WE'LL get to the lady in a second. She is, after all, the reason for this story. But first, let me ask you to picture the 53-year-old man in a flapping double-breasted suit, his lizard grin flashing on and off like a faulty neon sign, his pencil beating out a syncopated tattoo on his desk top microphone as he croons, to what sounds suspiciously like the tune of “Here Comes Santa Claus”, the following ditty: “Daljit Dhaliwal, Daljit Dhaliwal, dum dum diddle dum dum.” The bony frame, swivelling eyes and that flickering, cold-blooded smirk really do suggest one of the smarter and more voracious reptiles readying itself to pounce on something small, furry and helpless. America's late night entertainment titan, David Letterman, has a new fixation. And it's not too hard, from the aforegoing, to guess her name.
Over the course of a week, Letterman has been replaying the same clip of said Daljit Dhaliwal, sometimes two or three times a night. In neutral, blue light she faces the camera and soberly reads out the first few words of a headline, invariably drowned out by Letterman's own panegyric: “All the news is good when it's Daljit Dhaliwal. This woman is nothing but good news.” Or, “Think if you got all of your news from that beautiful woman, Daljit Dhaliwal. Wouldn't that just make you feel better about everything?”<
So: Female Newsreader Serenaded by American Talk Show Host. Well, dog my cats. Nothing too remarkable about that. Except for the fact that Daljit Dhaliwal is British and British-based, a co-presenter on Channel 4 News, an employee of ITN, a resident of Notting Hill, and right now one of the most famous members of her profession in America - a cult figure on the cusp of becoming a major star. A quick search on the world wide web, that handy barometer of modern celebrity, reveals a ferment of adulation. One unofficial fan site has despairingly instructed visitors to stop sending love letters intended for Dhaliwal to its email address. Media observers credit her with turning ITN's World News For Public Television into the most widely watched British program on American TV today, bar none - even before Letterman announced that she had caught his gimlet eye.
Every day, when the clip finishes playing. Letterman has turned to his producer, on air, and demanded to know when Dhaliwal will be arriving. Now he has his answer. Daljit Dhaliwal is booked for The Late Show. And it's in New York that we find her, on the eve of her appearance, a hot July night in a city awash with sailors. White uniforms are everywhere. Pavements, taxis, subways - even Letterman's own studio audience has possessed a distinctly nautical tang over the last few nights. New York harbour is filled with ships - tall, battle and otherwise - from the recent Independence Day celebrations. You would be surprised, obviously, but not overly startled to see Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin pop out of nowhere and deliver an impromptu medley from On The Town. What's more, the Clintons are visiting, their unfeasibly long motorcade bisecting the city every so often and backing up the traffic for miles in each direction. Even by Manhattan standards, there is a rare excitement in the air. But Daljit Dhaliwal, as always, is calm.
Daljit Dhaliwal has made it her business to be calm. From her early career as a BBC trainee reporter in Northern Ireland to her current role as what Americans would call the anchor of ITN World News, calm has been her trademark - a certain coolness, even. A ten year news veteran, she has calmly and coolly faced down the likes of Yasser Arafat and Ian Paisley. She may be all of five-foot-two, but she can clearly take care of herself. It's a quality which has endeared her to the US public, accustomed as it is to a very different style of television news delivery; one carved up between white-haired, granite-jawed poobahs and dismayingly pert young women seemingly carved out of wax and powered by the latest animatronic technology. British snobbery about America is unjustified on almost every count. But in this particular arena, Dhaliwal unquestionably offers something that the homegrown news shows either can't or won't.
Dhaliwal is consistent, and emphatic, in declining to take credit for the program's success. It is the program, she insists, again and again, which has made a success of itself. “People talk about cult status. I'd like to think it's actually a cult following for the program. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I have an English accent, and the British perspective is something many Americans find refreshing. But I think it's a lot more that people here obviously feel that they're not getting the kind of coverage that they want when it comes to international news. That isn't a criticism of [America's major, nationwide] networks because they do cover international news. But there are things going on in terms of cutbacks which have been made to news coverage, and bureaus closing down. It's fortuitous for us, because we've been able to fill that vacuum. And there are a lot of complaints about the dire situation with local news in the US, that it's ambulance-chasing or cats up trees. All these people cannot be wrong.”
But many other people - or perhaps the same people - have attributed the show's increasing popularity to one factor above all others: Daljit Dhaliwal. While modesty and diplomacy would prevent Dhaliwal from acknowledging this even if she did believe it to be the case, her growing legion of fans has no such inhibitions. Letterman is only the latest to (literally, in his case) sing her praises; magazines, newspapers, websites and most importantly, television viewers across America have been doing so, with increasing volume, for two years. In 1998, New York cable channel WLIW elected to drop the ITN program in favour of one from the BBC. The emails came pouring in: “Do not deprive me of Daljit”; “My life. . . revolved around Daljit at seven in the evening.”
