In the Footsteps of Killers review – Emilia Fox’s disrespectful crime show will make your soul recoil

When the gulf between subject matter and approach is as wide as it is with In the Footsteps of Killers (Channel 4), it is hard not to get the ick. That’s a technical critical term, but I hope you understand. It’s when the soul recoils instinctively, like a snail touching salt. The lip curls, the eyes narrow and the hand reaches for the remote control.

The subject matter is cold cases, where someone was abducted or killed but the perpetrators were never caught. The first series – of three programmes, this second series comprises six – covered the 1967 murder of 19-year-old servicewoman Rita Ellis along with the 1986 disappearances of Patrick Warren and David Spencer – “the Milk Carton Kids” – and Suzy Lamplugh. As with the new series, they are investigated – if that is the word – by criminology professor David Wilson, whose MO seems to be to recap the events, tut over what could have been done better, bemoan the lack of forensic technology in the past and identify the prime suspect as someone the police interviewed at the time but never had enough evidence to prosecute. Emilia Fox is there, too, to react to the recapping and bemoaning, ask tortuously scripted questions and look suitably tragic about the whole abducted children/murdered women thing, and because she plays a forensic psychologist in the long-running drama Silent Witness.

In the opening episode of the new series, it is the turn of the Templeton Woods murders to be re-examined for our … what, exactly? Delectation? To further our sense of despair about the world? To pander to our very worst voyeuristic impulses? Unconvincing efforts are made to gloss it as a chance to jog people’s memories or to encourage witnesses to come forward, as if the chance of this happening were not so infinitesimal as to be nonexistent.

In 1979 and 1980, the bodies of two women were found in Templeton Woods, Dundee: Carol Lannen, a young single mother who had been in the care system and who was last seen getting into a man’s car on a street known to be used by men looking for paid sex, and Elizabeth McCabe who was a nursery nurse who lived at home with her parents and vanished after being separated from her friend on a night out. Snowfall destroyed any clues the killers might have left. Or was it – as the press was particularly keen that it should be – a single killer?

The short answer was no. The longer answer was no, there was absolutely no similarity between the murders or the victims, the police had a likely suspect for McCabe’s murderer but the evidence was contaminated so no dice, and there wasn’t one for Lannen’s at the time but one cropped up thereafter. His name was Andrew Hunter and he was convicted of killing his second wife, Linda, and dumping her body in his local woods a year after Lannen was found in Templeton. A journalist wrote an article thereafter pointing out that Hunter’s first wife died by what was considered to be a very unlikely suicide and that his girlfriend Betsey was found dead the day after the police informed him of Linda’s death. Which is what might happen, the programme ponderously explains, if you were a girlfriend who maybe knew about your boyfriend’s first wife’s suspicious death, too, and might start airing your concerns to the police.

The professor and the woman who plays a pathologist on TV gather together all the information other people give them, look sombre for a bit, then chase down a few genuinely new if ultimately meaningless leads. They find a neighbour who identified Hunter’s car as the kind Lannen was seen getting into and who had never liked the cut of Hunter’s jib, and care home employment records that suggested Hunter probably met the young, pregnant Carol there.

“It’s chilling, isn’t it?” says a sombre Fox, her brow carefully furrowed. “Another serial killer?” “I wouldn’t,” says Wilson, carefully out-sombreing Fox, “bet against it.”

The leading questions, the set-ups, the banal exchanges between Fox and Wilson, the sudden appearance of journalists who happen to have written reams on the subject and have done most of heavy lifting, the dragooning of Fox because she plays something related on television – the workings of it all are so nakedly on show, the beady-eyed calculations behind everything so blatant that it is hard not to feel as a viewer that you are being lightly spat on by the entire production team. More importantly, it feels at times borderline contemptuous of the stories on show and the suffering being picked over once again. The ick is what you get at best.

  • In the Footsteps of Killers is screening on Channel 4 in the UK, and is available to stream on Binge and Foxtel Now in Australia