Sir Trevor McDonald on the challenge of talking to the bereaved parents of murdered 24-year-old Alice Ruggles...
From meeting Death Row inmates and members of the Mafia to sitting down with Nelson Mandela after his release from prison, Sir Trevor McDonald has conducted some challenging interviews over his long and distinguished broadcasting career.
But the conversation he had with two bereaved parents for ITV’s An Hour to Catch a Killer was, he says, one of the most difficult he’s undertaken in front of a camera.
The true-crime documentary follows the Northumbria police investigation into the brutal murder of 24-year-old Alice Ruggles, who was stabbed to death at her Gateshead home by her ex-boyfriend, 26-year-old soldier Harry Dhillon, in October last year.
The programme focuses on the so-called ‘Golden Hour’ after a crime is reported which can make or break the case.
But it also reflects on the fallout from this terrible crime, and sees Sir Trevor visiting Alice’s grave with her parents Clive and Sue, and asking them about their daughter’s life and how they’ve coped since she died.
Here Sir Trevor McDonald talks to TV Times
TV Times: What’s the premise of An Hour to Catch a Killer?
Trevor McDonald: “It’s something that I’d never heard of before, but is very well known in the science of homicide investigations – that what you do in that first hour could determine whether the case works out well or not.”
TVT: What did you make of the work of the Northumbria police homicide squad?
TM: “What impressed me was the quiet, professional way in which they do things. It’s so different from the way in which Hollywood depicts police work where the detectives all scream and shout at each other.”
TVT: It must have been very tough meeting Alice’s parents, Clive and Sue…
TM: “What do you say to a parent who has lost a child? I worry so much about talking to these people, because you want to get information, but it has to be done in a dignified way that shows solicitude for this awful horror which has befallen their lives. So I don’t want to do too many more of those interviews. But Clive and Sue are brilliant people and very bright.”
TVT: Why do you think they agreed to be filmed?
TM: “I hope I’m not putting words into their mouths, but I think they want the case to be seen as a lesson about how things can go badly. These people went out of their way to accommodate Alice’s ex-boyfriend into their family, and this young lady was 24-years-old with a great career before her, everything to live for and a lovely, loving family.”
TVT: As a father of three, did you find Alice’s story particularly affecting?
TM “It’s the most tragic thing I’ve ever been involved in, and I’m sure all parents will be affected by it. What makes it relevant is that there is no way of avoiding this kind of thing. This is life, this is what happens – your kids grow up and have friends and form relationships and, in many instances, there’s not very much you can do about it.”
TVT: Is being a detective a job that appeals to you?
TM: “I am not sure I have the patience, and I have never thought of myself as being that community-spirited. These police officers had a kind of civic fervor, and they said to me. ‘We owe this to the community, to Alice, to her parents.’ That I admired.”
TVT: You’re writing a memoir. What turning points in your life have particularly struck you?
TM: “When I stopped doing News at 10, I thought my TV life had ended. And I’ve now had this golden streak of luck to be involved in a series of fascinating documentaries for ITV. I never thought that after doing the news that I would meet such characters – such as the people on Death Row and those mad Mafia guys. I’ve just been very lucky.”
TVT: Have the many documentaries you’ve made about crime changed your outlook on life?
TM: “I don’t think I’ve become more cynical. I’m not so much jaded as amazed, since it’s a side of life I didn’t know much about. I’m not a great reader of crime novels and I haven’t watched that many television programmes about crime. Also I’m terrified of guns and I hate the sound of gunfire – so I’m your original coward!”
TVT: Would you ever consider a return to presenting News at 10?
TM: “Absolutely not! I would take out a personal injunction against News at 10 if they were to be silly enough to do ask me. The law should stop them – in fact you should be charged for even thinking about it!”
TVT: What’s next for you?
TM: “I’ve filmed a programme in America to mark next year’s 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King. I’ve also been back to South Africa, where I interviewed Nelson Mandela when he was freed, to make another programme. They’re quite similar, as they ask what Martin and Nelson might have made of the world they left behind.”
TVT: Which of your interviews has been particularly memorable?
TM: “I asked a Death Row inmate what’s it like when somebody is taken away to be executed. He said: ‘Man, it’s terrible. You get to know somebody and one day he knocks on your door and says: “Man, I gotta go”. And you know when they take him down death steps, he ain’t coming back because they’re gonna kill him.”’
I said to Morgan Freeman, who I got to know while filming in Mississippi: ‘Some of those guys have better lines than your guys in The Shawshank Redemption!’”
An Hour to Catch a Killer with Trevor McDonald is on ITV at 9.00pm tonight.