I have a story which happened here in Sale at Christmas time a few years ago which goes some way to explain why so many people have been left heartbroken by the death of Dianne Oxberry.
Everyday a celebrity dies, it is a sad fact of life and there will always be tributes pouring in. With the likes of Bowie or Prince the shock is globally palpable. A national household name is no less mourned or missed, but on a lesser scale.
But today there has been a death, the news of which has washed down from the media village in Salford and into the sitting rooms of people around the North West. And then from the memories of those who grew in the days of national ensemble radio at its best with Simon Mayo and Steve Wright on Radio 1.
If it means anything at all, my erstwhile beautiful and clever colleague was trending at number one on Twitter today, at one point ahead of Sir Andy Murray.
So here are the words I have been dreading writing all day, and frankly never thought I would be writing in my lifetime. Dianne Oxberry, broadcaster, weather presenter, very canny shopper, mum of two and wife of Ian, has died at the age of 51.
I worked with Dianne whilst a programme producer of North West Tonight for 20 years or so. I have laughed hysterically with her at times of great live TV stress when all around us was falling off air. I have lost all feeling in my feet standing around in the freezing cold on outside broadcasts with her or nearly fainting in stiflingly hot temperates of 34C.
I’ve watched and heard her bound up the stairs to the old TV gallery in Manchester while we were on air, and shoot into her weather room to reload graphics which had refused to work, with just minutes to spare to her slot. Of course she was back on the studio floor ready to impart the predictions with a huge smile, picking up off a presenter’s cue like she had been standing there all the time. She was a Pro.
In fact going on location to “produce ” Dianne was a contradiction in terms. She never needed producing. She didn’t have autocue, just an uncanny ability to remember four days or more worth of weather, which she then would mentally scythe through depending how much time she was given at the end of the show. She would start with enough to fill three and a half minutes and on some notable occasions she actually got ten seconds to make sense of it all.
But she was more than just the weather presenter. She was able to deal with all kinds of stories and could keep a programme on air seamlessly. She was an utter joy to work with and never let anyone down.
Once, slap bang in the middle of a silly season, we couldn’t fill all the slots in the programme because nothing was happening, so I decided to bring in Elvis – there was an Elvis convention in Manchester – to sing live. Instead of the huge five minute slot I’d allocated for him for an interview and a burst of Suspicious Minds, he ended up singing for over seven minutes, breaking into giggles, much the same as the great man himself. And Di was on the studio floor just going with it with a broad smile on her face ready to get us back on track.
I have so many Di moments I wish I could remember and savour them all once more. One of my favourites was walking across the snow and ice on the grass of Jodrell Bank to her position under the huge dish – which was lit up for the Stargazing programmes with Professor Brian Cox. We would do inserts into North West Tonight every year and this particular year it was -4C at 6 pm, yet when I looked down Di was wearing high-heeled sandals, open toe ones at that! Yet it was me who slipped over in my fur lined boots.
On numerous occasions I have seen her turn up looking like she had been mucking out stables, only to emerge minutes later wearing some strapless evening gown which just looked fabulous on her.
Whatever we asked her to do she just got on and did it, whether broadcasting live from an ice-cream van or somewhere more serious where she was able to question those who are accountable. We had a rich run of stories involving diamonds one year I remember. Diamonds in tea bags was one (although I can’t remember why) and on another day we had a £48,000 bottle of perfume in the studio with its own security guards. Again I have no idea why but it produced some great banter between the presenters led by Di – which viewers just love to watch.
But some of the fondest memories I have are those where the viewers actually got to meet her. As Gordon Burns himself has said:”I would turn up somewhere ready to broadcast and all I would be asked is “Where is Dianne? Have you brought Dianne with you Gordon?”
When the programme first started doing live broadcasts from the RHS Tatton Show, Dianne would be gently mobbed as only gentle North West Tonight viewers can mob. She had the dual role of preparing the weather graphics back at base in Manchester, so they would appear on air while she did the weather on location. In the afternoon, she would have to do her radio slots, and so was leaving the office during the rush hour, getting to us with minutes to spare. She would be fully briefed, wonderfully dressed and smiling. I once watched her walking from one of the carparks at the Tatton show and the crowds literally opened up to pave her way.
Looking through clips this morning, I realised just how lucky we were to have her. She was special to everyone but herself. She would dismiss our tributes and tell us to move on if she was still here.
I was the producer on her first programmes back in 1994 and really, she would have been forgiven a few nerves, and I am sure she had them, but we couldn’t tell. Even then she had done her homework so well she was prepared and sharp. She had no fear as she stepped on to the studio floor for the first time. Yet she should have been frightened, because presenting weather is difficult. No autocue, no real idea of how long your slot will be and God forbid when the unforeseen happens, you will be put back in front of the camera to bring us even more weather until the emergency is over. For Dianne, this came naturally.
So, back to that freezing cold night when I stood with Dianne and her children as she waited to switch on the Sale Moor Christmas Lights. Hundreds of people had turned out and the newly bought decorations were strung between the shops when the generator failed.
As the organisers tried to find a replacement generator on a cold Sunday evening Di just stood her ground. She didn’t as much as roll her eyes or click her tongue. She was doing this as a favour and she tried to reassure the organisers that she was absolutely fine, telling them not to worry about her. She was genuinely concerned about them because the crowd had now doubled with the news that Dianne was around.
She chatted and laughed with anyone who came up to say hello, and we just talked about this and that and our old colleagues, some of whom had been unwell. She was dressed in a white coat and she should have been shivering. I had a frozen top lip and was struggling to get words out but as a generator was found, and an hour after schedule she made a speech without so much as a red nose, personalising it to praise the tireless fundraisers.
Finally the lights were on and many a celebrity would have made a swift exit, but not her. She never thought of herself as a celebrity, and she was just so kind. Her rule of thumb was that if people bothered to turn out for her, she would stay and meet them.
Her best bit of advice to me was never buy shoes that cost more than £25 – advice I have sadly disregarded on too many occasions. But for me that sums up Dianne so well. The trappings of fame meant little if anything to her. Instead she was just one of us who had a fabulous job and an even more fabulous family who must be just so desperate at this terrible time. She is going to be sorely missed.