Piety and prejudice

The Moors murderer meets a bumbling Christian; the result is comic horror


Longford, you will note, not Hindley. Peter Morgan, in another of his inspired comedy-dramas reworking modern history (9pm, 26 October), has no doubt where the interest lay in the friendship between the late Moors murderess and her would-be saviour, the equally late Lord Longford.

Back in May, See No Evil, ITV's first bite at Ian Brady and Myra Hindley's crimes, looked as hard as it could bear at the pair's relationship in an effort to divine how it generated so much evil. Here, Morgan writes off their crimes as unknowable and, anyway, beyond dramatic representation, and turns instead to the lesser mystery of Longford's fascination with Hindley.

Hannah Arendt gave a supposedly crushing verdict on the Nazi Adolf Eichmann - that he epitomised the "banality of evil". Here, helped by Jim Broadbent's bumbling interpretation of Longford, Morgan argues that good can be just as banal.

The odd couple's story stretches from 1968, the time of Longford's first visit to Hindley in jail, to his death in 2001. Forty years ago, we are reminded, he was already a political write-off, on the verge of being sacked as leader of the Lords by Harold Wilson. Coming from a class that believed it was born to serve (ie, to rule), Longford needed something to ease the pain of his sense of redundancy. His wife, the nice Elizabeth (Lindsay Duncan), was up for any lost cause he chose, so long as it wasn't Myra. For a time a crusade against pornography sublimated his passion. He returned, however, to his original lonely bandwagon. Springing Hindley may have been a hopeless enterprise, but, at least, it recruited one enthusiastic supporter, namely Hindley herself.

The mystery of his devotion to her is unravelled right at the start of the film, when Longford, about to bore the listeners of a radio phone-in by plugging his book Saints, explains that he has written it because, "as a lifelong Christian and scholar", he is interested in "sanctity". "More selfishly", it allows him to spend time with his heroes. Hindley ticks all his boxes. The immensity of her crimes presents him with the ultimate challenge: if he can forgive them, what a Christian that will make him! And, by sloping off to Holloway, he is indeed spending more time with a hero - not Hindley, but himself.

It is left to Ian Brady (Andy Serkis) to identify Longford's darker motives. "Look me in the eye, Frank," he threatens, "and tell me you weren't a little bit sweet on her yourself." She is, he explains, a hysteric in the strictly medical sense - someone capable of reflecting back exactly what the viewer wants to see. Longford, heedless, prefers to trust his duff instincts, and continues to assert that she is a good Christian and, even more bizarrely, that women can never really be criminals.

Samantha Morton, one of the best actresses working today, bravely shows us Hindley's charm, while letting us know that it is toxic. In their final encounter - as she nears her death from emphysema that produced a heart attack - she recalls her nights on the moors burying bodies with Brady. She tells Longford: "Evil can be a spiritual experience, too." She must figure that it is the only language these people understand. Or perhaps she is as nuts as Brady. Morton does not let on which.

Morgan, who wrote Frost/Nixon and The Deal (about Blair-Brown), likes two-handers. The problem here is that the protagonists come from different genres. She would fit nicely into Cracker. He is Yes Minister material. The difficulty is emphasised by the contrast between Morton's mercilessly honest performance and Broadbent's comic turn. The director, Tom Hooper, should have turned up his irritable, arrogant side. However, as with all Morgan's work, you end up believing the interpretation: theirs was a relationship that belonged on the comedy-horror shelf.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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