Surrey undercover with the real Donal MacIntyre
PUBLISHED: 19:21 13 July 2015 | UPDATED: 15:20 14 October 2015
He's risked his life to expose everything from pension scams and dodgy funeral parlours to dangerous drug dealers - but the real Donal MacIntyre is a gentle soul who likes nothing better than a stroll in the Surrey countryside. Alan Tovey met up with him to find out more about his life in our county and beyond
Donal MacIntyre's Surrey Uncovered column will appear monthly in Surrey Life magazine from August 2015. Take advantage of the latest money-saving deal at www.subscriptionsave.co.uk/Surrey to never miss out.
In the mean time, read our previous interview with Donal below - originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2007
As an investigative journalist, Donal MacIntyre is used to facing scary characters (gangsters, Balkan warlords, drug dealers, cannibal tribes...) but none so difficult as young children.
Problems with daughter Allegra, five, and four-month-old son Tiger mean it's an apologetic Donal and wife Ameera who arrive two hours late to meet Surrey Life. Unstoppable when exposing crime, corruption or dodgy deals, it seems Irishman Donal, 41, was stopped by little people.
Having first made his name by secretly filming football hooligans to expose their world of organised violence in MacIntyre Undercover back in 1999, Donal's received numerous death threats. Not surprisingly, he's reluctant to pinpoint where he lives, and a "nice area outside Richmond" is all he's happy to say. "Ah, the football fatwa..." he says. "I call it that because when I was laying low in a hotel, the owner said to me, 'We'll put you in the room Salman Rushdie stayed in when he was hiding out.' It's like there's a chain of hotels dotted around the country for people hiding out."
Laying low is something Donal's good at - he's had to move more than 40 times. "It got to one stage where I didn't know where I lived. I knew the way to drive there but if you asked me the address I couldn't tell you."
Nowadays, he's trying to settle down and live a more normal life - paradoxically because the better he is at his job the less able he is to do it. Having exposed abuse in care homes, doormen peddling drugs, car and street crime, and sex abusing doctors and dentists, his face is too well known for him to go undercover successfully. A move into more mainstream programmes, presenting and directing means his life is changing.
A life under threat...
But still the threats linger - in 2005 he was attacked while jogging in Bushy Park, near Hampton Court Palace. "A guy with links to football violence launched a flying kick at me shouting, 'You shouldn't have done it!' I was nine miles into a 10-mile run so my wits weren't quite about me.
"Oh, and my car got trashed last year when I was living in Chiswick," he adds in a matter-of-fact manner. "And then I've been told by Scotland Yard, 'On no account, go out in West London this weekend' - which was difficult as I was living there at the time."
Life in Surrey...
But now life in Surrey is something he loves. As a former near-Olympic level canoeist - with the compact but powerful physique to match - he spends a lot of time on the water and he got to know the county while afloat.
"Water is my home from home - for me there's nothing quite so much fun as messing about in boats," he says. "I've canoed the Thames and I learnt about Surrey from the riverbank. When I've been away filming, I love to see the Thames as I come home - it's very restful."
Another attraction is the county's flora and fauna - and the access to it. "It's so green. It's amazing that in such a wealthy part of the country there are these amazing public spaces - Richmond Park, Bushy Park... I go jogging in the parks and you can find yourself running into deer - extraordinary. It's where country comes to town.
"Of course, there was countryside when I was a boy living in Celbridge outside Dublin, but it was agricultural, off limits really."
Partly attracted by Surrey's good schools, Donal and Ameera are now looking to buy a family home, possibly near Godalming, but for the moment are renting a four-bedroom mock-Georgian townhouse.
The thought of moving yet again doesn't worry them. "Our last move... urrrgh," groans Donal in his Irish brogue. "The last thing you should ever inflict on your seven-and-a-half-months pregnant wife is a move. And then tell her you're having six members of the Insect tribe of former cannibals from Papua New Guinea come to stay with you for a show you're making." But Ameera gives the game away. "Actually, he was away working when 'we' moved," she smiles.
Moving highlights the legacy of Donal's past work. Ameera, 31, who he married last year, chips in: "We have to vet the removal men - everything's more complicated."
Donal picks up the thread: "It's dull and boring and quite stressful. Life is about 40 per cent more expensive, time-consuming and difficult. Everything comes with a tariff. You have to pay to vet staff, get security, cars can't be registered to you but to a company - and you have to change them so often."
Oddly, when facing such dangers, Donal says that the people next door offer some of the best protection. "Neighbours can provide the best security in that they are aware of anything odd going on. We get on well with our neighbours - we haven't told them who I am but they are aware of it."
It seems domestic life helps him keep his feet on the ground - apparently there's nothing he fears more than Ameera when he's forgotten to put the rubbish out on bin day.
