Why did the BBC make a new drama about serial killer John Christie?

I try to imagine the meeting where they decided to commission the series. “Hey, what about if we bring the guy to a whole new generation?”

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

When the BBC, in its rapidly diminishing wisdom, decided to commission a new drama about John Reginald Christie (Tuesdays, 9pm), one of the most hateful serial killers who ever lived, what went through its mind, I wonder? Try as I might to imagine the meeting – “Hey, what about if we bring the guy to a whole new generation?” – I keep drawing a blank.

Christie’s case is certainly historically important. That an innocent man, Timothy Evans, was hanged for two of the murders committed by Christie played a part in the abolition of the death penalty 15 years after Evans’s state-sanctioned killing in 1950 (and 12 after Albert Pierrepoint put the rope around the real culprit’s neck). Nevertheless, it seems to me that Richard Fleischer’s 1971 film, 10 Rillington Place, starring Richard Attenborough as Christie and John Hurt as Evans, is unlikely ever to be improved on. What is the point of revisiting a story that a lot of people already know inside out, if all you’re able to do is tell it less well?

The reason Fleischer’s film seems to get better and better down the years isn’t to do with the quality of its direction, nor even the performances by its actors, astonishing as they are. When it was made, Christie’s sooty, rooming-house Ladbroke Grove was still close enough to touch, a proximity that contributes hugely to the film’s extraordinary atmosphere. Beside it, the BBC’s three-part series Rillington Place, shot in a run-down corner of Glasgow, has the feeling of a facsimile. The harder its production designers work on making everything look bruised and peeling, the stagier it seems.

Is it more delicate than Fleischer’s film when it comes to the nature of Christie’s crimes? Yes, much more – though I’m not quite sure why the drama’s writers (Tracey Malone and Ed Whitmore) and director (Craig Viveiros) should have come over all politely 21st century about his fetish for having sex with dead women, when it was the BBC that brought us the festival of misogyny that was The Fall. However, this doesn’t absolve it of the accusation of prurience altogether. “Next time!” boomed the trailer at the end of part one, a queasy-making pitch that suggests it is every bit as concerned with building suspense as it is with pursuing its producers’ somewhat woollier stated aim of trying to “understand” how Christie got away with his crimes.

Its virtues lie entirely in its central performances, which, so far, are pretty good (though we haven’t yet seen much of Evans, played by Nico Mirallegro). Tim Roth is a wholly convincing Christie, a certain owlish beneficence concealing the putrid nastiness within, at least at first. The whisper – Christie’s voice was damaged by gas in the First World War – is exactly right. You lean in to hear him, just as you imagine his victims might have done, mistaking the soft tone for kindliness.

But it is perhaps the part of Ethel Christie, the long-suffering wife whom he will shortly strangle and bury beneath the floorboards, that is the more challenging role. How to explain why she stayed with him for so long, enduring so many provocations, suspicion simmering away inside her all the while? (She and Christie married in 1920; the bodies of Evans’s wife, Beryl, and his baby daughter, Geraldine, were found in an outdoor wash-house at 10 Rillington Place in 1949; Ethel was murdered in 1952.)

Samantha Morton plays her with sympathy and understanding. Ethel, we grasp, is one of Christie’s innocent victims, but she is also a creation of her age. She is loyal and dutiful to a fault, desperate to be loved or, at any rate, to remain married. There is a terrible willingness in her.

“I couldn’t care for Reg any more than I do,” she tells her doctor. “I just couldn’t.” Unlike some of her husband’s more knowing lines – “I’ve been hopeless without you. I’ve got myself into all sorts of bother,” he tells her, when she comes back to him after a stay with her brother – it’s a statement that comes with no irony. In Ethel’s world, doubt is a thing to be dealt with as briskly as possible, like washing pegged out on a line. In this sense, she will walk to her own execution, postwar orthodoxies having long since sealed her fate. 

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 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage