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.
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.
Film-maker Liza Williams
A new three-part BBC4 documentary, The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story, revisits these events. It evokes well the horror and tragedy of the time
The opening episode begins with the murder of mother-of-four Wilma McCann in 1975. Her son Robert, then just a little boy, recalls going to look for her with his siblings early in the morning.
The series, made by film-maker Liza Williams, places the victims at the heart of its account. She meets survivors of Peter Sutcliffe’s attacks as well as other relatives.
Sutcliffe interviewed nine times
It’s an atmospheric documentary, a thought-provoking look at an investigation that went badly wrong.
As far as I can see in episode one there are no great surprises. The bias and disbelief shown by police towards some of the victims, the fact that Sutcliffe eluded serious suspicion despite being interviewed nine times, and the blunders are fairly well known.
However, with it use of archive footage and telling interviews, the series is a powerful depiction of a case that changed the way police investigations are conducted for good. It also makes the point strongly that societal prejudices helped Sutcliffe to evade justice for so long.
He killed at least 13 women and attacked eight others. I say ‘at least’ because some observers suspect he killed more than that.
The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story BBC4 Tuesday 26 March