The Shipman Files: A Very British Crime Story

I wrote a feature for the Mirror‘s We Love TV mag this week and wanted to flag up this series.

It’s a three-part look at the appalling Harold Shipman case made by filmmaker Chris Wilson for BBC Two. It is 20 years since this family doctor was exposed as probably the worst serial murderer in modern times, but it’s hard to watch these films and still not be shocked today.

Daily Mirror front page in 2000

This is a serious, well-made series of documentaries, sensitively speaking to relatives of victims, detectives, journalists and others with a connection to the case. Chris Wilson’s aim is to explore how Shipman got away with murdering so many of his patients in plain sight for more than 20 years. His final total of victims is thought to be up to 250.

Wilson’s contention is that because many victims were elderly women they were not valued as members of society and too easily written off when found dead. It was a simple matter for Shipman to give them a dose of diamorphine and write ‘old age’ on their death certificate without raising suspicion.

Shipman the drug addict

Also in Shipman’s favour was the unwarranted level of trust and respect placed in GPs at this time. Earlier in his career Shipman had been revealed to be a drug addict himself, only to be give a second chance to continue his career by the authorities.

Shipman appeared to be a caring family doctor, frequently making housecalls apparently out of the goodness of his heart. These were often cover for his murders.

He was an arrogant, odious murderer of many perfectly healthy and active people. In a telling moment in the final film we see him turning his back on detectives in the interview room, refusing to answer a single question and closing his eyes when shown crime photos.

This is a moving and thought-provoking series in the best tradition of true-crime documentary reporting.

BBC Two, The Shipman Files, Monday 28 Sept to Wednesday 30 Sept, 9pm

Des – ITV’s account of Dennis Nilsen

As the second wave of coronavirus lockdown looms, we all need cheering, so ITV’s three nights devoted to a drama about serial killer Dennis Nilsen this week may be approached with trepidation.

Nilsen was found guilty of murdering 15 boys and young men between 1978 and 1983. The case still has the power to dismay us, being a perplexing tale of loneliness and inexplicable horror. Most of the victims were not even missed.

Brian Masters’ classic portrait of serial killer Dennis Nilsen

ITV’s series, starring David Tennant as Nilsen, who was known as Des, is not a lurid recreation of the crimes, however. It comes at the events from an unusual angle, which should make the drama fascinating.

Writer Brian Masters got close to Nilsen while he was behind bars, and this relationship is central to the drama. Masters wrote a classic account of his dealings with Nilsen, Killing for Company, using the killer’s own writings and poems in addition to their interviews to offer psychological insights into the man.

The book starts with a description of Muswell Hill, where Nilsen had been living when he was arrested. It looks at his Scottish background and slowly builds a portrait of this solitary but intelligent civil servant.

Masters also spoke to Nilsen’s mother and leading detectives on the case, and wrote a balanced and rare depiction of a strange, shocking predator.

In the drama, Masters, played by Jason Watkins, is exhilarated to be involved in writing up the case, but he underestimates the impact his new obsession will have on his life. The series considers the ethics of our interest in such figures.

Undoubtedly, these are dark events, but I don’t feel our inclination to watch such series is prurient. Our curiosity to understand how these crimes occur and who commits them is powerful.

But after each episode, I might switch over for some escapism and watch Battlestar Galactica.

Des, ITV, Mon-Wed 9pm

Murder by the Sea’s most fascinating case? You decide…

I hear CBS Reality’s Murder by the Sea is gearing up for a fifth series.

This is good news for the many viewers who have become devoted followers of these documentaries, recounting difficult murder cases that have confronted police around UK coastal towns.

Beside the seaside – Geoffrey Wansell

Presented by the flamboyant Geoffrey Wansell, each episode interviews detectives and other experts – including true-crime writers like myself – to review cases ranging from the bizarre to the shocking.

In recent days this blog has been receiving hundreds of hits from viewers who have been watching summer repeats of the series. In response, I would love to hear which episodes you have found most compelling…

Which Murder by the Sea case did you find most interesting?

West End Girls by Barbara Tate

Barbara Tate’s memoir West End Girls is a totally absorbing and revelatory memoir about the author’s two-year stint working as a maid for the Queen of Soho – aka 1940s prostitute Mae.

It’s a remarkable glimpse at a lost Soho – grubby, still a residential neighbourhood with small businesses, seedy and with an air of criminality.

Barbara is a wide-eyed 21-year-old who has escaped a miserable childhood and has ambitions to be an artist, when she is invited by Mae to earn a lot of money as her companion, security guard and tea-maker.

I read this book as research about Soho in the 1940s, the background for a series of shocking murders that may become a book and/or TV documentary. It is informative, revelatory and hugely enjoyable.

Bondage, cross-dressers and ponces

Mae is a charismatic force of nature and introduces young Babs to her twilight world of bondage devotees, cross-dressers, punters, Maltese ponces and sister prostitutes. Barbara would eventually become a successful artist but reveals herself here to be a fantastic, empathetic writer.

She is never seduced into joining the sisterhood, but is a witty, non-judgmental and loyal observer throughout. Her recollections of Mae’s world are not for the faint-hearted, but, my goodness, it is hilarious, while ending on a tragic note. A brilliant and unforgettable read.

A Beatle at The Bush

Little while ago @FlipLondonTours tweeted a pic of Paul McCartney filming a scene for A Hard Day’s Night in 1964. He’s seen going into The Bush on Goldhawk Road, London.

The scene was never used in the final film, but the picture gave me a jolt because I wrote about this pub in The Hunt for the 60s’ Ripper without knowing of this Beatles connection. It was the boozer in which the serial killer’s final victim, Bridie O’Hara, was last seen at closing time on 11 January 1965.

I commented in the book on the juxtaposition of so much Swinging Sixties culture being made in Shepherd’s Bush – Doctor Who at the Beeb round the corner, the Beatles themselves at the Hammersmith Odeon etc – while the area was also the stomping ground for a devious killer.

It’s bizarre to think this photo puts one of most famous 1960s movies on the same premises probably frequented by the killer.

The BBC4 documentary Dark Son even suggested that the man who is a strong suspect as the perpetrator of the crimes, Harold Jones, lived nearby in Aldensley Road.

Shepherd’s Bush was literally a crossroads between the explosion of popular postwar culture and the city’s dark side.

Many thanks to Aidan McManus of @FlipLondonTours for posting the pic.

The Fatal Passion of Alma Rattenbury

A painstakingly researched and totally absorbing account of a once sensational, now forgotten, murder from 1935. Alma Rattenbury and her young lover, George Stoner, 18, faced the hangman in an Old Bailey trial following the murder of her husband, distinguished architect Francis Rattenbury. The case shocked, horrified, electrified the nation and went on to inspire plays and TV dramas.

Francis Rattenbury was a rather ratty old husband, pushing 70, his best years behind him. Alma was a flamboyant 43-year-old, a former musical prodigy, now stuck in a loveless, sexless marriage in a suburb of Bournemouth.

She fell passionately for teenage Stoner when he was taken on as the family’s driver, and all the fevered elements of a drawing-room tragedy were finally in place. In March 1935 Rattenbury had his brains bashed in and the lovers were soon in the dock.

Author Sean O’Connor, who is also a director and producer in TV, radio and film, conjures the mood and prejudices of the era for a superb account of the trial and its heartbreaking aftermath.

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I’ll Be Gone in the Dark TV series

Michelle McNamara, who died in 2016, wrote one of the most fascinating true-crime books of the last 10 years.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark charted her obsession with a case about an unknown perpetrator she called the Golden State Killer. The crimes graduated from burglaries to rapes and then murders.

They were chilling in their sadism, remorselessness and sheer volume.

McNamara was a graduate in creative writing who had an interest in true crime. She ran a website called TrueCrimeDiary and started to explore the crimes of a burglar and attacker known as the East Area Rapist, who operated in the Sacramento area in the late 1970s.

Between 1979 and 1986 there was then a series of murders attributed to the Original Night Stalker. It wasn’t until 2001 that DNA evidence confirmed it was one man committing this multitude of crimes.

Joseph James DeAngelo arrested

McNamara’s mission was to make the case better known and to uncover who had been getting away with these attacks for decades.

She died before she saw a suspect, former police officerJoseph James DeAngelo, aged 74, get arrested in 2018. He is charged with multiple first-degree murders and is awaiting trial.

However, McNamara’s book may have been instrumental in assisting detectives with her suggestion that the DNA should be used to explore the killer’s genealogical background. Perhaps this new HBO true-crime series, which is showing on Sky Atlantic in June, will reveal if her book played a part.

The documentary is directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus. This should be an intriguing account of the case, but also, via McNamara’s own fixation on it, an insight into why so many people are fascinated by true crime.

The Real Prime Suspect series 2

The Real Prime Suspect with Jackie Malton

I watched the opener of Jackie Malton’s latest series last night and thought it was a particularly sensitive and interesting episode.

The case was the heartbreaking kidnap of Muriel McKay from her home in Wimbledon in 1969. It was extraordinary for several reasons.

Muriel was the wife of Alick McKay, a newspaper executive and right-hand man of Rupert Murdoch. In 1969 Murdoch had just begun his move into expanding his newspaper interests into Britain from Australia, having recently bought the News of the World and The Sun.

The bungling kidnappers thought they were abducting Murdoch’s wife, Anna, rather than Muriel McKay, but still demanded £1million in ransom despite their blunder.

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Murder by the Sea: Michael Downes

Anyone who doubts the value of bobbies on the beat in these days of major police cuts should consider the case of Michael Downes in Blackpool in the 1970s and 80s.

Two years after the cruel murder of 64-year-old widow Catherine Weaver in 1978, another woman, Hilda Keefe, 64, spotted an intruder at the Blackpool home she shared with her 87-year-old mother.

Amid the fun and beauty of Blackpool, serial killer Michael Downes looked for victims. Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

Hilda yelled for help and the intruder fled – leaving behind some washing-line pieces. A local PC called Dave Milner recalled that lengths of washing line were used to secure Catherine Weaver. He took an interest in the case and called on Hilda and her mother regularly.

Vote: your favourite episode of Murder by the Sea

On one visit Hilda said it was a shame that the man had never been caught. After all, he had been wearing such a distinctive green jacket. She had even seen him herself when was out and about.

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Crime, manhunts and classic pop on Portobello Radio

It was fascinating to chat with Portobello Radio host Aidan McManus last night. He’s a walking encyclopaedia of rock music, local history and unsolved crimes.

He is also a guide for the highly rated FlipsideLondon Tours, which explore London as home to David Bowie, Joe Strummer and the Clash, the punk scene and gangsters. His enthusiasm for music and local history is absolutely infectious.

The 1960s Nude Murders case, which occurred on his Notting Hill manor, is one of his interests. Which was why he got me on his show to talk about the case and how London has changed – check out the broadcast here.

I popped into the Castle on Portobello Road before heading over to meet Aidan. This was formerly the Warwick Castle, which was used a lot by a couple of the killer’s victims at the time, Mary Fleming and Frances Brown.

Prince Buster and The Beatles

In a grim show of gallows humour, no doubt fuelled by a few drinks, several women involved in the sex trade even had a sweepstake in the pub one night on who would be the killer’s next victim.

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