Wednesday 18 October 2023

The Long Shadow - ITV review

The Long Shadow
is hardly an original title - I reviewed Celia Fremlin's novel with the same title earlier this month - but it's apt for the seven-part 'true crime drama' which is currently showing on ITV. It deals with the serial killings of Peter Sutcliffe, who was known as 'the Yorkshire Ripper', but George Kay's scripts focus very deliberately on the victims and the investigators (some of whom, for all their failings, might also be described as victims of Sutcliffe) rather than on the killer himself.

I have a special interest in this case because I lived in Leeds at the height of the crisis over the murders. They overshadowed everything, and affected everyone. An old schoolfriend of mine, one of the gentlest people you could meet, who had moved to the area, told me he was interrogated by the police - not once ,but twice, which must have been frightening. This was because he was gay and he'd been visiting gay clubs and bars in Leeds, which were in the 'red light' district being targeted for intensive surveillance. There's no doubt that the police worked very hard at trying to solve the crimes. But their approach was flawed in several respects and as a result, although Sutcliffe was interviewed several times, he slipped through the net. The Long Shadow highlights this mercilessly but, I think, fairly.

The biggest mistake was to believe that the hoax letter and tape purporting to be from the Ripper were genuine. An advertising agency for which my firm acted gave the police a vast amount of free advertising to make sure everyone heard the tape. Sadly, it helped Sutcliffe to continue with his crimes. The hoaxer was discovered many years later thanks to DNA testing. He was a pathetic alcoholic called John Humble, and he went to prison and subsequently died. What he did was truly appalling. Humble, not the misguided detectives, was in effect Sutcliffe's accessory.

Any show that dramatises real life needs to be treated with caution. But from my experience, I'd say The Long Shadow gets most things right. If anything it underplays the fear that everyone felt. I remember getting off the bus home one night, and a middle-aged woman I didn't know begged me to walk her home because she was afraid of the Ripper. For a moment, she wondered if I was to be trusted (though Sutcliffe's crimes began when I was still at school) and I could imagine how many innocent people, like my gay friend, must be coming under suspicion. I became friendly with her and saw how deeply affected she was by the murders. On another occasion, I arrived back in Leeds after a train trip to see my girlfriend to find that a bus strike had begun. I couldn't afford a taxi, so I found myself walking home through the dark streets of Harehills and Chapeltown, wondering if the Ripper was anywhere near. It was eerie and unsettling and I'll never forget it. The sheer uncertainty about what might happen wore down everyone in the city, and indeed much further afield.

Sutcliffe and his enigmatic wife Sonia, who is still alive, hardly feature in the TV series. There is proper and respectful focus on the victims and the senior police officers are key to the storyline. Toby Jones is as good as ever as the honourable Dennis Hoban, while David Morrissey tackles the challenging role of Norman Oldfield with his customary brilliance. It is a really nuanced performance, because Oldfield was not a bad man, even if he did make serious mistakes. Michael McElhatton is excellent as Ronald Gregory, the chief constable who was again well-intentioned, but didn't cover himself in glory, to say the least. I wonder what the families of the police officers made of the show - this hasn't been the subject of as much discussion as the impact on the families of the murder victims. Those victims are, as far as I can judge, very well portrayed, with Katherine Kelly outstanding as Emily Jackson.  

It's not easy to handle material like this sensitively and yet make a series compelling viewing. But I think The Long Shadow succeeds.

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