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15 May 2023

Steeltown Murders left me bored and furious

There are countless other series just like this true crime drama. Is it any wonder I found it so wearying, and so problematic?

By Rachel Cooke

Two girls get into a stranger’s car. It is dark, and the pavements are slicked with rain – and yes, even if this scenario wasn’t based on a true story, you would know what comes next. We are fully prepped, dramatically speaking, for this kind of stuff, foreboding in the matter of young women out late at night as natural to us as sneezing, or pouring another glass of wine – and when the scene suddenly switches, we’re hardly surprised. Now, it’s bright morning. A man walks his dog in the woods. A telephone rings. Another man weeps. In the mud, we see a pair of block-heeled, white vinyl boots, a Chelsea Girl purchase that’s just the thing for dancing to T. Rex or Mott the Hoople, but probably a bit less practical if you’re trying to run away from a serial killer.

I can’t predict when I will feel I’ve had enough. The BBC’s Steeltown Murders isn’t, after all, half so gratuitous as some other true crime shows. I read that, for those who made it, sensitivity to survivors and to relatives of the victims of the rapist and murderer known as the Saturday Night Strangler was their priority; and it seems perfectly… fine to me, by which I mean this is an averagely well-made and averagely well-performed drama.

But still, as I watched, I experienced a horrible combination of boredom and fury. Steeltown Murders, which is written by a man (Ed Whitmore), and directed by one (Marc Evans), tells us nothing whatsoever that we do not know already, or cannot discover via the internet. Is it any wonder that I find it, in the context of so many other series just like it, both so wearying and so problematic?

The murders of its title, which were committed in Llandarcy and Tonmawr near Port Talbot in 1973, remained unsolved until 2002 when, thanks to new DNA evidence, it was proven they had been committed by a lorry driver and sometime bouncer, Joseph Kappen, who had died of lung cancer in 1990. The case is significant because Kappen was the first person to be posthumously identified as a serial killer using DNA, though Whitmore’s screenplay also suggests that after-the-fact science might not have been needed at all if detectives at the time had linked the murder of Sandra Newton with those of Geraldine Hughes and Pauline Floyd a few weeks later (misogyny – surprise, surprise – probably played a part here). All three women were 16 years old, and all three were raped before they were killed.

The series has a dual time-frame, switching between the brown of 1973 and the beige of the early 2000s with a speed that is sometimes exhausting. It would be confusing if the two were not linked, for the purposes of instant recognition, by a drooping moustache, seemingly retained throughout the decades by DCI Paul Bethell, who worked on the original investigation, and who has now returned to nail his man. Bethell is played as a young man by Scott Arthur, and as an older one – predictable casting, this – by Philip Glenister, and the schtick is that he’s supposed to be more principled than many cops. Unfortunately, I found myself worrying more about his accent than his morals. In Neath and its environs, everyone says “hee-urr” for “here”. Except for the middled-aged Bethell, whose Welsh accent has, like the Austin 1300 and Park Drive cigarettes, completely disappeared.

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At least the whole thing looks right. The funeral of one of the girls, at a Methodist chapel hard by the steelworks, is straight out of a photograph by the great John Bulmer. But away from the night-time scenes, it’s hardly gripping. We’re invited to watch middle-aged men pull dusty files from shelves or tap away on their giant, grey computers, and to feel… what? Moved by their diligence and determination? Glad that they are a bit less appallingly sexist than those who came before them?

I can’t imagine what it would be like to have entertainment made of a terrible and intimate loss. But if it must be done, surely the result has to be exceptional: a capturing of something profound, not just another parade of bad clothes and even worse moustaches.

Steeltown Murders
BBC One; 15 May, 9pm

[See also: The BBC’s new Great Expectations is so bad it should be illegal]

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This article appears in the 17 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List