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The Producers: Behind The Scenes at 'Cut To The Crime'

Cut To The Crime
Cut To The Crime

As part of an ongoing series, Crime + Investigation is taking viewers behind the scenes to talk to the talented people who bring some of our favourite shows to life. In our first installment, we speak to John Balson, a producer from Phoenix Television, the team behind Cut To The Crime, a digital series that premiered on Crime + Investigation Play in August.

Cut To The Crime is a true crime series that gets straight to the point. In each episode, hairdresser James Busby talks to someone deeply affected by crime, in a familiar setting of the hairdresser's chair. When a new client comes into James Busby’s hair salon, all he knows is their name, never their story. As the contributors have their hair washed, cut, and styled, we join them on a gripping journey of powerful discovery.

What makes the series such a fascinating watch is the eclectic mix of contributors, from a crime scene cleaner to an ex-drug dealer turned rugby coach. But how do you go about sourcing interesting contributors for a show? And what makes a compelling true crime story? To answer these and other questions, we caught up with John to find out more about life as a true crime TV producer, working for Phoenix Television on this production and on some of their other true crime shows in the past.

What does a true crime producer do?

It's basically being in charge of making the various parts of a documentary happen. Typically, in the last couple of years, I've been involved in a lot of casting, finding, and pitching potential cases for series, along with planning and interviewing contributors.

Did you have an interest in true crime before you became a producer?

When I was a kid, I was always interested in what was happening in the local media or national media to do with crime. I specifically remember the one story that got me interested in true crime.

There was a young woman who was thrown from the top of a tower block near where I lived, and I just remember sort of keeping up with the police investigation trying to find out what was happening.

Weirdly, this year I met one of the police officers who was called to the scene, and we had a long conversation about what happened back then.

Before becoming a TV producer, you worked as a crime journalist. What did you like about that profession?

One of my favourite parts of working in newspapers was going to court. When a crime story breaks really hard to get information about what happened, but when you go to court, that first day I used to always love when you finally get to hear from the prosecutor, their version of events of what happened and then also hearing from all the witnesses and all the people involved the perpetrators.

I didn't realise it at the time but crime reporting is like putting a documentary together. A lot of the things that interested me about being a crime journalist are transferable into TV.

What qualities do a true crime producer need?

Universally, you have to be a good listener, because you’re going to spend a lot of time with people on the phone or in person. And you have to be good at processing large amounts of information and discerning what’s interesting for the story.

What are the biggest challenges and rewards of the role?

The biggest challenge at the moment, especially in the UK, is getting public records on cases. It’s a lot more difficult than you might imagine and you’d be surprised how hard it is to obtain official information on cases these days.

Another challenge is having to be flexible in your hours. We work around the world sometimes and if a contact can only call you at 3am, then you have to be prepared to take it. If you don’t, you might never hear back from them again.

The biggest reward is when a survivor or a family member from a traumatic incident tells you they're really happy with the job that you did and how you handled their story.

What was your role in Cut To The Crime?

My role was primarily finding people who were open to sharing their stories, planning the interviews, and writing the edit scripts for each episode. Just in my career, I've covered a lot of different stories, in different areas, not just crime, and it gives you a lot of background information to refer to when you're thinking about what was interesting about a particular story.

What are your criteria for selecting the stories that are featured in the show?

I was looking for a range of topical areas, a mix of perpetrators, survivors and people involved in crime-adjacent professions.

There had to be a compelling personal story, but almost more importantly, there had to be a message beyond that personal story. Most of the people we interviewed wanted something good to come from a traumatic life experience and I think it always helps someone to have a 'why' when they decide to open up to a camera.

How do you go about identifying contributors?

A lot of the time, I'll look for something topical in the news or about a trend in a certain type of crime.

If there has been a big story in the media, often there'll be a charity associated with that specific crime. A good tactic is to approach them and find out if they have people who want to share their story. And with charities, they have a support network there, so they will be able to provide them with additional support to tell their story.

Is it difficult talking to people who may have suffered traumatic events?

You have to be empathetic and put yourself in their shoes and understand how they might be feeling as best as you can.

What I found is a lot of people do want to tell their stories. They want to honour a person or they want to get a message across. So, it's not necessarily being intrusive. Some people want to speak to you because they want to get a message out to the public.

Which episode stood out for you in the series and why?

I think the one that stood out to me just because I hadn't interviewed someone in this area before was Leona, who survived a grooming gang up in Sheffield. She taught me a lot of stuff I didn't know about the warning signs around this issue.

She was inspiring, she was driven to stop the same thing from happening to other young people. She was doing that via her TikTok and using anything at her disposal to make that happen. Plus, she was really happy with her makeover.

Is there anyone who you would like to see in James' chair?

I have been interested in heists and bank robberies, lately, so I guess the obvious one is, some of the guys involved in the Hatton Garden robbery.

If you could work on any Crime + Investigation show, what would you choose and why?

Definitely, The First 48. It's probably my favourite crime series of all time. It is as real as you can get in documentary terms. I like the fact that they don't select between victims of crime, but it just shows the day-to-day workings of a police force and just the drama that is involved in every murder, not just the high-profile ones. I like how it gives a voice to families who sometimes aren't covered or shown as much in media.

Season 1 of Cut To The Crime is available to stream on Crime + Investigation Play. New episodes are released weekly on Crime + Investigation's YouTube channel.