Another New York station, WNET, snapped up a remodelled ITN package, which now goes out on many more channels across the country, making it available to half of all households - a remarkably high figure for a non-network show in the diffuse US TV market. WNET's Director of Corporate Relations, Kellie Specter, describes it as “An amazing cult phenomenon. The momentum and the buzz just keep building. It was a lucky break for us when our competitor dropped it. Obviously, Daljit is very attractive, but I think people like the clarity of her voice, her authority. American anchors are fluffy. A lot of them are pretty faces who can read an autocue - and even that's hard for them, too.”
Since then, American Esquire has numbered Dhaliwal among the “Women We Love”. The Anne Klein fashion house, a former employer of Donna Karan, offered her a modelling assignment which, in the unlikely event of her being tempted, her contract would have forbidden. Anyway, she favours suits from Joseph. The country's foremost celebrity magazine, People, placed her at 37 in its list of the “World's 50 Most Beautiful People”, an arbitrary statistic which manages to be at once both immensely flattering and somewhat slighting. Harper's Bazaar credited her with “the allure of a Bond girl. . . brains and efficient good looks,” the italics suggesting a certain amazement that the two should co exist in one body. American Vogue has extolled her style, branding her a “news goddess”. Rolling Stone, the rock'n'roll journal not usually noted for covering British newscasters, dispatched to West London an enthusiastic correspondent, who rather bafflingly lauded Dhaliwal's “quaint English good neighbourliness.” Presumably he has never had any English neighbours.
The attitude of American fans is perhaps best summed up by Letterman's own smitten, tongue-in-cheek accolade: “This woman is smart, articulate and, as they say in broadcast journalism, easy on the eyes. I saw [her] years and years and years ago when I first got my satellite thing hooked up to my television. I just said to myself, I want this woman to bring me the news every night. I cancelled my subscription to every newspaper and periodical, and now I just watch her. It's the smartest thing I ever did.”
SUMMER or winter, the temperature in the Ed Sullivan theatre on Broadway at West 54th street is kept to a strict and chilly ten degrees centigrade. That's how David Letterman likes it. It keeps the audience alert. It has the same effect backstage, although prospective guests are hardly likely to feel excessively relaxed. A slot on The Late Show is a big event for all but the most famous or the most seasoned stars. Daljit Dhaliwal may have a decade in news behind her, but this is her first appearance in front of a TV audience. In a few minutes she will step out onto a stage with a long tradition of welcoming British exports; The Beatles and
The Rolling Stones both made their American debuts here, on the variety show from which the auditorium takes its name.
Dhaliwal sits wrapped, Peter O'Toole-style, in a maroon dressing gown, while the wardrobe department presses her jacket. “I wish I could wear this to work,” she muses. The effect is odd on this least louche of personalities. She is usually immaculately dressed, after a low-key fashion. Only the scuffs on her wedge-heel shoes betray the sartorial Achilles heel, as it were, of a presenter who usually need not worry about her footwear appearing on screen.
A large, shaggy, orange dog ambles in and out of the dressing room. From the corridor comes the sound of a willful toddler's protests at being ordered to stop smacking the wall with a plastic shovel, or some such awful injustice. For an operation as efficiently micromanaged as The Late Show, there is a curiously homely ambience. Out front, Letterman is working the crowd. “Ooh, good, a Brit in the audience,” says Dhaliwal, as he chats to an emigré. “Tonight,” promises Letterman, “we have a fantastic, lovely anchorperson. My plan is to get her to work for CBS.” In her dressing room, Dhaliwal punches the air. “He's lining me up for Dan's job!” she crows in mock exultation.
Dan Rather is CBS's revered elder newsman, viewed by Americans as a cross between Trevor McDonald and Moses, and little short of dynamite is likely to shift him before he's ready to go. But inevitably, Dhaliwal has already been the subject of genuine Stateside bids. “I had an offer, there was a six-figure sum last year, and I decided to stay with ITN. But,” she adds, “I keep my options open.” ITN must be only too well aware of this. Dhaliwal is lined up to be a part of its new 24-hour digital news service, the ITN News Channel, which aims to compete with Sky News and BBC News 24; a newsreader with Dhaliwal's increasingly high profile is an asset to be kept at home for as long as possible.
It's a long way from Inside Ulster, the BBC Northern Ireland news program on which, as a pre-ceasefire reporter, she cut her teeth and more besides, what with dodging both shrapnel and the pronouncements of the region's less than dainty leadership. At the end of her traineeship, some bright spark in the corporation looked at the woman who, praised for her remarkable telegenic qualities, would become the subject of photo shoots in glossy magazines across America, and offered her a post in radio. She declined, and signed up for another stint in Northern Ireland.
“When I was a working reporter nobody ever went on about my” - Dhaliwal invests the word with resonant disdain - “looks. It only ever came about when I was an anchor. Maybe it's because you're coming into somebody's living room on a regular basis and perhaps you look a bit more groomed, your hair's immaculate. . .”
