It’s challenging to make compelling movies about crimes when almost everyone knows the culprit and many of the facts of the case from the beginning. Yet ITV and producer Jeff Pope took the risk in the aughts to make a trilogy of docudrama miniseries about notorious British murders, with great success. The first has the clunkiest title, but it’s aces in every other respect: This is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper.
The plot is based on the multi-year effort to catch Peter Sutcliffe, a serial killer who attacked his female victims with bestial ferocity in the late 1970s. Unlike many movies of this genre, there is almost no focus on the killer. Instead, we see the reaction of the community (including the then-rising women’s movement, the families of victims, and the countless women who lived in fear) and even moreso the political, emotional, and practical demands on the police and how they handled and mishandled them in an environment of institutitional sexism and intense political pressure. And as in the real case, the police have to struggle whether the taunting letters and cassette tapes they keep receiving from “Wearside Jack” are from the killer or are a cruel hoax.
Viewers suckled on Dixon of Dock Green-style cinema and television will find the conduct of the police here unbelievable, but every blunder happened in the real case. Unlike carmelized portrayals of old-style British policing, Neil McKay’s script is unsparing about the lack of professionalism and lack of capacity that was widespread before some major reforms (some of which were inspired by the Yorkshire Ripper case). Most notably, the lack of computerization meant all leads were kept on a mountain of index cards that literally came close to collapsing the floor of the building, and vital connections between pieces of evidence were missed (in real life, Sutcliffe was interviewed by police 9 times before his was caught). Equally disturbing: the police at one point pressure a suspect with such ferocity that he confesses even though he is innocent.
I appreciated the chance to see Alun Armstrong headline a film. A stage trained actor from County Durham who’s augmented the quality of many films I enjoy (e.g., Get Carter, Braveheart, Our Friends Up North) he also had a wonderful late career revival as an extremely eccentric police detective on the TV Series New Tricks. Here he inhabits the role of the hard-smoking, hard-drinking, grief-wracked as Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, whose health and life are consumed by the demands of leading the investigation. As his right hand man, Richard Ridings is also excellent at portraying a mixture of toughness and humanity. Under David Richards direction, the rest of the cast also acquit themselves well.
There are other touches to admire. Rather than show the Ripper’s handiwork, the camera only shows people looking at it and reacting to it. And we don’t see the killer’s face until the very end, where with the banality of evil he has no particular reaction to being confronted by Oldfield. Full marks as well to Peter Greenhalgh for mood appropriate cinematography that accentuates the emotional impact of this grim but engrossing mini-series.
p.s. This 2000 film ends with a post-script noting that while Sutcliffe was sent to prison, “Wearside Jack” was never identified. But thankfully, five years later he was identified, arrested, and sentenced to prison.