Over the years I’ve filmed with hundreds of ‘real’ people including doctors, vicars, vets, firefighters and criminals. Often you couldn’t tell one from another. Other times the apprehension inside can make it patently obvious, especially when you’re a few months’ pregnant, alone and about to head into the home of one of Britain’s most notorious gangsters for a cuppa.
Don’t worry, I did tell my office exactly where I was going and at exactly what time I was due back, just in case.
Viewers have a voracious appetite for true crime documentaries. The stories are gripping, real enough to be terrifying, but most of the crimes are resolved with the perpetrators getting their comeuppance.
However, the producers of these documentaries meet the characters up close. Mostly we interview people associated with the victims, police officers or experts on the cases, but we also work with the criminals themselves.
Over the years I’ve produced many docs featuring multiple crimes. Four of those films have been specifically about the famous London gangsters of the Sixties: the Krays, the Richardsons, Frankie Fraser and their associates. My ability to make these documentaries has relied entirely on my relationship with ‘former’ gangsters – or ‘illegal entrepreneurs’ as they are sometimes known.
You need to establish trust from the first contact. They need to know that when you say you are going to do something you will follow through. This isn’t dissimilar to any other production, but sometimes the conversations can be more blunt. If there’s an issue, you will know about it.
From my experience, the former criminals I’ve filmed place a heavy emphasis on keeping your word, as they have a code of conduct and they need to know you are not making false promises.
Above all, never underpay expenses, no matter how tight the budget is. Money is the one thing that can turn an ordinary-looking grandad into his former villainous self. Misunderstandings or simply paranoia about the subject have resulted in the worst moments for me over the years. Someone once said to me that the ‘p’ in ‘prison’ stands for ‘paranoia’, and this often remains true on the outside. They’ve lived in a world where they expect to be screwed out of what they are owed. No matter how close you have become, if money gets in the way, it turns nasty.
Never underpay expenses, no matter how tight the budget is. Money is the one thing that can turn an ordinary-looking grandad into his former villainous self
On a purely practical note, people who have been in prison are really great at chatting and are natural storytellers. It does mean that interviews can sometimes last hours, much to my crew’s dismay. It’s worth it, though. The moment Freddie Foreman became emotional on camera about Reggie Kray’s death is one of the most gripping parts of our latest gangster doc, The Krays: The Prison Years for Discovery Channel UK.
I’ve never felt the need for security to accompany the crew while filming [gangsters]. I have, though, on other docs, but it’s always on a case-by-case basis. We filmed in the estates of Peckham, London, for a documentary about murderer schoolboy Damilola Taylor with presenter Rav Wilding. It was an emotive subject and likely to cause a response from locals. Yet only a mile or so down the road, I filmed with the Sixties gangster Charlie Richardson with no need for any protection. In fact, the only issue was the number of locals coming up and shaking the hand of the former South London gang leader.
During the edit process I always try to remember that, no matter how great the story, this is not fiction. There are real victims, real families and real perpetrators. No matter how close you have become to the criminals during the shooting, you cannot in any way glorify them. They must understand that your message can only be ‘crime doesn’t pay’, and the storytelling must remain resolutely neutral.
I would say the most nerve-racking element of these kinds of productions are when the criminals view the end product that we show out of courtesy. Then it is either a case of another cup of tea, or something stronger.