BBC Four’s Yorkshire Ripper Files are extraordinarily resonant

These new films reminds us of the real victims of “true crime”.

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Liza Williams’s three-part documentary series The Yorkshire Ripper Files (26 March, 9pm) sets out to examine whether the notoriously bungled investigation into the 13 murders and (at least) eight violent attacks committed by Peter Sutcliffe between 1975 and 1981 was hampered by toxic attitudes to women on the part of the police. This isn’t a new thought, though Williams presented it as one: Joan Smith covered the same ground brilliantly in her 1989 book, Misogynies; even at the time, moreover, plenty of people were aware that the way senior detectives spoke of the deceased was vile and pernicious (in their eyes, the only “innocent” victims were those “respectable” women, killed in or after 1977, who had not been prostitutes; such beliefs, combined with the incompetence and arrogance of these officers, enabled Sutcliffe to roam far longer than might otherwise have been the case).

But perhaps originality isn’t the point, for these are extraordinarily resonant films. Too young to remember the times herself, Williams nevertheless caught them absolutely. A row of Chapeltown terraces, their bricks as red as blood. A woman in a thin mac on a street corner. A reporter explaining that his mother found it impossible to believe that the latest victim could have come from genteel Morley. A football crowd singing “there’s only one Yorkshire Ripper”. I’d forgotten that the police suggested a curfew for women, an outrage that in 1977 sparked the first Reclaim the Night march, and I only recalled the elaborate rockery in the garden of Sutcliffe’s pebble-dashed home ­­– a thing more refined even than Morley – when it appeared on screen. But everything else chimed like some tolling bell with my memories. The need to avoid snickets and ginnels (or as we call them in Sheffield, gennels). Listening for your mum’s key in the door. The unambiguous lurch in your stomach on hearing someone say: “He’s done another one.” I was 11 when Sutcliffe was arrested in the lane next to the pool where I took swimming lessons. We could hardly believe it. We thought it would never happen.

Photography was an expensive hobby then, and thanks to this there are pitifully few images of the Ripper’s victims. Wilma McCann, the first woman to die, exists in the public imagination only in one black and white police photograph, a picture that her son, Richard, despises for the way it makes her look “like Myra Hindley”. Twenty-three children were orphaned by Sutcliffe, and here was one of them: a softly spoken man whose features so resemble those of his mother, my heart began to ache even before he’d opened his mouth. His was first an ordinary story – when his mum was down on her luck, which was often, they would sell home-made paper flowers door-to-door – and then, suddenly, it was the most terrible story I have ever heard.

On the October night in question, his mother went out for a drink, leaving five-year-old Richard and his three sisters alone (whatever the police assumed, there was no evidence she was a sex worker). Usually, the children would go to sleep; their mother would be safely home when they got up. On this occasion, his older sister woke him at 5.30am, having discovered that she had not returned. Together, the two children slipped out into the playing field behind their house in Leeds, and thence to the bus stop to wait for her. She never came. Her body, they realised long afterwards, was lying on the grass a few feet from where they’d walked.

Two years later, Jayne MacDonald, a 16-year-old shop assistant, was murdered by Sutcliffe on her way home to her parents – a home that was seven doors down from where Richard was by now living with his father. Such loss and indiscriminate terror – and yet, somehow, he survived. And now here he was, carefully deployed by Williams to keep in sight just what is involved in the words “true crime”. We carried with us his bewilderment and pain – and the bewilderment and pain of all those who loved Sutcliffe’s victims – until the credits rolled. He was our conscience, our empathy and our outrage: his flummoxed smile militated against tawdriness and cheap thrills, the safe distance lent by old headlines. 

The Yorkshire Ripper Files
BBC Four

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 appears in the 29 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty