For investigative journalist David Lomas, seeing his new TV series Family Secret on screen is bittersweet.
He’s very proud of the show, but it’s not the same without his partner Sue Donald – who was also co-creator, producer and researcher on the series – being there to see all their hard work come to fruition.
Tragically, Sue (61) died suddenly in December last year, while the series – which solves family mysteries – was being filmed. Although she’d been diagnosed with secondary breast cancer a few months earlier, 12 years after first battling the disease, a stomach aneurysm unexpectedly took her life two weeks before Christmas.
“I don’t know if the two are linked, but it wouldn’t be a surprise – I imagine that your system could become weakened by all the treatment,” says David (60), a veteran journalist, who for the last four years has helped to reunite families in the award-winning TV3 series Missing Pieces.
“The cancer was terminal, and I was living with the knowledge that something was going to happen to Sue within the next few years, but I thought we had more time.”
Losing Sue has been devastating for David, who has been through some tough times, including surviving a fatal helicopter crash with the late TV presenter Paul Holmes.
He was in Haverfordwest, Wales, filming for an episode of Family Secret when Sue died at home in Auckland.
“I’d spoken to her just hours beforehand when I was going to bed. She’d had a bad day the day before, but had woken up feeling much better. Then, at 4.30 in the morning, I got the call from her son-in-law to say she had died. I just couldn’t believe it.
“The 35-hour trip home to New Zealand was a nightmare,” says David, who was travelling on his own. “I was surrounded by people, but there was nobody I could say anything to. All I wanted to do was bawl my eyes out.”
Sue and David had been a couple for five years, but had known each other for much longer. David can recall seeing mum-of-two Sue for the first time in the 1970s, at a cricket match he was covering as a sports reporter for the Dominion newspaper in Wellington.
She was married to former New Zealand cricket captain Jeremy Coney at the time. They later became colleagues in 1989, when David moved into TV reporting and Sue was a librarian at TVNZ.
“Sue was the sort of person you’d sit down for a chat with now and then, and you’d always walk away thinking what a nice person she was,” recalls David.
After making the first series of Missing Pieces, David phoned Sue to ask if she’d be interested in working as a researcher on the second one. “It was her dream job – she couldn’t think of anything better. And she
was very, very good at it.”
They became a couple after that finished, and worked on two more series before coming up with the concept of Family Secret together. Sue was largely responsible for the look of the new show, and worked
on several of the episodes before she died.
“Sue was an incredible researcher,” says David. “She constantly astounded people with what she managed to achieve. In one case, we took the research she’d done to a professional genealogist to check it, and they couldn’t believe what she had been able to do.”
Another time, Sue came across a lawyer trying to track down the same person she was searching for.
“The lawyer had hired private detectives in Australia and the UK and spent two years trying to locate this person. Sue managed to find them and their siblings and the lawyer said, ‘How on earth did you manage to do that?’
“She was just so methodical and thorough, and she tried everything she could possibly think of.”
One of Sue’s greatest skills was her ability to deal with people who were often going through difficult times.
She had to handle a lot of emotion and had the ability to be empathetic to others.
“Sue was very genuine and really good at gaining people’s confidence. For a lot of those she came into contact with for Missing Pieces, Sue was their hero. She was a star.
“I would hear her on the phone – she was always on the phone – and you would have thought it was her best friend, but it was a complete stranger.”
Sue not only helped those who appeared on the show, but also spent hours trying to find loved ones for others whose stories were not going to make it on to TV.
“’It’s just a little bit of my time’, she’d say, ‘but it means so much to them,’” says David.
Family Secret, which tackles topics such as an unsolved murder and a missing father who led a double life, involved even more in-depth research than Missing Pieces, but Sue rose to the challenge, even when she was very unwell.
“She was so passionate about it, and determined to do the work despite the cancer coming back. This was her baby, and the sad thing is that she never got to see the end result.”
While David considers her legacy to be greater than the TV shows she worked on, the fact that the programs have helped so many, while entertaining many more, is a great tribute to Sue, who was a devoted grandmother of five.
“She set a very high standard. I think she would be really, really proud of Family Secret – and so she should be. She did an amazing job.”
Family Secret screens on Wednesdays at 7.30pm on TV3.