You're not shaking broken glass out of it, for example.
“Yeah! Although that was just one particular case. A device had been thrown at an RUC station, and while we were there, a secondary device, a car bomb, went off. Funnily enough, Northern Ireland didn't frighten me. It was one of the safest places as a woman. I would rather walk the streets of Belfast at midnight than the streets of London, where I live and I grew up. I never felt threatened or worried and scared in Belfast. Crime is controlled by the paramilitaries. If you transgressed the rules and you were caught joyriding you'd get your kneecaps blown off.”
Dhaliwal came to the BBC by way of a childhood in Southall, where she was born to Punjabi immigrant parents in 1962, and degrees from two universities, both London-based. After narrowing down her career choices to teaching and journalism, she was accepted onto a BBC training course in 1990. Within four months found herself reporting to camera. In 1993 she left Northern Ireland, where both her assignment and a romantic attachment had come to an end (she now describes herself as “single”, and declines to say more.) To her own surprise, she took up a presenter's role on BBC World Service Television, where her cut glass vowels - the classic received pronunciation so beloved of both Auntie and America - would serve her well.
Two years later she moved to ITN, where she took up co-presenting duties with Jon Snow on Channel 4 news. Last year, People magazine quoted Snow on the subject of Dhaliwal's “good bone structure.” She professes nonchalance on the subject: “What am I supposed to do, go up to Jon and say, ‘Jon, did you really say that?’ I just laughed it off. You read stuff like that, well, you just think, ‘Oh God, I know I'm a bit more than that.’ I don't take that kind of stuff to heart, it's silly. When people talk about Daljit Dhaliwal, the anchor, I make sense of it by saying that we live in an age which is obsessed with celebrity.”
Lucky, then, that Dhaliwal is in the rare position of being famous in one country while living in another where she is merely well-known; she has fewer rabid fans to contend with.
“I don't think you can live your life worrying about that sort of thing day in and day out,” she maintains. “You have to be sensible of course. Take precautions when precautions are needed. We have these stereotypes in our minds about the US, that it's full of cranks, but you can find many, many examples of similar situations in the UK. I mean the whole phenomenon of stalking. And I'm sure I'm not the first newsreader, and I'm not going to be the last, who gets fan mail that is a bit way out. Well, I wouldn't even call it fan mail. You get people sending you wedding rings in the post and saying that they think you're married to them. People think you're their wife, or you're the reincarnation of their sister. Unfortunately it comes with the territory, and I don't think it should.”
Ten minutes later, David Letterman offers to marry her.
DAVID Letterman is probably the most gifted and original television entertainer of his time. He is worshipped by many in the British TV industry, which has made repeated attempts to replicate his formula - none of them quite successful. In the words of Johnny Carson, the most celebrated US talk show host of them all, “These shows are all about the guy behind the desk.”
Letterman's own career is instructive in terms of the gulf between what television executives assume people want, and what people actually like. Seen as Carson's anointed successor on NBC's big Tonight show, he was passed over in favour of Jay Leno, who the network felt had a “broader” appeal. Letterman took his singular genius to another network, where his own Late Show remains hugely popular.
It's not too far-fetched to say that Daljit Dhaliwal's experience has, in a small way, echoed Letterman's. She, and ITN World News, are not supposed to be what America wants. And yet. . .
“Yes, absolutely,” she affirms, fresh from acquitting herself creditably in the Letterman interview. “I think that hits the nail absolutely on the head. A lot of people say, well, only PBS” - the Public Broadcasting Service, something like a pauperised BBC2 - “would ever pick that program up. But it's a very mixed audience. It's across the States, it's across the age groups, it's across many different types of ethnicity. It's the intelligentsia, it's the cab drivers. It just goes to show that we should never make patronising assumptions about who the audience is and what they want.”
And it seems that what they want is Daljit. As part of its fund raising drive, one TV station in Montana made her the first British newsreader to feature on a bumper sticker (assuming it never happened to Reggie Bosanquet.)
“There was a story,” she says sternly, “that it read ‘Honk If You Like Daljit’. I don't know where that came from. It actually reads ‘I Watch ITN World News With Daljit Dhaliwal’. I insisted it have ITN in there, so it wasn't just about drawing attention to me and my name.”
This must be the longest bumper sticker on record. You'd need a tank just to fit it on, and any driver who read it to the end would probably wind up bonnet-first in a tree. But that's scarcely important to Dhaliwal, who intends to keep on making the point that really matters to her: “I present a serious news program, and I hope it will continue to be one as long as I'm presenting it.”
Quite right too; any other ambition would be a betrayal of what Dhaliwal calls her “Reithian” principles. Still, for all her sincere protestations that it is the program and not its presenter which has won over America, Daljit Dhaliwal's legion of fans would tell you different. For them - to paraphrase Johnny Carson - this show is all about the woman behind the desk.
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