In the world of work, Donal's most frightening experience was pretending to be an arms dealer in Montenegro. "I was wheeled in as the money man to meet a guy called the Tiger, one of [the Serbian warlord] Arkan's bodyguards, with a secret camera and knowing there was a 50:50 chance of being searched. They did try to search me but I turned it back on them, saying, 'Who are you, the CIA?' It was a measured risk." Donal's enthusiastic answers fade away as he pauses for the first time in the interview. "I rarely enunciate the fear on location but I did think, 'God, I could have ended up with a bullet in the back of my head'."
But Donal denies he's brave, saying he 'talks a good game' and is afraid of mice, the dark and, after some prompting, needles. When exposing football hooligans, he had to get a team tattoo to show his loyalty and fainted on screen as he was inked with a Chelsea FC logo.
"I was gritting my teeth trying to hold on, but the tattooist turned to the camera, said 'Your boy's looking a bit unwell', I turned blue and - crash! My head hit the deck."
Great TV, and not at all faked, unlike many shows being exposed in the media at the moment - something Donal's passionate about.
"I welcome these improving standards but you've got to educate audiences about the way programmes are made ," he says. "There's 1,000 edits to make Masterchef and that's a 30-minute show. Does that make it less real?
"And wildlife programmes where they show Momma and Poppa bear at the start; well, you can bet that it isn't the same two bears at the end. But is anybody being harmed by that?"
It's all about context and balance, according to Donal. "We might record hundreds of hours of film and you have to condense it down fairly; it's simplification.
"But then other times there are cases of clear distortion, which can even be accidental, and that's the problem."
Donal's never been troubled by accusations over the veracity of his shows - he became the first journalist to successfully sue the police for defamation, winning five-figure damages that he gave to charity.
"We don't force anything. If the story doesn't stack up, it doesn't stack up. And anyway, a lot of my stories are going to end up in the hands of lawyers. I welcome the standards - I think it might come to a stage where a blue kitemark is shown on films." In a gentle barb to print journalists, he adds: "Standards in broadcasting are probably higher than in newspapers."
It seems Donal's been there, done that and got the T-shirt to prove it - which probably explains why he's wearing one with the 2007 Sundance film festival logo on it to meet Surrey Life. His directorial debut, a 100-minute documentary called A Very British Gangster on Manchester's Noonan crime family, was shown at the prestigious festival and has won critical acclaim at other events. It's due for a UK release in November.
But what is it that attracts Donal to filming these professional criminals? It's got to be dangerous - they kill people after all.
"Not at all," is the blasé answer. "They respect me and I respect them. People like myself and them have seen more of life than most people will ever know." Ameera's comment is a little chilling: "He [Noonan] did say, 'Your husband's lucky to be alive'."
Donal's perhaps over-confident attitude doesn't seem to gel with his televised breakdown after being mugged by a knife-wielding but slight 19-year-old in Brixton. "That was a reaction to years of facing dangers," he says. "When it comes to difficult moments, you cannot measure that one moment that sets you off. That incident pricked a vulnerability in me and I had a cathartic moment."
Although his show faced criticism for that particular adventure into street crime - it actually took him three days to get mugged, despite flashing around a laptop in the then mugging capital of Europe - Donal's still proud of the effect it had on the public consciousness.
"Grandmothers of 90 were getting mugged for a bag of chips. It doesn't matter where you live, Brixton, John o' Groats, leafy Surrey... You have a right to walk down the Queen's highway with the expectation and confidence of safety. Doesn't matter what council tax you pay. You should be safe and we exposed it."
And that's Donal's idea of a typical day's work and job well done - poking the dark underbelly of society, raising public awareness and fearlessly (well, normally fearlessly) going where other journalists fear to tread...
A life in journalism...
- Donal MacIntyre has been an undercover journalist for over 15 years working mostly for the BBC1 and BBC2 but with stints at ITV and Five. His reports have also been broadcast on Sky and BBC News and broadcast in over 75 countries.
- Born in Dublin in 1966, he was employed initially in the print media, working as a news reporter for The Sunday Tribune and later with The Irish Press in Dublin. He went on to work in finance journalism, sports and news, and has written for The Guardian, The Mail and New Statesman among others.
- In 1993, he did his first work in television was for the award-winning BBC investigative sports programme, On-The-Line. A highly experienced canoeist, he was invited to go undercover as an adventure sports instructor to expose the lack of employment standards in the industry. This was in the wake of the Lyme Regis canoeing disaster in which four people drowned.
- Since then, he has investigated everything from cruelty in greyhound racing to organised football violence to racism in the police.
- Among his many dangerous missions, he has infiltrated a drug den by living in a crack house for three months, travelled to Rwanda to highlight the illegal trade in rare mountain gorillas and worked undercover as a doorman in Nottingham for a year.
- In 2002, he presented the landmark series, Wild Weather, with the BBC science department, which was nominated for a BAFTA.
- Over the years, he has won a whole host of awards including several Royal Television Society awards and a BAFTA award for The Oklahoma Bomber (2001) - his investigation into the life of Timothy McVey.