Let’s imagine, just for a moment, that ITV’s new drama The Long Shadow is not about the real crimes of Peter Sutcliffe, but those of a fictional serial killer who terrorised women in the north of England between 1975 and 1981. All other things being equal, what do I make of it, having seen two of its seven episodes?
It strikes me, a veteran of the retro police procedural, as not much more than workmanlike. There are some fine performances – Katherine Kelly as the killer’s second victim, Emily Jackson, and Daniel Mays as her grieving, guilt-stricken husband, Sydney, are wonderful – and the period details are sometimes nicely observant; in their living rooms, people are fairly gripped by what was then still called Emmerdale Farm. But clichés abound nonetheless. Portentous music. Cliffhanger endings. A generalised northern-ness that never rings quite true. The investigating coppers, played by Lee Ingleby, Toby Jones and David Morrissey, strike me in particular as so many cardboard cutouts, assembled from a handy kit marked “Middle-Aged Men of the Late Seventies (Varying Degrees of Bigotry)”. Inside the kit, a tin of boot polish, which seems to have been what was used to dye Ingleby’s hair and moustache.
The only thing that really marks The Long Shadow out, in other words, is the fact that it is about Peter Sutcliffe – and yet, reading the advance publicity, of which there has been plenty, thanks to careful stage management by ITV, it’s as if this is a wholly exceptional piece of work. In interviews, everyone involved has spoken of the responsibility they felt in making it; of the detailed research they undertook; of all the lessons they learned. We’re told, seemingly without any embarrassment, that it came as something of a revelation to its writer, George Kay, to hear that calling the series The Yorkshire Ripper would be painful for the families of Sutcliffe’s victims (and so its title was changed).
These protestations of sensitivity! You’d think that taking extreme care over such a project would be so standard as to be hardly worth mentioning – and yet they’re all (dictation-taking journalists included) talking about it, so proud of, and pleased by, this special circumspection. Why? I wonder. Putting aside the PR aspect of such chat – a means of heading off criticism before it even airs – the series itself is utterly at odds with the praise. Even if it wasn’t unremarkable as drama, it’s hard not to notice the kind of shoddiness that has, at one point, snow on the ground in West Yorkshire, and all the trees in full summer leaf. Well done for making Sutcliffe a minor character! Congratulations for focusing on the victims. But in the end, you’ve still made entertainment from some of the most terrible crimes against women ever committed by one man – and not even good entertainment at that.
This is all the more pitiable in the moments when we sense what the series might have been. In one scene, a police woman answers a call from Marcella Claxton, who survived Sutcliffe taking a hammer to her head. She stays on the line with her as, first, her attacker drives right past the phone box from which she’s ringing and, second, the flashing blue lights finally arrive. “Keep your knickers on the blood,” she says to her, gently. “Scrunch them up, Marcella.”
It’s so terrifying and so painfully intimate, and it convinced me that using a narrow frame would have been infinitely better – more eloquent, and more convincing – than trying to tackle the entire six-year-long investigation. Certainly, it feels far more true and more powerful than the anachronistic speech Kay gives to one sex worker: preposterously, she articulates the fear and the misogyny that was then all around from the back seat of a police car.
This tirade struck me as a sop, written to win other parts of the script a free pass. But there is no free pass here. I’m sad and aggrieved it was commissioned. Perhaps it will encourage the BBC to again repeat Liza Williams’s sober, pitch-perfect 2019 documentaries about the murders. I hope so. In the meantime, if you really want to know what it was like in Yorkshire then (I was there, a frightened child), read Joan Smith’s Misogynies or Gordon Burn’s Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son – or, ideally, both – and give this a respectful miss.
The Long Shadow
ITV1, 25 September, 9pm; available
This article appears in the 27 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Right Power List