‘I can’t do Strictly on Saturday and on Monday be at a crime scene’

Posted 27th October 2022

If you want to get an insight into the mind of a killer, Professor David Wilson is a fountain of knowledge having worked with many of them.

He visited Waterstones in Milton Keynes to talk about his current book, and while there the criminologist spoke with Pulse’s Sammy Jones about a most fascinating career…

Professor David Wilson has worked with more serial killers and high profile offenders than most, but it wasn’t until researching the man ‘off the telly’ and author of many true crime books that I learned he has been the victim of crime himself.

You are probably expecting some terrifying ordeal at the hand of a high-profile criminal during a visit behind bars, but you would be wrong – it was a sexual assault in plain sight of people at a literary event.

David wrote about the incident which is where I happened upon it.

“What I found really interesting about that article is that it really was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” David says, as we chat in the cafe of Waterstones bookstore in Central Milton Keynes.

“The woman came up and squeezed my nipple so hard I screamed, but everybody in the queue laughed, and I said ‘What if I had done that to you?’

“It was a sexual assault and I thought, ‘I am going to try to talk about this.’

“The irony about that article was that it had one comment online and it was, ‘Well he is quite good looking, isn’t he?’

“I thought, ‘what was the point of raising this as an issue?”

While there is no excuse for that sort of behaviour, with a high profile comes more attention – and David is certainly a well-known figure in a fairly unique position.

The Scottish born Professor Emeritus of Criminology has unparalleled knowledge in his field of expertise. His career has seen him work as a Prison Governor for a significant spell, and he spent time at prisons including Grendon, Wormwood Scrubs and here in Milton Keynes, at Woodhill, where he helped to design and run two units for the 12 most violent prisoners in the country.

That work saw him in contact with nearly every recent serial killer.

“Woodhill was a fabulous experience,” he says, “I had just finished working at Grendon which is the only prison in the whole of Europe which operates as a psycho dynamic therapeutic community, which means all of the prisoners are in therapy.

“Every day they talk about their childhood, their upbringing, their peers, their parents and why they offended, and that’s how I learned about violence – through violent men talking about how and when they used violence.

“It was because of the experiences I had there that I was asked to work on the units for the most disruptive prisoners in the country.”

And just how do you make a difference in those pressurised environments?

“We used psychology and criminology – thinking of how to design the unit, how to train the staff, how to manage the prisoners. Most violence occurs in environments that are hot, polluted and overcrowded.

“One of the things you can do to reduce the amount of violence is to manipulate the temperature. You can give a sense of space so you don’t feel overcrowded, and polluted. We banned smoking in common areas.

“We did lots of things that at the time were regarded as extraordinarily innovative.”

David, who now lives close to Milton Keynes, is talking with me prior to hosting a talk in the bookstore. A little later he will deliver a particularly engaging event for ticket holders. There is no fidgeting or waning of interest when he speaks; they all want to know about the people David has encountered – they want to pick the brains of the man who has picked the brains of those responsible for often abhorrent crimes.

One of those crimes, the one he has written a book about most recently, made national news when the shocking truth was uncovered.

A Plot to Kill explores the background to the murder of Peter Farquhar, a lecturer at Buckingham University. As the book jacket says so succinctly, it is ‘ the true story of deception, betrayal and murder that shocked a quiet English town.’

Did you not think it was a little ‘too close to home’ to write about?

“Totally,” he says without hesitation, relaying a story about a previous book that his sisters had spent years badgering him to write, about a murder in the town where he grew up.

Eventually, he had put pen to paper for Signs of Murder.

“It took me less than two months research to work out that the man convicted of the murder hadn’t done the murder, so the whole book was 

about, ‘if he didn’t do it, who did?’

“That book ends by me knocking on that man’s door and saying ‘You did the murder.’

He wasn’t very pleased…”

When it was released, the page- turner brought things to the surface that had been buried for half a century.

“People were very affected by it,” he admitted.

The tensions that rose by writing about a murder 50 years ago made him hesitant to cover one that happened as recently as 2015 on his doorstep.

“But everybody – the woman in Waitrose, my dentist, people in the butchers were asking, ‘Are you gonna write about the murder of Peter Farquhar? ‘ I went to the trial and thought, ‘Oh my god, this is real psychopathy on show…’

David doesn’t mention many murderers or high-profile prisoners by name during our chat (‘…because in my experience they rather like it, because most of them are narcissistic’), although notorious serial killer Dennis Nilsen is one exception, and he maintained correspondence with David until his death in 2018.

It’s one thing interviewing a temperamental old theatre-star or a vacuous musician (we’ve done both in our time), but that’s a world apart from facing up to a murderer. How does that work?

“You try to be empathetic,” David says, “You try to walk in their shoes. You use the skills of friendship, except you’re not trying to make a friend, so you try to get them to open up. And then you have a problem, which is can you trust them?

“Have they actually been telling you the truth? Which is one of the debates I’ve always had about Nilsen.”

And there are some prisoners who look at the chance to chat to David as good for their status.

“A lot of the people I interview would score highly clinically in relation to being psychopaths and they’ve got a streak of narcissism – they want me to interview them, because I’m the ‘top bloke’.”

David’s work as a presenter and commentator means he is regularly on the small screen and in 2021 he teamed up with Emilia Fox for the Channel 4 series, In the Footsteps of Killers.

A second series will air this year.

Murderers, their crimes, and their victims interest many of us, and when we turn on the TV we do so out of interest and curiosity. There is obviously an element of entertainment too. 

But not for the families of the victims. Not that David needs a reminder.

“Those are absolutely fair observations to make. There has to be a balance, doesn’t there?” he says, but it’s a statement, not a question.

“I still advise on live cases, and I still provide training for homicide detectives, and there has to be a balance whereby I can’t do Strictly on Saturday and on Monday be at a crime scene. How would the family of the victim feel?

“I have had to face some of those issues in terms of where I am in my career, and I have to be very conscious about what I’ll do, or not do.

“Emelia and I were going to do Celebrity Hunted together,” he reveals, “It was for Stand Up For Cancer and we felt it was something legitimate that I could do with her, but as it happened I was filming for BBC Scotland and she had another run of Silent Witness and the dates didn’t work out. But I do choose what I do very carefully.”

David is the chair of Grendon Friends Trust, a charity supporting that aforementioned therapy programme at HMP Grendon. It’s groundbreaking and important work being undertaken there, and he is passionate about it; “It is the only prison that can demonstrate a treatment effect; if you go to Grendon for at least two years you are statistically less likely to offend once you’ve been released.”

Naturally, David wants the public to be protected and where necessary he knows people need to be behind bars, but he thinks we put away too many.

“I use a phrase, ‘we should lock up the people we are scared of, rather than the people we are mad at.’

“I just feel what we do in this country is lock up too many people we are simply angry with. I really do believe we should be investing much more in childhood interventions.

“So often prison is dealing with the failures of schools, the care system, the mental health outreach, drug addiction. Prison is being asked to look after people who have never been looked after in the past and by the time they get there it’s too late.

“Rather than investing in the back end, which is a prison in our culture, let’s invest in the front end – which would be childhood support.”

David’s current research interests, listed on his website, include ‘the phenomenon of British serial murder, family annihilation, hitmen and lethal violence within organised crime, to all aspects of prison history and penal reform.’

He has seen more of the evil that men (and women) do than most of us, but can still be shocked by the levels of depravity one person can inflict on another.

“There was a lot of overkill during Covid, a lot of domestic violence and women being murdered using more violence than necessary to kill the person, and there was a lot of beheading and other kinds of dreadful things…”

And in today’s society, technology puts the goriest of things in easy reach – beheadings are a mere click away online: “I swear when I start the first year lectures, I ask the students, ‘How many of you have seen a beheading video?’ I have a first year of about 350 and all of them have. It’s the commodification of extreme violence and that’s a really worrying phenomenon.”

And yet, David has no problem getting a good night’s sleep. How does he decompress?

“I always say you’ve got to compartmentalise,” he says with a lesson for the insomniacs among us, “I have been married for over 30 years, I love people, I love my wife, I love my children,” he smiles, “I am a huge Northampton Saints man and a season ticket holder at Franklins Gardens…

“The key thing is love,” David promises, “…there is always light that illuminates the gloom.”