You’ve dubbed Spree a ‘Digital Dickens’, can you explain the concept?
I am a big believer that authors have to innovate, especially ones that don’t automatically get the shelf space and marketing spend that say James Paterson or JK Rowling would get. To that end, I was keen that as well as the now traditional paperback and Kindle launch, Spree was also published in five separate digital parts so readers could, as the plot unfolded, visit an interactive online incident room and profile the suspects using exactly the same information that the investigators in the book had. The publication of a book in multiple parts is certainly a nod to the Penny ‘Dreadfuls’ of Dickensian times, but with the nice new twist of digital interactivity it felt fresh and different.
It’s a fascinating background, working in TV documentary on real life crime, – what made you take the leap from fact to fiction?
It wasn’t so much a leap as a slide. I wrote my first factual book, a study of serial killers, when I filmed a TV show called Murder in Mind and I found the whole process of structuring a book a very rewarding experience. Having run the literary marathon of turning in 90,000 words, I knew that there was a novel in me and I had the stamina to deliver it. All the advice that you get is to write about something you know. So I did. My first book Spider (ironically now attracting international TV interest) was based on a mixture of killers I had interviewed and investigators I had worked with. The landscape (Tuscany) was where I got married. I was very lucky, Spider got picked up by a major UK publisher and was sold abroad to a number of key territories such as Italy and Germany and I felt encouraged enough to carry on writing as well as working in TV.
Your background in TV states you helped roll-out the Big Brother format for Endemol; that could be considered by some as a crime in itself? Are you a fan of reality telly?
I am pretty much a fan of almost all TV, just like I’m a fan of almost all food. If I’m starving and desperately hungry then I’m more than happy with burger and fries. If I have a chance to visit a top end restaurant then yes please I would love the black truffle and do leave that big thick wine list with me. Like the burger, Big Brother is a modern day classic and will always be around. I was privileged to be involved with the format internationally, helping it launch in areas as diverse as the Middle East, India, Poland and Brazil and quite honestly the effect on the global TV business has been amazing. It has made people stars, it’s brought about marriages, reconciliations and it’s humbled more than one politician or celebrity. I do feel now though that reality TV in general has to reinvent itself, much as drama has done over the last five years. The Wire, Game of Thrones, The Killing, The Bridge and True Detective have all taken storytelling to new levels of excellence and I think the reality and light entertainment side of the TV business has been left somewhat in the shade of these bright scripted stars.
They say reality is stranger than fiction, is that true in your vast experiences working with true crime?
Sadly, yes. I interviewed Robert Berdella, a serial killer and sexual sadist in America who abducted people, kept them tied up in his attic and tortured them to death in the most shocking of ways. This guy was the head of his neighbourhood watch and a respected businessman. He was bright, smart and even funny. Totally the last person you would expect to be a serial killer. I also made a film with Ann Marie West, daughter of British serial killer Fred West and I was overawed by her strength, honesty and dignity. She’d suffered terribly as a child at the hands of both Fred and Rose but never looked for sympathy. Some of the things that she told me had happened I have never repeated to anyone in my life and never will but I wept at the time and have wept many times since.
Did you ever get into some sticky scrapes on the Cook Report?
The Cook Report was one sticky scrape from beginning to end. From my point of view as Editor it was a succession of editorial, operational and legal challenges. From the point of view of the undercover researchers, it was about infiltrating the activities of very serious criminals and not getting caught. They did the really dangerous stuff and were the unsung heroes. They spent time with terrorists, international drug smugglers and all manor of highly organised criminals who would have hurt or even killed them if their true identities had been exposed. And from Roger Cook’s point of view it was all about staying cool under extreme pressure, often under the threat of violence. It was an enormously difficult and exceptionally expensive programme to make and I doubt whether anything like it will ever be made in Britain again.
You interviewed serial killer Dennis Nilsen, was that an unnerving experience to try to get inside his mind? Did it give you sleepless nights?
No it didn’t. I’d had a lot of professional help in preparing for the interview, so I was absolutely in the right frame of mind for the filming, which I did with psychologist Paul Brittain. I believe Nilsen was pretty honest during the taping. He said some shocking things, not blood and guts shocking, but emotionally shocking and I came away with the feeling (just as I have done with most other killers or serial killers) that if he had found true love – someone who loved him as much as he loved them – then he would never have taken anyone’s life. I felt he was a man unable to cope with constant stress and repeated rejection and eventually those factors brought him to kill people and keep them beneath his floorboards simply so they wouldn’t leave him.
You clearly have a fascination for the crime genre – can you pinpoint why this is or where this fascination began?
One of my first jobs was on a weekly newspaper in Manchester and I had to cover events at the local magistrates’ court. Most of the cases were as dreary as hell. Speeding offences, TV license dodging, some petty theft or burglary. Then you got the start of the murder and rape cases (to be sent to trail at Crown Court) and I would always wonder why the guys had done it. Why had seemingly normal men with families and jobs suddenly committed the most horrible crimes? What clicked in their heads? What drove them to it? Murder is the ultimate crime and I suppose to normal people like us, the ultimate mystery, which I guess is why the genre remains so popular.
Seeing the worst of humanity, and witnessing post-mortems in your work, how do you cope with the darkness of it all?
I have a lot of light in my life. A lot of love. A lot of good luck. if you have that, then nothing can harm you.
Crime is dominating our TV screens at the moment. With your TV hat on, do you think there’s scope for more or are we over-saturated?
It’s cyclical. The popularity of crime shows ebbs and flows, as does that of medical shows or community-based soap operas. During the dark depths of the economic recession the entertainment industry lurched towards strong heroic stories, escapism/fantasy and powerful female roles. Now there’s more hope and optimism around we’re all ready for a taste of salt and spice after so much sugar.
Can you pitch us your ideal TV show (putting a Serial killer in the Big Brother house, perhaps)?
I think the Chinese already went one better than that. They have execution chat shows, where the killer is interviewed by a popular TV host and is then taken at the end of the show straight to their death.
My own favourite would be making a reality show out of Game of Thrones. Let’s face it, they have the best obstacle course known to mankind (Round One – The Wall!), an endless supply of cruel tricks, wild animals, wild sex, pretty people and a dwarf with the best lines ever written (he’d be my presenter). I may actually call John de Mol and suggest that one!