NEWS presenter Natasha Kaplinsky, who struck up a warm but unlikely friendship with Tony Benn who was almost 50 years her senior, said she would miss the “endlessly kind and thoughtful man”.
The pair became close when Mr Benn was already in his 80s and he once wrote to a Fleet Street editor and jokingly rebuked them for suggesting it was nothing more than a “platonic relationship”.
Kaplinsky said today: “Others have rightly paid tribute to Tony’s status and significance as a political giant. I will miss him as a friend. Ours was an unlikely friendship. He was an endlessly kind and thoughtful man.
“He never forgot a birthday or an important family occasion and I was often touched and surprised by his thoughtfulness. He famously left the House of Commons to spend more time on politics. His dedication to public life was undimmed until the end.”
The couple met at his London home in May 2003 after the death of his wife Caroline. She had come to interview him for a BBC TV programme, Heaven And Earth. At the time Mr Benn described her as “very professional and exceptionally beautiful”. Afterwards, they sat in his garden and chatted.
Two days later, she arrived at his doorstep with a box of chocolates, an action he described as “really sweet”.
The following month, they had lunch together at the House of Commons and then cups of tea in the Terrace Cafeteria. He recalled that she had peppermint tea.
“After that I drove her to Dickins and Jones,” he said.
In May the following year, he watched her on Strictly Come Dancing, winning that particular edition “doing a foxtrot, I think”.
He went on: “She was terribly good and I must say that although I cannot stand Bruce Forsyth, it is quite an amusing programme, so I sent her a little message.”
The following week, he recalled, she came top again: “I voted several times in support of her and I rang and said how fabulous she was.”
The following month they had lunch together at her request. He told her: “I have kept a month open for you. She said, ‘only a month?’, which was very cheeky.”
A few days later what he described as “a fabricated picture” appeared in the Daily Telegraph of Kaplinsky “in her beautiful ball gown and me in evening dress”. The paper said it was a “platonic relationship”.
He said: “So I rang her and said, ‘I hope it doesn’t embarrass you in any way, but I have written a very angry letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph saying how outrageous it was that he should suggest that it was a platonic friendship’. She laughed at that.”
During a subsequent conversation, she said to him: “Let’s meet again, and start a new scandal.”
At that meeting. He gave her a book entitled The Art Of Belly Dancing. Mr Benn was invited to her engagement party before her marriage to Justin Bower, an investment banker.
At one stage, Kaplinsky said: “I liked him very much, but he was 83 and not really for me.”