An Hour To Catch a Killer. Photo: ITV
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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.

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

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia