Why does British true crime drama so rarely get it right? How is it that for every Des (the powerful but restrained 2020 series about serial killer Dennis Nilsen) there’s a blizzard of ghoulish dross?
New seven-part ITV1 drama The Long Shadow, partly based on Michael Bilton’s book Wicked Beyond Belief, sets out to repurpose and, in a sense, morally sanitise true crime. Written by George Kay (Criminal; Hijack), the watchword is “sensitivity”. It’s about Peter Sutcliffe, but it’s not about burnishing the bogeyman-legend of the “Yorkshire Ripper”. It’s about Sutcliffe’s crimes (he murdered 13 women, and attacked more, mainly in West Yorkshire, between 1975 and 1980), but it aims to focus on the victims, some of whom were sex workers. What were their stories? How were these women failed, by the police, media and society in general?
In some ways, the idea of a “sensitive” drama about murdered women chafes (are female viewers supposed to be grateful?). You could also understand why some people in Yorkshire might feel weary of Sutcliffe’s crimes being endlessly revisited.
And, frankly, The Long Shadow is no Des (though Des co-creator Lewis Arnold directs). In the two episodes I’ve seen so far, there’s sometimes a flattening lack of subtlety. Nor can an impressive cast (including David Morrissey and Lee Ingleby) hide an overemphasis on the police, be they 1970s-issue knuckle-draggers doing Misogyny 101, or decent coves such as DCS Hoban (Toby Jones): “She was a mother with four kids. ‘Prostitute’ don’t come into it.”
There are fleeting snapshots of some women and fuller portraits of others. As an early victim, Emily Jackson, a skint mother who turns to part-time sex work, Katherine Kelly is outstanding: while selling sex for the first time, her face is a glazed mask as she determinedly clutches the five pound payment. Daniel Mays is also superb as Jackson’s unravelling husband. Such scenes underline how sex work has nothing to do with immorality and everything to do with poverty.
Does the drama keep its promise of sensitivity? Sutcliffe seems firmly sidelined, but there are still “serial killer victim” motifs, including the timeless classic: bare legs lying lifeless on the grass. The Long Shadow has enough strong moments and fine performances to keep me invested. As a revolutionary shakeup of the true crime genre, it’s less convincing.
Former health secretary Matt Hancock gets punched in the face (by former footballer Jermaine Pennant) as part of a “milling” training exercise in the latest series of Channel 4’s Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins, set in the rainy Vietnamese jungle. In the opening episode he is also suspended on high poles, abused by instructors (“You’re running like a fucking ostrich!”) and dragged into an “interrogation” room, where they go turbo-Paxo on him about disobeying his own rules during lockdown.
Incidentally, last week also saw the penetrating final episode of the generally excellent series Laura Kuenssberg: State of Chaos (BBC Two), which detailed the fall of Boris Johnson, swiftly followed by the fall of Liz Truss. (Down they went, like Tory skittles.) Hancock has previously appeared in State of Chaos, but he’s markedly chattier, more “emosh”, as his TikTok followers might say, during the fake-SAS interrogation.
As Hancock unleashes a similar spiel to the one deployed during his stint on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! last autumn, which got him divested of the Tory whip (“I fell in love”; “I was very careful not to break any laws”), you think: is this really the appropriate forum? But that’s Hancock’s doing, isn’t it? He’s the one using his former role as the health secretary during the pandemic to boost his reality TV CV.
It’s business as usual in the pastel-hued tent of broken dreams. A dense sponge here, a split ganache there
The West Suffolk MP (yup, still) is at least worked hard, with the other 15 celebrities relegated to mere extras on “The Matt Show”. Interestingly, this was filmed earlier than I’m a Celebrity…, and Hancock clearly isn’t accustomed to “reality” here. Sometimes, there’s a forlorn eye-twitch, presumably as it hits home that he’s standing in the Vietnamese mud next to some bloke from The Only Way Is Essex. Maybe he’s thinking: is this what it’s come to – why isn’t Strictly calling? Telly karma moves in mysterious ways.
Over on Netflix, a three-part docuseries asks Who Killed Jill Dando? In 1999, Dando, a TV presenter and household name, was shot in broad daylight on her doorstep in Fulham, London. Twenty-four years later, the case remains unsolved.
In a case that shocked the nation, some theories seem simultaneously terrifying and bizarre. Was “the golden girl of British television” assassinated by a Serbian hitman? Did the “TV Diana” fall foul of a criminal network because she presented Crimewatch? Barry George, a local loner with form for disturbing behaviour towards women, was eventually imprisoned, but his conviction was later ruled a miscarriage of justice and he was freed after eight years.
The lack of definitive answers sometimes makes this documentary muddy and repetitive. Although George appears, he seems so unfocused and off-kilter; it’s a strange, unhelpful wisp of an interview, though he does say he wasn’t particularly aware of Dando.
Understandably, her brother Nigel is desperate for answers. In archive footage, Dando is shown excitedly talking of how she always dreamed of working in television and would get books out about it from the library. What a tragic case, and what torture it must be to have no resolution.
In the opener of the 14th series of The Great British Bake-Off (Channel 4), a new presenter, This Morning stalwart Alison Hammond, brings the uncomplicated sunshine. Giggly, laid-back, she’s a good foil for judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, and fellow host and resident “Victorian consumptive” Noel Fielding. Is it me or does this new lineup give off the vibe of a cake-themed Thursday Murder Club?
Hammond aside, it’s business as usual in the pastel-hued tent of broken dreams. A dense sponge here, a split ganache there, a dog cake that “looks like it’s been run over”. Bake Off remains an unapologetically eccentric show that sometimes makes Britain look as though it’s lost its tiny, crumb-strewn mind. But it’s still hella tasty.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Long Shadow ★★★
Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins ★★★
Who Killed Jill Dando? ★★★
The Great British Bake Off ★★★
What else I’m watching
The Woman in the Wall
Conclusion of the Irish-set, Ruth Wilson-starring drama about the shameful Magdalene laundries. It’s a tad sketchy in terms of plot resolution but gripping right to the murky end.
Pete Doherty, Who Killed My Son?
In 2006, Mark Blanco died after falling from a balcony at a party at which Libertines/Babyshambles frontman Pete Doherty and associates were present. Faced with what remains a chaotic, inconclusive case, Blanco’s mother probes for answers. A powerful documentary, but a disturbing one.
(Amazon Prime Video)
An entertaining, dynamic (occasionally hormonal) sci-fi spin-off of The Boys. Young people with superpowers (“supes”) hone their skills at a college for superheroes.