An Hour To Catch A Killer is a disturbingly intimate story of murder

When the attacker began blankly spinning his lies in the interview room, you felt only numb.

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Our friends at ITV have decided to treat us all to a Crime & Punishment season, which sounds pretty alluring, until you discover that every programme on offer as part of it comes with its own grim celebrity: Ross Kemp, Gordon Ramsay, Piers Morgan.

The punishment, in other words, appears to be all ours. What, I wonder, have we done to deserve it? Isn’t it enough that some of us sat through not one, but two episodes of the channel’s awful new sitcom Bad Move? (Jack Dee: I love you, but not in this.)

Kicking the whole thing off is An Hour To Catch a Killer with Trevor McDonald (12 October, 9pm), a documentary so badly titled there must have been some who tuned in expecting to see the former newscaster dashing around in a high-vis jacket and peaked cap. But, no. McDonald’s role, in a film that followed the investigation into the murder of 24-year-old Alice Ruggles last year, was mostly to act as a rubber stamp: from the Millennium Bridge at Gateshead, he introduced the programme (it was night-time, the better to make the shot look more New York); later on, he briefly interviewed Alice’s grieving parents.

I can’t speak for the other programmes in the series, but in this instance it was odd that the producers felt the need for a random celebrity (though, more likely, they were simply unable to resist pressure from above). Their material was so disturbingly intimate, their cameras having had access to the investigation into Alice’s murder from the moment her body was found, that McDonald’s presence wasn’t only gratuitous; it felt grubby, too.

He spoke of the so-called “golden hour” – the period following the discovery of a body during which a great deal must be done very quickly if the perpetrator is to be caught – and then kept repeating the phrase ad infinitum. Why? To increase the tension? I couldn’t understand it. A lovely young woman had been murdered. A family had been destroyed. This wasn’t Scott & Bailey.

The investigation was led by DCI Lisa Theaker, a willowy-looking cop who knew both when to be brisk and when to make some small tension-releasing joke. From the beginning, she had her suspect: Alice’s soldier ex-boyfriend Harry Dhillon (he was sentenced earlier this year to a minimum 22 years in prison for the killing).

In the 21st century, the moments before and after murders and many other crimes are – irrespective of whether a TV company is on board – always filmed, at least partially: CCTV and mobile phones see to that. And so it was that we saw Alice leaving her office; being dropped off by a colleague at her flat in Gateshead; and trying on, for the benefit of her friends on WhatsApp, a party dress. (“Too much?” she asked them, wryly.)

All this was heartbreaking to the degree that when Dhillon began blankly spinning his lies in the interview room, you felt only numb; even as he dissembled, your mind loitered in her bedroom. After he had been charged, the police returned to her flat. Slowly, the camera panned round. A glittery sandal. The party dress she had worried was over-the-top. Theaker touched its silvery pleats – a gesture that made me think she could no better comprehend what had happened to its owner than the rest of us.

On BBC Two, Louis Theroux is back with a new three-part series about America, Dark States (8 October, 9pm). The first film was about heroin, which has crept over the Rust Belt like so much ivy, and involved him hanging out on, or close to, a number of dirty mattresses in Huntington, West Virginia, a city where it’s estimated that a quarter of adults are addicts.

I still wonder about Theroux’s on-screen naivety: “I feel weird, watching you do something so dangerous,” he said to one young addict as she shot up; “I began to suspect that the main purpose of our visit was to get money,” as he drove the same woman to visit her great uncle in his big, country house. But there’s no denying that his material is compelling – and ever more so, given who’s president. All intelligence is most welcome at this point, says this baffled and increasingly terrified viewer.

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 first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled