Dark Land: Hunting the Killers

Coming to BBC iPlayer this evening is this new four-part series. It uses contemporary experts to reinvestigate notorious cold cases to unearth possible clues to the killers’ identities.

I am a contributor to one of the films, which explores the murder of showgirl Mamie Shotton, who went missing in 1920. Her body was found 41 years later in a cave on the Gower coastline.

The ‘dark land’ referred to here is Wales because all the crimes occurred there. The first case is the murder of Maureen Mulcahy at Port Talbot in 1976.

Suspicion fell on bigamist George Shotton

The other two are the murders of six-year-old Carol Ann Stephens in Cardiff in 1959 and Muriel Drinkwater, aged 12, in Swansea in 1946.

Mamie Stuarts body was not found until 1961

The Mamie Shotton case is one I researched for an episode of Murder by the Sea on CBS Reality, and it is intriguing. Suspicion fell on her husband, George, a marine surveyor who was 13 years older than his wife.

George Shotton was also a bigamist. When Mamie disappeared from their home in Swansea, her husband had another home nearby where he was also living with his first wife and their son.

The absence of Mamie’s body for several decades meant that police ended up only being able to charge George Shotton with bigamy. When she was discovered, by some pot-holers in 1961, not far from where George Shotton lived, he had already died.

Links beween Shotton and another notorious case?

Dark Land, however, speculates about his possible links to another notorious crime that occurred in the 1930s. Shotton was known to travel around, was arrogant and violent. The programme, hosted by author Dr Nell Darby and produced by Monster Films, looks at how he may have been responsible for more than one horrific crime.

The other crime, which caused a sensation in Britain in 1934, was the first Brighton Trunk Murder. This was the discovery of a torso in a trunk found in left luggage at Brighton railway station.

A day of filming on Brighton Pier

The victim was around 25 years old and found to be pregnant. Neither she nor her killer were ever identified.

For the programme I trawled through the archive at The Keep, Brighton, reviewing the police reports, before being filmed in Brighton.

Scotland Yard worked tirelessly to break the case but luck was against them. All the potential leads came to nothing and the decision to appeal to the public for information backfired when they were inundated with crank calls and useless tips.

‘It is difficult to speak with restraint…’

One extraordinary moment highlights how unlucky detectives were.

A man called Frederick Claridge, 37, was strolling along under the cliff at Black Rock with his friend, Barbara Naides. Incredibly, they found a female human head in a pool of water.

More incredibly, Claridge convinced his friend that they should not report this horrific discovery to the police. His reasoning was that someone had committed suicide and police had discarded the head.

The Chief Inspector notes, with commendable understatement, ‘It is difficult to speak with restraint as to why a normal and intelligent individual should form this view…’

Two young women lost their lives and their families never got any justice or insight into what happened to them. I’m sure Nell Darby will place their stories firmly and sympathetically at the centre of this documentary, but how strongly will George Shotton be implicated in both?

Dark Land: Hunting the Killers on BBC iPlayer

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

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.

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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ITV drama about serial killer Dennis Nilsen

ITV has just announced a new three-part drama about murderer Dennis Nilsen.

Called Des – Nilsen’s nickname – it has top-quality talents involved, including David Tennant (a long way from Doctor Who here), Daniel Mays (Line of Duty) and Jason Watkins (The Crown). It is also based on Brian Masters’ landmark book, Killing for Company: The Case of Dennis Nilsen.

ITV has a decent record of producing serious, sensitive dramas about some of Britain’s most grotesque murderers.

Among them I would place This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, Appropriate Adult (about Fred West) and the recent A Confession (the murder of Sian O’Callaghan).

True-crime controversy

However, there is a fine line to tread with such difficult subjects. True crime is often attacked for being lurid and crass, virtually treating real tragedies and grief as part of a horror genre.

Brian Masters’ book, while it had its critics, was a serious attempt to understand how Nilsen was able to prey on young vulnerable men.

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Jack the Ripper – The Case Reopened BBC1

Programme Name: Jack the Ripper: The Case Reopened - TX: 04/04/2019 - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: with Anatomage table. Professor David Wilson, Emilia Fox - (C) BBC - Photographer: Hugh Campbell
Professor David Wilson and Emilia Fox (C) BBC

When I was on the last day of filming for BBC4’s Dark Son back in August, the film’s presenter and top criminologist David Wilson was chatting about the Jack the Ripper documentary he had just made with Emilia Fox.

He was talking about how the programme shed new light on the case. Let’s face it, the Ripper industry of books, conventions and fansites can be tawdry. Many new publications are boring and often exploitative.

However, having read David’s A History of British Serial Killing, I knew this new take on the case would be more sober and have something new to say. David said one new aspect of the BBC1documentary was that they had been allowed to run the case files through the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System (HOLMES).

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The Yorkshire Ripper Files

I remember as a student being woken by the radio alarm to news that police had finally arrested the Yorkshire Ripper – after long six years of hunting him.

Milgarth Police Station, Leeds. By Mtaylor848

That was 1981. Big news. The murderer had spread fear across the North of England with his cowardly, obscene hammer attacks on women.

The media had started by loyally reporting police efforts to catch the culprit, but this switched to doubts and criticism. Politicians turned on the police. The Reclaim the Night campaign was launched in Leeds in 1977 by women angry that police were telling them to stay home at night.

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Dark Son on BBC4

Dark Son: The Hunt for a Serial Killer on BBC4
Re-enactment from Dark Son

This intriguing documentary is now scheduled for next Tuesday (12 Feb) at 9pm on BBC4.

Dark Son: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is a 90-minute look into one of the most appalling and unsolved serial killer cases in British history.

In 1964-65 a kerb-crawler murdered six women in west London. He left their naked bodies in the River Thames or various outdoor secluded spots. Scotland Yard mounted its biggest ever manhunt but could uncover no strong suspects.

The killer stopped his murder campaign in February 1965. The public and media largely forgot the crimes.

As described elsewhere on this blog, the producers at Monster Films have pulled together a team of experts to reinvestigate the case. Child murderer Harold Jones is the prime suspect the police overlooked, the film argues.

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Guesswork and the release of murderer Harold Jones

Harold Jones in jail in 1921

Thanks goodness deference to authority largely gets the middle finger today.

This means we can give short shrift to claptrap like this: ‘Sadistic crime is probably more rare in England than in any other country in the world. Curiously enough, even the few known exponents in our English records are apt to bear an alien name.’

So, just to be clear – sadism is a vice of foreign blighters. The English do not stoop to such shameful behaviour.

This view, voiced in 1941, was not that of some loudmouth in a pub after one too many. It was the opinion of the Commissioner of Prisons, Alexander Paterson.

Sadism and cruelty

The problem he faced was what to do with Harold Jones, who had been convicted of murdering two little girls when he was 15. In 1941 Jones had served 20 years, considered a ‘life’ term at the time.

During his incarceration, the consensus had been that Jones was a sadist who showed no remorse. Senior medical officer W Norwood East reported that for Jones ‘the sexual act reaches its highest gratification when accompanied by cruelty’.

In 1936 the governor of Maidstone prison, B Grew, was damning, ‘Sad as it may seem I can see no hopeful prospects for Jones in the future.’

But by 1941 Paterson was effectively muddying the waters. The medical profession really knows little about sadism, he suggested. 

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