Matthew Collins, the real life inspiration for ITV’s The Walk In. Image: @HOPEnothate
When Matthew Collins agreed to have a drama made about his work, he was worried he might end up with James Corden playing him. So Collins is delighted that in ITV drama The Walk-In, revealing how he foiled a far right plot to assassinate a Labour MP, it is Stephen Graham portraying him.
Collins, a former member of the far right, now has a second life trying to push his former allies out of existence. “At the end of the day, I’m employed to destroy things, and you tend to keep that quiet and to yourself,” he says.
His work gained national attention when the campaign group Hope Not Hate foiled a plot by neo-Nazi group National Action to kidnap and murder Rosie Cooper, the West Lancashire MP. A mole inside National Action came forward, the police were informed, and in 2019 the plan’s ringleader Jack Renshaw was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Now that story is being told for TV. The Walk-In premieres amid a growing feeling that true crime shows – ten a penny on Netflix – romanticise criminals. There’s little danger of this here, says Collins: “There’s nothing glamorous in this.”
That’s borne out in the details of the case. Renshaw’s plot was hatched in a Wetherspoon pub, and before he was caught the then-22-year-old went up to a girl in a nightclub and said “I’m a terrorist”.
Collins hopes The Walk-In will show viewers the work involved in exposing the plot, and the real impact these events had on the people involved.
“It’s things that people hear in the news without knowing what the human cost is, or what went on,” he says.
Now 50, Collins turned his back on the National Front at the end of the 80s. “I just got really tired and bored of everything being that full on with violence,” he says. “You never see the far right outside a library trying to save a library, you never see the far right trying to save a hospital.
“I just began to think that there are things in life that are really important, the quality of your life and where you are in life. And just running round beating people up who care about society is nonsensical, but that’s what they do.
“These people want a dystopian society – they want to deport bus drivers, doctors, nurses, home helps, neighbours. They’re sick in the head.”
That past informs his current work running informants to destroy the far right, running Hope Not Hate’s intelligence network. It seems like the stuff of spy novels – with Collins saying he’s been described as a “fat James Bond”. But with the aim of sowing paranoia and encouraging betrayals, it feels closer to George Smiley, the bespectacled Cold War spymaster of John Le Carré’s books, than Ian Fleming’s tuxedo-donning, martini-swilling hero.
Informants either come to Hope Not Hate themselves, or Collins and his team will reach out to them. The relationship begins with a promise of secrecy.
“We take their secrets to the grave, but we’re quite honest about the fact the relationship between us and a walk-in or a mole is solely so that we can disrupt and unsettle and destroy the far right,” Collins says. “We make no apologies for that, that’s what this job is about. It saves lives.”
The people he deals with are often damaged or traumatised, drawn in by the far right as a cult. Sometimes they’ll want to leave entirely, other times they’ll feel stuck.
“It’s the only people they know and that is what disturbs them and upsets them,” Collins says.
“They can’t face the politics any more, they can’t face the violence, but these are the only friends they have.”
“Sometimes you have to be their mother,” he says, adding: “Often they don’t have an ability to confront difficulties or to understand difficulties.
“The far right in general, in place of critical and intelligent thought, just use conspiracy theories. Some of these people have had quite genuinely horrific things happen to them, and it’s how they deal with it and how we help them deal with it”.
Unsurprisingly, this work extracts a heavy toll. “I carry some absolutely horrific secrets about people that I can never share,” he says. Collins describes himself as a sociable person, but says he’s forced to keep his circle tight. But he firmly adds: “I have no regrets whatsoever.”
The idea of your work putting terrorists in prison becoming a TV series might, understandably, make you think about your personal safety. But for Collins, who has also written a book called The Walk-In to explain the real life inspiration behind the series, that’s a constant. “I don’t think it’s going to make a blind bit of difference for me. I’m constantly wary of it,” he says.
Hope Not Hate’s work, says Collins, has a big effect: “The far right know it and the far right fear it. They never know who it is amongst them that has given us information, but they do know when things go wrong it’s because someone’s told us and we’ve acted on it.”
Instead, they’re more likely to be seen underground, hatching plots like Renshaw’s. Since we spoke, news has broken that 20 soldiers have been investigated over extreme right-wing activity since 2019 – yet another example of the dangers still posed by the far right despite their retreat at the ballot box.
The pandemic has also seen the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories – from anti-vax movements to QAnon in the US, spread on social media. This, says Collins, has been a boon to extremists.
“The far right looked at the Covid conspiracy movement and loved it. They rubbed their hands and said it’s fantastic. If you’ve got people that can deny science then it’s not a great leap for them to deny history.”
So are the public complacent about the far right threat in Britain? “I don’t think they understand it. I think a lot of people either overestimate how talented or organised it is, but I don’t think they realise that some of the language or narratives they hear embolden the far right,” Collins says.
“I certainly think the government that we have and the language it uses is very problematic.”
The Walk-In begins on ITV at 9pm tonight, Monday October 3
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