on the morning in question,” he says. “A professional hit just doesn’t seem likely. It was in broad daylight, a bullet casing was left in place and there were so many opportunities for whoever did it to be seen and caught. I just think it was one of those random things. I would just like to ask that person ‘why did you do it?’ There was no obvious motive.”
There was, however, opportunity. When Jill first moved to the capital, she lived in Southfields - close to the All England Lawn Tennis Club - with her cousin Judith Dando, with whom she shared a sisterly bond. But when she bought her own home in Fulham, Judith had reservations.
“She would be living on her own and I said, ‘wouldn’t you be better off with a serviced apartment, where you have a level of security?’ I also thought driving around in a soft top car [wasn’t a great idea],” she says.
Like many women in the public eye, Jill had a number of admirers. Did the level of attention she received ever cause her to become paranoid?
“Not at all, because she couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to cause her any harm,” says Judith, now 59. “She was fearless, perhaps because she was naive.”
Judith was devastated by her cousin’s death. But it’s the senselessness of it that has stayed with her. “It’s the fact it was unbelievable,” she says. “We knew there was no rhyme or reason, it was ridiculous. Here we were, a normal family going about our business, and Jill didn’t have an enemy in the world.”
The Jill she remembers was “just very genuine, down to earth, Christian in the way she lived her life, her morals and standards,” says Judith, a mother-of-one who has worked in the Armed Forces. “She was kind, generous and really looked after people. Her friends and family were probably the most important thing in her life. She was nice to everybody. A lot of her colleagues were also very close friends, which indicates how well loved she was.”
Prior to her death, Jill had been looking forward to her wedding, that coming September, to obstetrician and gynaecologist to the Royal household, Alan Farthing. Judith was due to be a bridesmaid.
“She was very excited,” she says. “She was going to get married in a church in Fulham and the reception was going to be in Claridge’s.”
Had she and Farthing planned to start a family? “It was taken as read,” confirms Judith.
Jill had lost her own mother to illness in her early twenties, something Judith says affected her badly. “When we lived together you could see the impact it had on her: insecurities, getting sad, sometimes feeling lonely - even though she wasn’t on her own.”
But being in the media spotlight did not seem to faze her. “I think, in many ways, she enjoyed it because it meant she was successful. But it meant she had to slightly watch what she did - how she dressed, how she behaved, who she hung around with - because it can all go horribly wrong,” says Judith. “In many ways she was a private person, but in other ways she would throw caution to the wind. She invited people into our home to be interviewed. In the early days, she was quite naive and she wanted to be helpful. She would pretty much do anything.”
Did she become more circumspect as she grew more accustomed to fame? “Yes,” says Judith. “But perhaps not enough.”
Jill’s murder came less than two years after another well-loved woman in the spotlight had lost her life, aged just 36, in circumstances every bit as horrifying.
“I like to think Jill’s death was as big as Princess Diana’s, because she was the girl next door,” says Judith. “She was somebody everyone could relate to. She was just living a normal life, albeit she was in the public eye.”
Later this month, Judith will be running the London Marathon in Jill’s memory, raising money for the British Heart Foundation. Jill, who had been born with a hole in her heart and underwent life-saving heart surgery as a child, was an avid supporter - all her life, she had a reminder of that operation in the form of a large scar that ran down her chest. Now Judith hopes to raise £10,000 for the cause.
She doesn’t want to talk about the absence of justice for her cousin, preferring to focus on what she meant to her in life, and the many happy memories she has.
Nigel, meanwhile, is pragmatic. “I made peace with [the lack of a conviction] a long time ago,” he says. “These things can eat you up otherwise.”
The Murder of Jill Dando airs Tuesday April 2 at 9pm on BBC One.
To sponsor Judith Dando and help raise money for life-saving research, please visit virginmoneygiving.com/judith_ dando_in_memory_of_jill