Jill Dando’s cousin Judith still keeps in her loft the scrapbooks of cuttings and the many copies of the Radio Times in which Jill, as presenter of the BBC Six O’Clock News, Holiday and Crimewatch, appeared. The scrapbooks were made for Jill at the time by Jill’s friends, delighted by her growing success, and they stand as testimony to the love people felt for her. “In my old age,” says Judith, “which I thought I’d spend with Jill, it will be nice to go through the stuff …” It is the only time she falters. “Sorry,” she says with a smile, refusing to give in to tears.
It is 20 years since Dando was shot and killed with a single 9mm bullet to the head on her fiance’s doorstep, in a quiet residential street in Fulham. Everything about it was utterly shocking and utterly bizarre. The Murder of Jill Dando (BBC One) took us – quietly, carefully and unsensationally – through what remains an extraordinary, and unsolved, case. It mixed footage of Dando presenting and preparing to go on camera with the unspooling police investigation described by Hamish Campbell, the chief investigating officer on the case, supplemented with commentary from DCI Shaun Sawyer, who was in charge of the Suzy Lamplugh case. And it anchored the whole with interviews with friends and family who have lived the past two decades without her. Her brother Nigel has gone grey since we last saw him, giving brief, dignified interviews to the media in the aftermath of his sister’s death and then, when a suspect was named, brought to trial and then, it was ultimately decided, wrongly convicted.
The programme wisely decided to keep out of the way and gave us an hour that was all the more moving for its spareness. The footage of Dando reminded us how attractive she was to watch – with such genuine warmth and friendliness, combined with professional intelligence and authority without ego. We were given some sense of how wrong, how awful, how completely absurd it was that someone should have taken it into their head to kill her. And, in keeping the programme as spare as it was, her murder was allowed to represent more than just Dando’s death; the outrage, the violation, the waste and the sorrow represented all lives cut short by senseless brutality.
The job of the police, of course, is to try and make as much sense of it as they can; to find the internal logic, at least, that will enable them to trace it to the point of origin: the killer. Or, as seemed possible at one point, the killers. The execution-style shooting made them wonder if it was a gangland killing – maybe connected with her work on Crimewatch – or even a possible revenge attack by Serbians for the blowing up of their broadcasting centre in Belgrade. These were discounted in favour of a likely sole, amateur operator, and the police carried on sifting through the fan letters she received and following up the thousands of tips that poured in from locals and the general public.
Buried among them, it eventually emerged, was the figure of Barry George, a local loner with various mental health challenges and previous convictions. When his flat was searched, he was found to have pictures of himself with a starting pistol, hundreds of pictures of women (including some taken on the street where the murder took place) on undeveloped film, and a collection of cuttings about Dando.
Forensics revealed a single particle of gunshot residue in a pocket of his coat. On this microscopic apparent connection to the actual crime scene would his fate turn. He was convicted, had his appeal rejected and spent eight years in prison. But a subsequent appeal that challenged the scientific evidence was successful and he was acquitted after a retrial.
Judith, and others close to Dando, whose grace and clear-eyed refusal to let themselves give in to sentiment or irrationality stand as the most telling testimony to their own and Dando’s nature, say they were never convinced of his guilt.
Whoever did it is still at large and the family has hope that the culprit will be found. “You can’t hide something like that for ever,” says Judith. “But we’ll see.”