The Suspicions of Mr Whicher on ITV: Muddiness and the telly will never be wholly friends

Kate Summerscale's book is very good indeed, but the drama only half-worked, the truth being complicated, elusive and, ultimately, a little prosaic.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
ITV

People like to say that the truth is stranger than fiction and sometimes this is the case. As events unfolded in Cleveland, Ohio recently, you felt such a sickening narrative to be beyond the realm of most crime writers. But mostly, fiction is stranger than truth, or at least less messy, more planned. It doesn’t peter out – it always has an ending – and for this reason it feels a good deal more satisfying. Isn’t this why we read, after all? Fiction, moreover, supplies answers in a way that the so-called truth often doesn’t. Much of what I know about life, especially about human beings, I picked up from novels – for which reason, I’m wary, not to say disdainful, of people who don’t read them.

I was thinking about this as I watched The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Sunday 12 May, 8pm). The first film that ITV commissioned about this Victorian detective was based on Kate Summerscale’s prizewinning non-fiction book of the same name. The book is very good indeed but the drama only half-worked, the truth being complicated, elusive and, ultimately, a little prosaic. Muddiness and the telly will never be wholly friends. But ITV must have liked not only the ratings for that first film but the character of Mr Whicher, too, for it decided to bring him back. Only this time the mystery he had to solve was made up for him by Neil McKay, the talented writer of the Bafta Award-winning Appropriate Adult.              

I was all set to be scornful. The brazen cheek of it! Get your own Victorian detective, I thought, don’t gussy up someone else’s. But, of course, as television it was much better than the original. It had a proper plot, complete with red herrings and acts of derring-do (also a creepy lunatic asylum, illegitimate children, cursed families and a convent). It wasn’t quite Wilkie Collins but it was on its way. And when it ended, all was suddenly clear. The murk lifted and it was spring. Viewers could go to bed feeling that something had been resolved, unpicked like an old knot, though perhaps I’d better not say whodunnit (or whydunnit), in case this is loitering on your Sky Plus.

Paddy Considine returned as Jack Whicher, now discharged from the police on the grounds of “mental unfitness”. Opposite him was Olivia Colman as Susan Spencer, a genteel woman in search of her missing niece. Having stumbled on Miss Spencer in a tavern, Whicher offered to begin working for her as a “private inquiry agent”. As ever, they were good together, Considine and Colman (he directed her in the film Tyrannosaur). They’re two of the best criers in the business – the tears pour out of Colman like rainwater from a storm drain – and both of them have wonderful period faces: pouchy and oddly touching. The time will come when Colman makes an excellent Queen Victoria. She looks marvellous in jet.

It’s pretty clear that ITV is planning to commission more Whichers. “I think you will,” said a smiling Miss Spencer to our hero when he informed her in the film’s last moments that he wouldn’t be taking on any more cases in future. According to Hat Trick, which made it, the channel sees it “in a tradition of Cracker and Prime Suspect”. But for all that I enjoyed this second outing, they should leave it now. Cracker and Prime Suspect had an originality – a vitality – that Whicher lacks. There’s something ersatz here. Now it’s all made up, it’s as if Inspector Lestrade has leapt from the pages of Sherlock Holmes into his own stories. Writers as good as McKay have their own ideas and should be encouraged to develop them.

Paddy Considine and Olivia Colman in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Photograph: ITV.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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Over tea, the dominatrix told me that keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job

"There is great power in being submissive," she explained.

As fetishes go it was fairly mild: just a bit of sissification – or, getting yelled at while wearing ladies’ clothing. He was a top entertainment attorney, a powerful man. He wore stockings under his suit to work. His wife didn’t want to engage – so she sent him to a professional, who put him in full make-up and forced him to run around a dungeon in high heels. Jenny Nordbak is younger than you’d expect for a retired dominatrix, stirring her tea in a King’s Cross café.

Nordbak, 29, serviced the movie moguls and lawyers of Tinseltown for two years. As a child, her Barbies always ended up gagged and bound. As a student, she defied a controlling boyfriend by dropping her trousers during a game of beer pong. And at 22 she took up her whip, for philosophical reasons, tired of bad sex and of the sexual politics women often live by: who starts it, who ends it and what to expect in between.

At her sex dungeon in Los Angeles, keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job – especially during consultations, which worked like therapy sessions to unlock client desire. There was all the obvious stuff, such as the head-scissors (choking with the thighs). But there was also the man who wanted to lick a broom, and the one who asked her to ride a bike into him.

The stereotype is true: the more powerful they were in life, she says, the more demeaning their fantasies. “But I still wonder which way round it came: did they need a break from being in control, or had they become powerful because they secretly always felt humiliated?” She failed to control her laughter with one, only for him to pant in gratitude: “Mistress, no one’s ever laughed at me like that.”

Tea with Nordbak is a lesson in the lexicon of the underworld. Pro-dommeSub-flogger. Boner-check. Often her clients cried during sessions but they were clearly enjoying themselves – so I ask her in more depth about the nature of submission.

There’s a point that some people like to get to, she explains, in a low voice, called the sub-space. “A psychological state like being on drugs. Someone once compared it to a runner’s high. But it’s more intense because someone is inflicting it on you.” Nordbak has been there and didn’t like it much. But submission is misunderstood, she says – “It is powerful to be submissive!” – just as the desire to dominate is misrepresented in Fifty Shades of Grey as some kind of “affliction”, something you do if you’re broken somehow.

In Nordbak’s world it’s rather more nuanced; a dominatrix, after all, is submitting to a submissive’s desire. And working bloody hard. A dungeon pair build great trust between them, and great communication: sometimes your life depends on it.

She’s only once thought she’d killed someone – a woman, at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, who fainted during a headlock. Nordbak ran out of her tent for help, dressed only in boots and a strap-on. Female clients generally came to her because they wanted to learn her ways.

She gave it up when she started to get jaded, beating someone and thinking about her dinner. But her time as a pro-domme taught her to be more assertive in all areas of her life. “How does someone know what you want, in any area of life, if you don’t tell them?” she says. “Another person is never going to read your mind.”

Who’d have thought that S&M, the world of the rope and the ball gag, was all about communication? As with homosexuality, she thinks we all lie somewhere on the spectrum – a little bit submissive or dominant, whether we know it or not.

She is married now with a baby, and writing books. There is only one thing she misses and that is the look on a man’s face when you lead him across the room by the balls.

“They shut down,” she says, passing her palm over her eyes. “They follow you. They will do anything. Every woman should have that experience.” 

“The Scarlett Letters” by Jenny Nordbak is published by St Martin’s Press

https://www.amazon.com/Jenny-Nordbak/e/B01IZ1MQLG

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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