Colin Sutton is himself The Real Manhunter, and I had the opportunity to chat with the former Met DCI and SIO about his new true-crime docuseries.
Based on what I’ve seen of Coin Sutton in The Real Manhunter, and my experience of him during our Zoom call, if I could sum him up in one word, I think it would be true. He seems to be an all-around good guy, certainly a humble man with a lot of heart, and emotionally intelligent to boot.
Before he retired from the Metropolitan Police of Greater London, Colin Sutton had been a Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) and a Senior Investigating Officer (SIO). Over the course of his 30-year career in law enforcement, he worked on some heavy-duty cases, including serving as the SIO on — and solving with his teams — two of the UK’s most high-profile criminal cases: the “Night Stalker” serial rapist case and the “Bus-Stop Killer” serial killer case. Their work led to life imprisonment for serial rapist Delroy Grant and serial killer Levi Bellfield.
The Real Manhunter opens with the feature-length stories of these two complex cases, followed by six episodes that center on singular crimes, including four homicide cases, an arson case that resulted in nearly a dozen deaths, and the disappearance of a wife and mother.
With such a long and distinguished career, including more than 30 successful murder investigations as the SIO, I asked Colin what it was about the Bridie Skehan, Krystal Hart, Christopher Donovan, and Clare Bernal murders, the Dream City Cinema fire, and the disappearance of Maureen Hale, that had him choose them for inclusion in the The Real Manhunter. (Text has been edited for clarity.)
CS: “I think each of them had a dimension that was unusual and was worth exploring and worth telling the story of. You’ve got the Donovan case, with the remarkable forgiveness and force for good that his parents have become afterwards. You’ve got the absolute tragedy of Bridie Skehan. And you’ve got the absolute senselessness of the murder of Krystal Hart. There is the similar sort of thing to [Bellfield] with Clare Bernal — the issues around stalking and how we were able to deal with that within the law and what that raised, and again what her mother’s done. The fire where all those men died, I mean that’s just a terribly, terribly tragic and amazingly serious event that really had gone under the radar. Even people who lived nearby said, ‘I never knew about that.’ This is something that, if it were to happen today, would be a real big thing; it’d be top of all news stories. But it went under the radar. So I thought that each of those had a dimension to it that was worth exploring and worth telling the story of.”
The series’ eight stories are interesting in and of themselves. The format of how they are told, though, shifts a bit in certain episodes. The ones about the Night Stalker and the Bus-Stop Killer cases, and the Skehan and Hart murders, focus very much on Colin, along with members of his former teams and The Sun‘s Crime Editor Mike Sullivan, taking viewers through the ins and outs of the cases — from background on the perpetrators and the victims, to vivid descriptions of the crimes, to the granular details about the painstaking investigative work. The same can be said for the Maureen Hale cold case, which has the added element of individuals sharing their thoughts about the missing woman’s husband.
The biggest difference between these episodes and the ones about the Donovan and Bernal murders and the cinema fire is the shift in the storytelling from Colin, who still appears but to a lesser degree, to the families of the victims — notably Christopher Donovan’s parents and Clare Bernal’s mum — and to fire and forensics specialists. With the program revolving around Colin’s work as the real manhunter and his being the show’s lead presenter, I asked him if that shift was intentional from the beginning, when he and the producers were plotting out the series.
CS: “Yeah, it was really, because I thought there were two things that made the stories that I’ve got strong, and that I wanted to tell in what at least we hope will be the first season. We’ve got a meeting next week, I think, or the week after, to try and see if we can do another one. I think that’s a real possibility. But there were two things that I wanted to put forward. Some of those were the ones where I thought the investigation and the strategy and the work done by my team or teams, mostly one team, that I led, were noteworthy in themselves. They’re the ones that have got this granular investigative detail in them. But there are also other cases that, as I said, I felt were rather under the radar and really hadn’t been aired publicly, and they were stories of tragedy or resilience and determination and things like that that deserve to be told. And I thought this was an opportunity to do those.
“So, yeah, it was deliberate in the sense that I knew there were some stories where the focus would be on the investigation, and there were others where that focus could be on the aspects of the actual crime and where the investigation itself was pretty much straightforward, or at least as straightforward as these things can be. Not every case that you take needs working to that degree of outright, incisive, determined investigation. Sometimes that side of it is easier. But it’s these ancillary matters of dealing with the bereaved and the families, and dealing with the fallout of the offenses, which also fall upon the police to do something about. That’s perhaps an aspect of the work that’s less known, and I thought they were stories that illustrated that quite well, so they were worth telling for that reason.”
It’s obvious from the series that Colin developed special relationships with at least some of the victims’ families. We get a glimpse of this in Manhunt, the dramatization of the “Bus-Stop Killer” investigation, in which Colin, played by Martin Clunes, visits murder victim Amelie Delagrange’s parents, who appear in archival footage in The Real Manhunter. Also in the docuseries are the parents of murder victim Christopher Donovan; the way they speak about Colin is positively effusive — or, as Colin noted in our Zoom, “mildly embarrassing, really.” So I asked if he could share more about these relationships.
CS: “Yeah, I can… The kind of art or science of dealing with bereaved families in homicide situations is one that — we have specialist officers, officers generally of low rank, of constable rank, who are specially trained to perform the role of liaison. As the leader of the team and the person upon whom [the families are] pinning their hopes that you can do something for them, it falls on the Senior Investigating Officer’s head, as well, to make sure that he or she has decent relations with them.
