“My brother was offered a contract to whack you,” was how Donal MacIntyre was introduced to his latest subject.
MacIntyre has never led a quiet life, going undercover with drug dealers, exposing low standards of elderly care and model industry antics, even going into police protection after his investigations helped convict a football hooligan.
His most recent project takes him behind the camera for At Home With the Noonans, where MacIntyre revisits the subject of his 2005 documentary, A Very British Gangster. It takes him, once again, to the heart of the Manchester crime land, with some extraordinarily intimate access to one of the most notorious families in the city, the Noonans, some of whom have spent more time inside than out over the last decades, some who’ve kept themselves entirely on the right side of the law.
“You see someone with blood trailing down their face, and it’s like a release, it’s better than sex” - Cody the Doorman, a Noonan associate
For me, this creates, on paper, all sorts of problems – the nature of such privileged access to kingpin Dominic Noonan and his brood surely compromising any hope of impartial journalism, for a start. As MacIntyre tells me, “I spent such a long time with them all. This isn’t a smash and grab raid on the community. This is their own stories. They learnt to trust me.” Well, that all sounds great, but, then, how can we?
And what about the title, a lampoon at best of The Osbournes or, more cynically, borrowing from the glamour of Hollywood reality TV, where the worst crimes committed are generally against fashion and taste?
Alongside this is the dilemma of depicting such characters at all. Everyone wants to be on telly these days, we know – is there any value to showing how one sure-fire route is to be a feared and revered head of a crime family, even one never convicted of the many gangland murders linked to his name?
Dominic Noonan does stand up in his local pub - woe betide anyone who doesn't laugh...
At this point, MacIntyre and I disagree – strongly. “You’re basing your knowledge on reading the title, very superficially.” (Yes, which is how viewers tuning in will choose to watch, surely, and something which channel execs cannot fail to be aware of when trying to draw in audiences?)
“I’m basing mine on ten years following this family very closely, and I can promise you I’m not making them glamorous at all.”
"I see the good that Dominic does around the estate, and his one-liners are second to none" - A longtime neighbour
So... just fallen out with Donal MacIntyre. Fantastic. Gazing along the spectrum of celebs I don’t want to be on the wrong side of, I feel, unjustifiably I’m sure, nearer the Vinnie Jones end of the swimming pool than the Lorraine Kelly end. Never mind my huge respect for the work he does.
But we agree I’ll watch the piece before making up my mind, and I’m so glad I did. Two episodes in, and The Noonans proves thought-provoking, fascinating viewing, horrifying and moving both.
Above all, MacIntyre’s access to the crime-lord at the centre of it all, Dominic Noonan, makes for a complex character portrayal. There’s all the obvious stuff – pride in being a doyen of the fiefdom over which he rules, the reverence in which he’s held by younger men, looking for the brotherhood he offers.
But there are more surprising aspects too – Noonan’s protective attitude towards his ex-lover’s adopted son Bugsy, his attempt to make it on the comedy club circuit, and, quite strangely, his fluency in Urdu, which makes for charming interaction with local shopkeepers.
Even more bizarre are his frequent trips to church and chats with the vicar. As he reflects, “It’s not like court, where I can’t just say sorry and walk away.”
It’s been a strange timeline for Noonan – in jail for 22 years in total for a wide range of offences, but also styling himself as a pillar of the community, running a self-styled police station on his estate, and generally making himself very useful, or very annoying, depending on who you ask – although some of Greater Manchester Constabulary admit to a grudging respect for his court craft (including a surprise acquittal, after being caught with half a million pounds worth of heroin in his swag… innocent, go figure).
"I don’t mind being in jail, because on the outside, I get what I want, and on the inside, I get what I want" - Dominic Noonan
Renowned in their native Manchester for years, the family was thrust into the wider consciousness when Dominic Noonan was linked to Mark Duggan, the man whose shooting by police led indirectly to the 2011 UK riots. Dominic was also spotted talking to looters in Manchester, and appeared in court charged with handling stolen goods.
After the riots, MacIntyre believes this will be “an even more interesting piece, uncovering the layers of discontent stretching at the fabric of our society”.
And how is the film maker able to refrain from judgement?
“Because if I go in judging, I’m avoiding looking at the bigger picture of where this fits into society, as it is now. At best, I want it to instigate thought, what are the underlying reasons for this kind of social disorder. And I also want to provide a sound social document of a particular time and place, post-riots.”
Which it does. I urge you to catch this programme if you can, to wonder about everything MacIntyre says, as well as boggle at the contradictions in the character of the man at its heart.
At Home With The Noonans continues on Sundays at 10pm, on the Crime&Investigation Network. Here's the trailer...