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26 September 2018

Inside the small and tedious mind of Charles Manson

Most “astonishing” documentaries rarely are that. But Manson: The Lost Tapes really is disquieting.

By Rachel Cooke

When it comes to the human heart, what shocks other people tends to elicit in me little more than a shrug. Almost nothing, it seems, is beyond my imagination or emotional flexibility; I grow less and less capable of passing a certain kind of moral judgement with every year that passes. But perhaps there are, after all, limits to my understanding. Listening to a series of incandescent young women describe their intense fascination with Charles Manson – a diminutive creep with a small and tedious mind, dirty fingernails, and sadistic impulses it would have been possible to spot from Mars whether you were on LSD or not – I felt nothing but bafflement. At this point, I think I might more easily fathom quantum physics than grasp why they would once have followed him to the ends of the earth.

Most “astonishing” documentaries rarely are that. But Manson: The Lost Tapes (9pm, 27 September) really is disquieting: a trip and a half of purest horror dressed up as social history (Jefferson Airplane’s accusatory anthem “Somebody to Love” –  “your mind is so full of red” – has never sounded more sinister). In two parts, it comprises a series of rediscovered interviews with Manson Family members conducted by the documentary maker Robert Hendrickson, while Manson was awaiting trial for the murder of the actress Sharon Tate and nine others in 1969; and two contemporaneous interviews with former Family members, Dianne Lake and Catherine Share.

Can this pair, grey-haired now and carefully decked out in statement jewellery and pearlised lipstick, throw any light on their old obsession, let alone on that of the other “girls” who lived with Manson in his dilapidated ranch in the mountains north of Los Angeles? What is most astonishing of all, is that they cannot. Both talked of adolescent loneliness, of their powerful need for love. Share was an orphan at 17; Lake, whose parents were not sufficiently “fuzzy” for her needs, was just 14 when she joined the Family. But nothing they said came close to explaining why they loved and revered this animal who would knock unconscious any virgin who tried to resist him, and who punished Lake for having the temerity to ask for a helping of the sex he gave so freely to others by brutally sodomising her.

In the Sixties footage, they looked ecstatic, carefree, easy in their own (frequently naked) bodies. In the footage from 2018, they looked mildly confused, startled by this sudden proximity to their seemingly unknowable former selves. Lake offered the word “orgy” as casually as another woman of her age and class might say “statins” or “golf”. Their refusal to rewrite history is, I suppose, rather admirable in its way. Both remembered good times, insisting on the warmth and kindness they found at the Spahn Ranch. “I didn’t see the dust,” said Share, recalling what she thought of as this hellhole’s “beauty”. Somehow, though, this didn’t stop it – their resistance to hindsight – from being horrifying. How could such memories have remained intact? Why had later events – a police officer wept as he described the wounds to Tate’s pregnant belly – done so relatively little to fray them?

And so to Jed Mercurio’s much-obsessed-over Bodyguard, the final erotic spasm of which – all 75 minutes of it – somehow managed to encompass both high tension and low-level tedium (9pm, 23 September). Why, I wonder, did it fail to live up to its early promise? Certainly, there was something anti-climactic in the tying up of all the loose ends (not another bent copper, Jed!). But the show as a whole had its problems, too, often seeming to have too much to do with process and procedure, and too little to do with character; even at its most exciting, it was oddly colourless.

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Mercurio’s thing for killing off stars early on also caused it a certain amount of damage. How we missed Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes) and her red box once they were gone. It was a gap made all the more gaping by the weird charisma bypass that is Richard Madden – an actor far more mesmeric was required for a part involving this many acres of solo screen time – and by Gina McKee’s apparent conviction that acting is just frowning taken to the max. 

Manson: The Lost Tapes (ITV)
Bodyguard (BBC One)

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This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis