In Plain Sight, a three part drama about notorious Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel begins on ITV on 7 December at 9.00pm. Douglas Henshall, who plays Detective Inspector William Runcie – the man responsible for finally bringing Manuel to justice – talks about the true life drama and how he always like to use his own facial hair!
Did you know about this story before the drama came along?
“I mainly knew about it through my mum because she was about 17, 18, when Peter Manuel was notorious. My mum died a good while ago but I remember her talking about how nervous and frightened people were.
“We’re from Barrhead which is not that far from Birkenshaw and Uddingston but it’s far enough to be able to realise that my mum and her friends probably weren’t in any danger at all. But it proves the way fear reaches out. Especially when you haven’t caught somebody and you are reading these terrible things in the newspapers.
“God only knows what it must have been like for the people who were actually living there at the time. So listening to my mum it just shows how that fear spread. It’s an astonishing story and surprising it hasn’t been told in a TV drama before.”
Did you do any of your own research?
“I read William Muncie’s book The Crime Pond and I’ve dipped into that every now and again. I liked Muncie’s description of Peter Manuel as a lone heron and his analogy of his patch as a pond. He thinks about nature in relation to human nature. In his home on screen we see books on bird watching and copies of the National Geographic. I don’t think he was an enthusiast for its own sake. Consciously or unconsciously, it was something he used for his work.”
Is there any extra responsibility when you play a real person?
“Yes. Mainly to the victims. Muncie’s daughter is also still alive. I feel a certain amount of responsibility to try and recreate a man who was someone she might not recognise physically or even with the things he says or the way he says them, but the spirit of the man is at least there. I can try to get a little bit of that. But it’s mainly for Manuel’s victims.
“Our producer Gillian McNeill and writer Nick Stevens spoke to Muncie’s daughter. What she remembered about her dad was that he was funny. He was always cracking jokes. Despite all of the terrible things he must have seen during the day, he didn’t bring his work home with him. I’ve tried to bring a sense of that to the family scenes. There isn’t that much of an overspill from his work. I wanted to try and make him an identifiable human being. A decent, good man.”
Was Muncie ahead of his time or just a good detective?
“I think both. He was quite progressive in so far as he looked towards America for new ways of working. He was always looking for new ways to be able to do things and catch people. I think the notion of a serial killer first came from America and Peter Manuel was the first person to have that label attached to him in Scotland. The job seems to have been a vocation for Muncie.”
We first see Muncie with Manuel in 1946 when he was a 31-year-old sergeant and Manuel was 18 and about to go to prison for the first time?
“Muncie knew him from when Manuel was a teenage burglar. When you first see him with Manuel there’s a powerful moment where Muncie slaps him and says, ‘You’re not a boy anymore. It’s not going to be borstal. It’s going to be prison this time.’
“Before it became clear he was dealing with a psychopath, Muncie thinks, ‘Straighten yourself out, son. This is real what you’re doing and what you’re being punished for now.’ And at the end he says, ‘When you get out, I’ll still be here.’ In other words, ‘I’m not going to forget who you are and just ignore you.’
“So that seems to be somebody who was quite advanced for their years because he was only in his early thirties then. When I think about myself in my early thirties and then I think about that, it’s quite grown up.”
How shocking is it to learn the details of Manuel’s murders?
“It’s really shocking what he did. And also very sad how accidental some of his most heinous crimes were. He murdered one family but he wasn’t actually targeting them. He was going for the house next door but miscounted the street numbers, because the street started at two instead of one.”
Muncie and his family lived in a police house across the road from his police station. Did that put them at risk from Manuel?
“Today’s online generation will understand the idea of online abuse and trolling. But back then it wasn’t some invisible person. You have actually got that person coming to your house. So you can imagine how much more frightening that is. Because then it’s not some anonymous person writing terrible things to you. It’s somebody who lives in the same area and comes personally to your house to deliver the message. A very real threat to Muncie’s wife and two children. Muncie tried to shield his family from that but it must have been a real worry for him.”
What was it like filming the scenes with Martin Compston involving Muncie and Manuel?
“There are only three actual interview scenes where we are together but there are a few other scenes as well as that. In terms of filming for Martin and I, it’s either a Manuel day or a Muncie day. So we tend to cross as he arrives and I leave or whatever. But we’ve been out a few times together socially.
“There’s an edge underneath the interview scenes with Muncie and Manuel and I hope that comes across. A lot of it is me facilitating Martin talking. So I put my ten pence in and watch the show roll. Then it’s about Muncie trying to wrong foot Manuel in some way.”
Do you think Manuel wanted to be caught?
“The psychology of that is interesting but the wrong conclusions you can draw from it are also myriad. I do wonder if there wasn’t a side of him that actually wanted to get caught. Or that he always knew he was going to be caught but he wanted to see how much he could get away with.
“He never seemed to show any remorse. I don’t know whether he felt any inside for himself. It’s difficult to know. If you want to get away with these crimes, why would you keep doing them? Unless it was a compulsion. And if it’s a compulsion to do that then I don’t understand that kind of thinking. I don’t understand his mind.”
Policing was also different back then with only basic forensic methods and communciations?
“Manuel was very clever in that he never left fingerprints. DNA and other modern techniques just didn’t exist then to link him to the murders. Nothing like that was available. So if you didn’t have fingerprints or an eyewitness it was difficult for the police.”
Muncie went on to become assistant chief constable. But he did make mistakes in his career?
“He had a remarkable record of 54 murder cases and 54 convictions.
“I think it’s probably just as well he was infallible because that makes me think he was more honest. If he made mistakes they were honest mistakes. And in the case of Peter Manuel he also saved one other man from being wrongly convicted and hanging. He was just days away from the gallows but was completely exonerated.”
What locations did you film in?
“The Manuel family house is still there. His sister Theresa lived there until her death in 2008. But we didn’t film there. I don’t think it’s necessary to use the original locations.
“Some of the streets where we’ve filmed on look like it would have done in the 1950s. So we don’t have to hide very much from the modern day. It’s mainly about what you have to hide and what you can get away with.
“I know many of these places where we’ve been filming from my own life. Some are just up the road from where I was brought up.
You play Muncie with a moustache. Is it your own?
“The moustache is mine. I couldn’t bear the idea of having one stuck on every day. And it’s not just the fact you have it stuck on in the morning, it’s the maintenance of it through the day. And there’s enough touching and poking and fixing and stuff to get done during the day anyway that the idea of that would just drive me nuts. So if I ever have to have any facial hair I prefer to grow my own. I don’t particularly like it because it’s not my thing. But it’s preferable to the other.
“We do the very first interview scene in 1946 on the very last day of filming because that means I can shave off my moustache to make Muncie look a bit younger.”
In Plain Sight begins on ITV on 7 December 2016 at 9.00pm