TV takes a dark turn as true crime is turned into primetime drama | Television

Solving an appalling crime is one thing, understanding why it happened quite another. This year British television drama looks set to be dominated by the desire to explain real evil. Betting on a public thirst for in-depth treatments of true crime stories, a string of high-profile television dramas about murder and abuse are being made.

Killing, violence and psychopathic cruelty may once have been the preserve of cheaply made shockers, but the criminal mind now fascinates our most successful screenwriters and leading actors.

“It is less about inhumanity than it is about humanity,” says award-winning playwright James Graham, who is about to bring a murder case to TV. “The power of drama to make sense of the traumatic or the nonsensical has always, to me, been a vital function.”

Graham has written Sherwood, a six-part series on BBC One this summer that uses real murders committed in the Nottinghamshire of his youth as the basis for a fictional story. Meanwhile, Sky’s current drama The Staircase, starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette, revisits the trial of American novelist Michael Peterson, suspected of murdering his wife Kathleen, which was the subject of a hit documentary in 2004.

Sarah Phelps, creator of A Very British Scandal, is tackling the murder carried out by former Buckinghamshire church warden Benjamin Field in 2015. A new drama about the Northumbrian killer Raoul Moat has also just started filming, while Steve Coogan’s portrayal of Jimmy Savile, The Reckoning, will soon be broadcast on BBC One.

“In every horrific crime story, there’s usually a moment of goodness or redemption which might just be the act of bringing a criminal to justice,” said Graham. “In Sherwood, it’s about how a community rife with political tensions can heal some of those wounds through a tragic murder and manhunt case.”

A man embraces a woman from behind in a dimly lit room
Colin Firth as Michael Peterson and Toni Collette as his wife, Kathleen, in Sky’s new drama, The Staircase. The story of her death and his trial for her murder was first told in a documentary in 2004. Photograph: AP

The dark focus of this lineup of entertainment follows the success this year of the three-part BBC serial killer drama Four Lives, examining the police mistakes that allowed Stephen Port to keep committing murder, and last month’s ITV hit, The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, writer Chris Lang’s account of the outlandish fraud perpetrated by John Darwin in the resort of Seaton Carew in 2002.

“There is an even greater appetite for true-crime drama now,” said David Nath, executive producer of The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, as well as Deceit, last year’s Channel 4 series about the police “honeytrap” set up in an attempt to incriminate the suspected killer of Rachel Nickell in Wimbledon in 1992. “It’s a demand for true crime that was being met by documentary.”

Other recent popular dramas have portrayed some of Britain’s most brutal murderers, including David Tennant as serial killer Dennis Nilsen in Des, a three-part drama shown on ITV two years ago, and Jeff Pope’s powerful study of the police investigation into the 2011 death of Sian O’Callaghan in Swindon, A Confession, shown on ITV in 2019.

“True-crime drama is becoming a bigger thing, and Jeff Pope has been commanding this territory for some time in the UK. But programme-makers still need to think about what is the best form for each story,” said Nath.

Pope’s 2014 drama The Widower, a hit ITV series in which Reece Shearsmith played murderous nurse Malcolm Webster, may have set the trend. But Pope is aware of how the genre has boomed. “Probably there is too much crime drama,” he told the Observer before the broadcast of A Confession. “But you can’t force yourself to unlike it. All you can do is make the best one you can.” The key, he believes, is making a drama about something more than the crime. “I never want to do anything ghoulish. I always take an angle into it.”

Nath agrees: “Just because it is an interesting story it doesn’t make it the right fit for a drama. There is a huge responsibility in revisiting the story from the past, something that was really painful.”

The decision to re-enact serious real crimes for the public has provoked angry responses from some of those involved. The family of one of Nilsen’s victims questioned the need for ITV to screen Des, while the fresh decisions to portray Moat and Savile have also been accused of tastelessness.

Speaking on the BBC’s The One Show this spring, Coogan admitted he had found playing Savile “heavy” and a “dark thing”. But he has also defended the drama, saying it will “vindicate itself” when it is broadcast.

A pale man with floppy hair wearing a plaid shirt stares unsettlingly out of a window
Stephen Merchant as serial killer Stephen Port in the BBC’s Four Lives. Photograph: Ben Blackall/PA

Graham, in contrast, is drawing on memories of the impact of a murder in the village where he grew up, but names have been changed. “It’s an ex-mining village where the scars left by the clash with the Met police during the strike are still very emotive. And here was a crime that bought that same force back into the community decades later – only this time to catch a killer.” He describes Sherwood as “a strange hybrid, in that it isn’t a literal adaptation of a real life story – more of a way for me to explore the themes and the anxieties and the character of a community.”

Nath, whose company Story Films also makes crime documentaries, said the question of good taste comes up all the time. “The amount you can alter the tone is limited by the nature of the true story. With Deceit, I was constantly thinking about the people who remain victims and how they would respond. That was inseparable to the way we developed it.”

He is also about to bring out a new fictional drama, although one based closely on real incidents of witness intimidation. Called Witness No 3, it will go out on Channel 5.

The big ratings for the BBC’s 2020 drama The Salisbury Poisonings, and ITV’s true murder series White House Farm, along with Des, are thought to have persuaded commissioning editors on major British channels that primetime drama audiences have strong stomachs. And Netflix’s diet of popular true crime has developed a viewing habit.

Graham, who also wrote Quiz, the hit gameshow drama, said he had faith that “it is possible to explore political and social issues while making a popular, compelling thriller”.

“These are often stories about people, communities or institutions under the most amount of stress, which is an opportunity to better understand them,” he said.

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