In the opening moments of the Netflix documentary Who Killed Jill Dando?, a genuine 999 call from the morning of the presenter’s attack is played. “Hello, ambulance?” The woman on the phone is audibly shaken. “I’m walking along Gowan Avenue. It looks like there’s somebody collapsed and, confidentially, it looks like Jill Dando. She’s collapsed on her doorstep and there’s a lot of blood. It doesn’t look like she’s breathing. She’s got blood coming from her nose, her arms are blue.” The woman’s voice cracks and she begins to cry. “Oh my God, no, I don’t think she’s alive.”
Jill Dando, the “golden girl of British television” who fronted staple BBC shows from Breakfast News to Crimewatch, was shot dead on her doorstep in Fulham in April 1999. Twenty-four years later, her unsolved murder has become the subject of Netflix’s latest true crime series, in which police, the press and Dando’s agent and family are interviewed.
The story knocked the nation sideways at the time. Dando’s death came less than two years after Princess Diana was killed in a car accident, and the pair had endlessly been compared for their warmth and their image. They even had the same hairdresser, who says in the documentary that Dando had the princess’s famous cropped style first.
And it was a monumental story for journalists – as it was about losing one of their own. The documentary’s executive producer Emma Cooper remembers where she was when she heard the news. “I was working in the BBC as a researcher, so I was in the White City building, which is in Shepherd’s Bush,” she tells me. “I was in the same department as Crimewatch. And I remember just hearing it ripple around the building. This was before social media, so we were just getting hearsay, and we weren’t sure what was going on.”
In grim scenes, the series shows Dando’s own BBC News colleague, Jennie Bond, having to announce her co-worker’s death live on television. In life, Dando had presented Crimewatch, a programme that reconstructed major unsolved crimes in order to gain information from the public. In death, she appeared on the series as the victim at the centre one of those unsolved cases, while police struggled to nail down a suspect. One man, Barry George, was found guilty of the murder in 2001, but he had his conviction quashed as unsafe by the Court of Appeal in 2007, and was found not guilty, after a retrial, in 2008.
Hamish Campbell, the senior investigating officer on the case, is interviewed in the documentary. And he is clearly pained by the fact that Dando’s killer is still walking free. As the series shows, within hours of Dando’s death, reporters were flocking to the crime scene. The next day, Dando’s face was on the front of every newspaper. “With these high-profile cases,” says Cooper, “there is a huge amount of information coming in from everybody across England, which makes it very, very difficult to sift through what is a credible lead and what isn’t. And the intersection with the tabloids and the police is very complex. I think that the tabloids did their job by keeping [the case] in the public consciousness, and I think the police were trying to do their best, but there was an enormous amount of information coming in. The police had an almost impossible task.”
Cooper thought long and hard before embarking on the Dando project. “When you tackle any story, before you do anything you have to ask, ‘Why are we doing this? Does it sit right? What can I give to the audience? To the family?’ Because you’re the one who’s got to sit with all the stuff for nearly two years. And I was thinking about Jill, and I’m older than she was when she died, and I just find it outrageous that it’s an open case. I think it’s really sad. And I think that you would want people to keep your memory alive. We checked that with [Dando’s brother] Nigel and that was something that he wanted, too.”
Once Dando’s brother was on board, the project got the go-ahead. In a separate interview, he told The Independent that part of him his hoping that the documentary will help close the case. “It might just jog somebody’s memory as to what they were doing on the day: they may have a vital piece of information that they didn’t think was important, or they prefer to keep hidden,” he said. “They may have known the perpetrator; or whoever killed Jill themselves may be watching, and even after 24 years, although I’m not holding out too much hope, they may just suffer a prick of conscience and put their hands up and say, ‘Yeah, it was me.’”
As a documentary maker, if conclusions come that you weren’t expecting, that’s amazing
Another key person to bring in was Barry George, the man who was freed in 2008 after spending years in prison for the murder. George was an eccentric. In 1999, he was going by the name of Barry Bulsara and claiming to be the cousin of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. He had previously been convicted for attempted rape and indecent assault, and had been arrested in the grounds of Princess Diana’s home while carrying a length of rope and a hunting knife. He was living just half a mile from Dando in Fulham. The police had received several calls about him acting strangely in the days after Jill’s death, and a witness claimed to have seen him on Gowan Avenue the morning of the killing, but officers didn’t follow up on these calls until months after the murder. George was eventually arrested in May 2000.
At his flat, which was in a state of squalor, police found a gun holster, news coverage on Jill Dando, hundreds of pictures of women in the street who George had photographed without their knowledge, magazines about firearms, and a coat with gunshot residue in the pocket. This final piece of evidence was enough to charge him with, and after a hugely publicised trial in 2001, a jury found him guilty of Dando’s murder. In the documentary, an archival clip of Huw Edwards is shown, the presenter gravely announcing the verdict on BBC News.
Six years later – after a fight led by George’s sister and owing to key developments in forensic science – doubts were raised over the importance of the gunshot residue and his conviction was quashed. George walked free the following year. He now lives in Ireland. Given that George has retreated from the public eye and has learning difficulties, the documentary team thought it best to approach him through his sister, Michelle Diskin Bates. “We thought that that was the most appropriate thing to do,” Cooper says, “because his sister very much guides him and knows him. So we were very transparent with her, and she introduced us to him and guided us through what the best way of interviewing him would be.” This meant taking lots of breaks, being very clear with George about the questions and giving him plenty of time to respond. “It’s quiet here,” George says in the documentary, while speaking about his new home in Ireland. “You’re treated like a scab in London, but you’re not here.”
In one extraordinary scene in the show, George – who has always maintained his innocence – asks Cooper to step in front of the camera with him and be, in his words, his “guinea pig”. He proceeds to act out pushing Cooper to the ground, in a bid to show that if he had shoved Dando to the ground he would have been covered with blood and gunshot residue. “I wasn’t expecting that moment,” says Cooper now. “He wanted to demonstrate something that he feels demonstrates that he couldn’t be guilty.” She says she and her team talked about whether to include the footage “for a long time”, ultimately deciding it should stay.
George is just one of many former suspects featured in Who Killed Jill Dando? We also meet Bob Wheaton, Dando’s former partner and boss at Breakfast News. Dando had given Wheaton £35,000 towards a property and police questioned Wheaton about this. But he was quickly eliminated from their enquiries. They also took an interest in Dando’s agent Jon Roseman, who had written a book about a celebrity agent whose clients start being murdered by a serial killer. But he was ruled out. And there was serious consideration that the killing could have been a political assassination carried out by a Serbian gunman – Dando had recently done a TV appeal for Kosovan refugees and victims of the Balkans War – or a criminal taking revenge for her work on Crimewatch.
Everybody in the show has a theory. KC Michael Mansfield, who defended George at the first trial, suggests that indentations on the cartridge casing found at the scene point to Serbia. Senior investigating officer Campbell maintains his opinion that George’s guilty verdict, which has since been overturned, was the right verdict. He says the case keeps resurfacing in the news because “people like a mystery. But I don’t think it’s a mystery at all.” Dando’s former agent Roseman, meanwhile, argues that “if anybody… thinks Barry George did it, they need to get help”. Dando’s brother Nigel thinks it was a “random killing” by a stranger.
What about Cooper? “I don’t have an opinion,” she insists. “It’s not my role to have an opinion. I just assess the facts to give the audience a truthful account of some of the many things that happened surrounding the crime over the years. As a documentary maker, if conclusions come that you weren’t expecting, that’s amazing, but it can’t be an expectation.”
‘Who Killed Jill Dando?’ is out on Netflix on 26 September