Lucy Patton

looks at the life and career of one of the best loved faces on television

JILL Dando was that rarest of women - the object of fantasy for men of a certain age and yet equally admired and respected by women.

In that fine balancing act between popular television and fluffiness, she never crossed the line and was equally authorititive in front of a bank of phones on Crimewatch or in front of a dazzling blue sea on the Holiday programme.

Despite the inevitable comparisons to Princess Diana in the wake of her untimely death, one of the secrets of Dando's enormous appeal lay in the fact that she did not seem unapproachable and was able to combine a ''head girl'' quality with that of the ''girl next door''.

She was seen as the latest in a long line of blonde, female holiday programme presenters when she took on what became perhaps her most high profile role, but if it is true that blondes have more fun, in her case you could rest assured that it was good clean fun.

The blonde ambition tag was not one that sat well with Dando. Earlier this year, she said: ''Just because I've got blonde hair and haven't been to Bosnia doesn't mean I'm a bimbo. I am still a serious journalist.''

When she announced her engagement earlier this year, there was a collective sigh as many came to the realisation that their fantasies of Dando showing up on the sun lounger next to them on a tropical beach were just that - fantasy. Many more found themselves glad that she had found time between travels to find happiness in her home life.

In a professional context, Jill Dando's career was a textbook example of how to climb the broadcast journalism ladder. She was born in 1961 in Weston-super-Mare where her father still lives. Her mother died of leukemia 13 years ago.

After her A levels, she joined her local paper, the Weston Mercury, at the age of 18.

She also developed a passion for acting, as a member of the local amateur dramatic society.

Following five years in print journalism, she went on to work for Radio Devon before making her big television break on the South-west news show Spotlight.

At the age of 26 in 1988, she moved to London and began working on the BBC's Breakfast Time news programme, her profile increasing as regular presenters Sally Magnusson and Kirsty Wark became pregnant.

By the early 1990s, she had taken a role on the BBC Holiday programme when Anneka Rice left and by 1995 she had added the monthly BBC1 Crimewatch show to her roster of programmes, teaming up with Nick Ross after Sue Cook decided to leave.

She also launched a new series, Antiques Inspectors, on Sunday night.

By 1994, Dando had become a presenter of BBC1's main early evening bulletin, the Six O'Clock News, and she was rumoured to be earning a six-figure sum annually through her various roles. Some reports estimated she had a #500,000 two-year deal.

Viewer research showed she was one of the best loved faces on screen and she was reported to be lined up to be one of the stars of the millennium night broadcast along with Des Lynam.

She had been widely tipped to front the relaunched Six O'Clock News next month because of her popularity with viewers, but she pulled out of the contest, apparently upon hearing that some executives felt she was not hard-hitting enough. She said she was ''relieved'' to be out of the running.

Earlier this month Dando had made her final appearance on Holiday, for which she had been the central presenter since 1993.

However, she had committed herself to the spin-off series Summer Holiday which she was due to present in May.

One of the downsides to a high-profile career was a high level of interest in her love life and her relationships regularly made the headlines. She had nearly married in her twenties, before embarking on a six-year relationship with BBC executive Bob Wheaton.

She blamed the pressure of work for the break-up of this relationship and then found love while filming an edition of Holiday in South Africa, where she met warden Simon Basil at the Kruger National Park. They continued dating when she arrived back home but the romance proved to be short-lived.

''I've never met anyone on location and had a relationship with them before,'' she said. ''It's the most romantic situation in the world, two souls colliding under the stars and it was fabulous. But when you suddenly bring it back to reality, things aren't quite the same.''

She then met Alan Farthing, 35, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, and they planned to marry later this year. Dando had already cut back on her number of work commitments to devote more time to her husband after they were married.

By her own admission she had not always been as glamorous as her fans will remember her.

As a youngster she recalled that she was ''rather an ugly little girl with canine teeth, glasses and an extremely old fashioned dress sense''.

A perm and contact lenses did the trick in transforming her image in 1978.

''Suddenly nobody recognised me. I couldn't believe it when the heart-throb at the church youth group asked me out,'' she recalled in a magazine interview.

Other efforts to update her image in more recent years included posing in a leather mini-skirt for a photo session, and then in leather again - this time a jumpsuit - for this week's Radio Times.