If there is one redeeming feature of Autopsy: The Last Hours Of ..., a Channel Five documentary miniseries which for all intents and purposes is little more than a tabloid clip show following the lives and untimely deaths of three celebrities notorious for their self-induced ill-health, it is the calm presence of forensic pathologist, Dr Richard Shepherd. Amid the circus of paparazzi shots and musings on the declines of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Anna Nicole Smith by promoters, biographers and journalists, Shepherd is, as his discipline dictates, the voice of detachment, dispensing perhaps the only truly verifiable facts of each subject’s life.
Having given evidence at high-profile inquests, including those into the deaths of Princess Diana and victims of the 9/11 and the 2005 Bali bombing attacks, and proven his knack for translating ‘‘medicalese’’ for the camera (his television credits include Death Detective which charts a week in the LA Coroner’s office), Shepherd is well qualified for the job of explaining exactly how the three celebrities, in whose autopsies he was not involved, came to what are now infamously tragic ends.
‘‘Every autopsy I do is the most important thing I’m doing at the time,’’ says Shepherd from his home in London. ‘‘Whether it is a celebrity, or whether it is a drug dealer that’s just been shot by one of his rivals, whether it’s a drug addict, whether it’s a baby, whether it’s a mother, whether it’s someone who has collapsed and died playing football. The fact that the person has had a public persona prior to my examining them makes no difference at all to what I’m doing.’’
In the first episode, the King of Pop is variously depicted through his extensive body of work, by an actor sharing a dubious likeness in dramatisations of his last hours, and lying lifeless on a gurney, an image which is relentlessly repeated throughout. It is a crude and undignified portrayal of the artist in his final moments, which unashamedly seeks to satisfy a popular morbid curiosity about the mysterious figure.
‘‘There are the pressures of television and the pressures of professional accuracy and it is a fine line treading between the two, ’’says Shepherd. ‘‘I think we’ve kept on the right side. It’s only Michael we show in that particular position and that’s a picture that’s been widely distributed. These people have been public property all their lives. I think it’s important to realise that a lot of people have a lot of false beliefs about how each of these three people died, and we’ve managed to bring it together now in one coherent story so we can get as close to the truth as we can possibly manage.’’
There are few revelations in the unravelling of Jackson’s medical history, yet Shepherd declares on the program that he found extraordinary the singer’s capacity to survive his abuse of operating-theatre anaesthetics as long as he did.
‘‘The fact that drugs played a part in all three of them doesn’t come as a surprise’’, he says. ‘‘What comes as a surprise is the way these people have managed to isolate themselves from proper medical care. They’ve had lots of doctors, but they doctor-hop and self-medicate in the belief that they can manage and, as we can see, that definitely isn’t the case.’’
His work as a ‘‘real doctor’’ has taught him about grief. He hopes the program will help break the taboo of talking about death in all its unsavoury detail.
‘‘If people understand better the processes, then some of the fear of death might be dissipated. And as long as we go with the truth, in the end, although it is sometimes painful to hear, it is far better to have than fantasies and beliefs that are incorrect. Even relatives whose loved ones died a tragic and traumatic death – as a murder victim or in an accident – would much rather know the truth because then they can deal with it. The fantasies that people have are almost always far worse than the situation.’’
Autopsy: The Last Hours Of ..., Thursday, Seven, 8pm.