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Sir Trevor McDonald: 'I heard my first bomb in Belfast'

He may be fascinated with US mobster life, but Sir Trevor McDonald will never forget cutting his teeth covering the NI Troubles.

By Kate Whiting

When Sir Trevor McDonald has a cold, woe betide any doctor who won't prescribe him medicine. "I said, 'I've come for antibiotics. I'm not leaving here without them' - and she was younger and smaller than me, so she gave in," he says, letting rip a deep laugh.

Tissue stowed away and idle chat dispensed with, the granddaddy of TV news anchors sits back in his armchair, a stripy scarf wrapped snugly over his suit, beaming behind his familiar specs and occasionally steepling his fingers as he ponders his next answer.

With his shock of white curls, he has the air of a wise man and, indeed, he's in a thoughtful mood.

"If one wants to be philosophical about it, the world keeps going through various stages and it's probably wrong to ever get too excited about one, and think this is going to be the epochal time when everything changes."

We are discussing the "Trumpian Age", just a few days after the new US President's executive order banning immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days.

Sir Trevor, who has famously interviewed everyone from Nelson Mandela to George W Bush, insists he "doesn't want to go there", arguing that "I didn't cover the campaign and I don't do politics anymore."

But despite his aversion to commenting on Trump's controversial policies, he calls the emergence of "alternative facts" a "worrying development" and can't help admitting being impressed by fellow knight Sir Mo Farah's response to the ban.

"He said, 'The Queen made me a knight and Donald Trump has made me an alien' - that's a very, very good line. I laughed at that."

Appearing on Good Morning Britain, Sir Trevor told Piers Morgan current events were "all very amusing", but he's quick to qualify the comment: "I meant that it was amusing watching the political developments today and, sometimes, I'm glad I don't have to be doing it anymore.

"I didn't mean 'funny ha, ha'. There are no jokes in it anymore. I'm so far removed from it and, between you and me, I feel so strongly about it that I really don't want to start. I'm not saying there will never be a time (when I talk about it). But, for the time being, I'm promoting some Mafia films. Is that all right?"

The programmes in question are two new hour-long documentaries for ITV called Mafia Women With Trevor McDonald, where he revisits some of the US' most notorious mobster families - and the men who worked for them and then betrayed them to the FBI.

After his 2015 series The Mafia With Trevor McDonald, the women "felt they hadn't had too much of a say and wanted to talk". So Sir Trevor attends the wedding of the daughter of a former mobster (now in witness protection) and tours some dangerous New York streets in the back of a car driven by ex-mafioso Anthony Russo, who points out places he would rough up men, with his new girlfriend wide-eyed in the passenger seat.

"They're not parts of New York I would want to walk around at six o'clock in the evening. But there's a silly, nonsensical, journalistic thing where, because you have cameras and notebooks, you're safe."

He admits he's always been something of a coward, right from the early days reporting for ITN.

"I came from the West Indies and I didn't want people to think I was the token black reporter. So, I made sure I was sent to all the places everyone else was and the big story at the time was Northern Ireland. The first time I heard a bomb go off, I ran down the road in the opposite direction, I'd never heard a bomb in my life. I was born in Trinidad. We can't spell the word 'bomb' in Trinidad," he says, chuckling.

"I could never get accustomed to it. And what you discover about bombs, you think you hear them here," he says, touching his ears, "but you don't. The sensation comes from the bottom of your stomach. I hated them."

Getting into his stride now, there's another story about a time in Beirut, where "they were killing people at night".

"I went out one day and said to a guy who had a long Kalashnikov, 'At the height of it (the shootings), what did it sound like?' And he said, 'I'll show you'. So, he started firing off this thing and I started running in the other direction."

But guns, unlike cameras, were the tools of the trade for his Mafia contacts, and have blighted the lives of their loved ones.

Linda Scarpa, the daughter of Greg "the grim reaper" Scarpa, who killed more than 50 men as a hitman for the Colombo crime family, recalls a chilling conversation on camera, when her dad asked her permission to kill her husband.

"You know, wow, that's where the film world collides with reality. If we'd seen that in Goodfellas or something, we'd think it's quite funny," he says, adding that perhaps more horrible was when Scarpa had a school friend of Linda's beaten to a pulp and brought to the house because he suspected them of smoking pot.

"I quite understand Mafia men having a blood fight in the street and killing each other, but to beat up a little kid?

"That was singularly nasty."

  • Mafia Women With Trevor McDonald, ITV, Thursday, 9pm.

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