“Very much so, I would always employ the two cardinal rules: you never tell lies and you don’t give them any surprises. I would always meet these families and I would always say, ‘I’m not going to promise that we will prosecute the person who did this. I’m not going to promise that the person who did this will be convicted and go to prison, because I can’t. Sometimes it can’t be done. But what I’ll promise is we’ll always do absolutely everything we possibly can to try to make that happen, and we’ll keep you informed about it.’
“A lot of the job in law enforcement is understanding people and understanding how people reacted and what they’re likely to do next and how they’re thinking. And that applies not only to the perpetrator but it applies to the bereaved as well. What I did learn over many years is that there’s no right or wrong way for somebody to react to the loss of a loved one through a homicide. What you have to do is allow the people the space to try to come to terms with it in the way that’s best for them, and then support them in that as best as you can.
“So, because that was always a big part of what I was doing, it just happened that I fortunately managed to be on very good terms with almost all of the families that I had the privilege of investigating their murder, but getting to know them in those circumstances. I guess when you’re sort of close to somebody during such a traumatic time for them, it’s probably natural that a relationship and some sort of bond forms over the years. There are some that continue to this very day — murders that I investigated 15 or 20 years ago, I’m still in touch with the families, and we’ve become friends, for want of a better word, as a result of it.”
This, then, begged the question of whether Christopher’s parents and Clare’s mum were an immediate yes when they were approached about participating in the series, or if it took some convincing. Said Colin:
CS: “The Donovans certainly were an immediate yes, because they very much think that the story of Christopher’s murder is something that they can use as a force for good, and have done to a large degree. Tricia Bernal was a little bit less enthusiastic, I have to say. I had a Zoom conversation with her just like this, because for me the bottom line always is, if the families don’t want to do it, we won’t make that program. I spent too long trying to help these people to start upsetting them now after being retired for ten years. So I wouldn’t do that. But we talked it through and talked how we could use the program to highlight the dangers and the difficulties and highlight the work that she’s done since Clare’s death. She was happy with that, and we came to an agreement that she would, in that case, not only support it, but she’d take part in it, which she did. And I think we did showcase quite well what she’s done and what’s going on. We’ve had an email from her after it aired or after she saw it that just said, ‘It was wonderful. It was very tasteful. Thank you for doing it in the way that you did.’
“So, we’ve got to listen, but as I say, the bottom line for me is, I’m not in the business of upsetting these people after all this time. Krystal Hart’s family, we spoke to them beforehand; they were thinking about taking part, and then decided they didn’t want to. Again, they contacted me afterwards to say they were very happy with what we’d done, the way we presented it, and that we did it in a respectful way — in a way which told the story in the way that it should have been told.”
With Colin having mentioned an upcoming meeting about a second season of The Real Manhunter, will we get to see more of these stories?
CS: “The reception that [the first season] seems to have got on the Sky Crime channel over here is very, very good. I’ve had lots and lots of social media feedback from people who I don’t know, but who got in touch to say, ‘We really enjoyed the way the stories were told, the way that it was done’ and ‘Are you doing any more?’ The production company has got a meeting with the broadcaster next week. As they said, and they know more about these things than I do, they said, ‘If they don’t want another season, they don’t even bother to have a meeting.’ We’ve got another eight cases that we think are worthy and would make a proper second season. So, yeah, hopefully that will come off and we can do that, and there will be even more stories to be told.”
Well, I’d certainly watch them if another season were commissioned, as I learned a heck of a lot from the first season’s eight episodes about what really goes into detective work. It’s not as flash as some shows make it out to be.
CS: “No, that kind of follows how we did the drama, really. That was really our intention with the Manhunt drama — that it would be paced and there would be enough information in it to grip, rather than having shoot-outs and car chases and things, because it’s not like that. The whole idea of it was to focus on how these things are investigated in real life.
“The second season of Manhunt the drama coming out in September over here, that I hope will also make it to Acorn, is a similar sort thing. It’s a nice way of doing it. I’m very keen to do it in that way, because it not only keeps the level of respect for the victims and their families, but it also shows a great respect for the officers that do the foot-slogging, do the hard work. Ultimately I just direct them and sign bits of paper, really. It’s the men and women who are on the teams and are out there meeting people and finding the evidence that solve these things — and they’re very good at it. That was the whole motivation for me, really, when I started all this off and wrote the first Manhunt book; [it] was to make sure that people were aware of just how special some of these people who are looking after them really are.”
As we await word about a second season of The Real Manhunter, audiences on both sides of the pond are looking forward to Season 2 of the Manhunt drama.
CS: “We’ve got four hours this time, four episodes this time, and it’s all on the ‘Night Stalker’ case. In a way, I think it’s a better — obviously I’ve seen it — and I think it’s a better drama than the first one was, so I’m really hoping it goes well.”
Which is really saying something, as the first one was awesome.
CS: “Yeah, I know. Episode three is my tip — episode three, of all the seven that we’ve written, is the one that I just really love, because it’s got absolutely everything. It’s got humor. It’s got tragedy. It’s got tension. It’s got a little bit of action. It’s just a really, really good hour’s watch. I think it’ll go well, but who knows. You never really know with television, do you?”
No, you really don’t.
But loads of viewers of The Real Manhunter are positive that the true-crime docuseries is a really, really good eight hours’ watch. The first season is available in its entirety for binge-streaming in the US on Acorn TV and its digital channels.
So, too, is the first season of Manhunt, starring Martin Clunes as DCI Colin Sutton.
Check them both out, and stay tuned for updates about the drama’s second season, Manhunt II: The Night Stalker, and (fingers crossed) another season of The Real Manhunter.
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