Not just tolerated, but loved

Television - Andrew Billen on the awkward truths of <em>Shipman</em>, a docudrama that disappoints

Just as Dr Harold Shipman traded on his folksy bedside manner, so ITV's dramatisation of how he murdered 15 going-on 200 patients got by on the folksiness of its setting. Although set in the late 1990s, Shipman (9 July, 9pm, ITV1) looked like a cosy period drama, a cross between All Creatures Great and Small and Miss Marple Investigates. If only the murders had indeed happened a century ago, we might have actually enjoyed it. As it was, who did not sympathise with the outrage of the relatives of those he killed? ITV was making a drama out of tragedy even before its extent had been determined.

To rehabilitate his commission, several options were available to Michael Eaton, the writer. One might have been to concentrate on the police investigation. This would have had the virtue of concentrating the mind on procedural flaws and the lessons to be drawn from them. It would also have shoved the murders off-screen. A really clever script might even have avoided showing Shipman's face at all.

A more ambitious approach would have been to assess Shipman's motives and make a biopic that stretched back to his childhood, the early death of his mother from cancer, and his later drug addiction and censure by the General Medical Council. The film could have ended with him about to take his first life.

One can, however, see the problems with either alternative. The investigators were slow off the mark but there was one, not terribly interesting, excuse for the slowness: the sheer unlikelihood of what was going on. Once the investigation started, it was relatively quick, for the equally boring reason that you did not need to be a Sherlock Holmes to work out what was happening. The only interesting forensic breakthrough came when it was discovered that Shipman had altered the dates of his computer records, a deduction that it apparently took a porcine computer geek no longer to arrive at than it took him to eat a pepperoni pizza.

Attempting a detailed portrait of Shipman would have been equally likely to fail, as the man was inscrutably dull. The film showed his facade of avuncular authority cracking only twice: first when, under interrogation, he forgot how many nines there were in "999" and second when, bang to rights, he broke down and wept as he clutched his solicitor's legs. The one other insight was the state of his home, which seemed to be the sort of place that made you want to wipe your feet as you leave.

So Eaton took the most plodding approach of all and came in to the story the moment just before suspicions were raised, but while some of the murders were still about to happen. With one fleeting flashback, the story proceeded soberly, via a series of deaths, until Shipman was jailed. As this entailed us seeing various old ladies sitting in their armchairs in the early stages of rigor mortis, accusations of tastelessness surely stand.

As for an analysis of Shipman's motive, Eaton, like everyone, was stumped. In a slightly embarrassing scene, the detective in charge of the case, Stan Egerton, turned to the local priest, who, having dismissed the possibility that Shipman was born evil, filled in the background with a story of how, as a teenager, he had watched his mother being pumped with morphine. "With all due respect: bollocks," said Stan. But his own explanation did not get us much further: "When I look in his eyes I reckon that's what I see. He thinks he is the supreme being, has the ultimate power over life and death." Yes, but why?

To be fair to it, Roger Bamford's film brought alive the gentle, small-town values on which Shipman preyed. It exposed how, even in a working-class community, small gradations of class produced disproportionate deference. It showed, too, the complacency of small communities; how, in a place where everybody "knows" everyone else, evil can most easily hide. Shipman was not just tolerated, he was loved.

Its other merit was the acting, which from Demelza Randall as Debbie the undertaker up was excellent: naturalism raised a peg. As the late DI Egerton, James Hazeldine was quite exceptional. A jokey sort - he winkingly told the senior undertaker that it was right he should express "grave" concerns - we saw his good humour turn to courage when he eventually cottoned on, as he not only braved the hostility of the community, but faced his own assumptions about the world.

The casting of James Bolam, once a Likely Lad, as Shipman was clever because, like the doctor, Bolam commands respect and affection as a performer. But there was no consistency to the scripted character, who was calm one moment and irritable the next. As he administered his fatal shots of morphine, Bolam's eyes flicked around. Behind them, I suspect, he had as little idea of what was going on in Shipman's head as the rest of us. The man has never confessed.

So Shipman was not art. It did not reorder life until it made sense: it simply reanimated events, rewinding a number of harmless old women back into life and then killing them off again. As the programme ended, the camera pulled back to show a multitude of candles in a church, each lit in the name of an Ivy, a Pamela, a Winifred and Muriel - ITV's little tribute, I assume, to their role in the ratings war.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Sexy kids