It’s a sad indictment of what we have become as a species, but you can bet your life that even as the Lucy Letby murders were filtering out through the papers more than one agent had immediately started thinking a) who do I talk to about the rights for this mess and b) which preternaturally beautiful A-lister do we get to glam down and Oscar up for it?
Our frankly ghoulish, voyeuristic, international obsession with serial killers, both fictional and non-fictional, shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down. So why not, after endless books, films, podcasts, documentaries, a couple of previous TV series and the recent new entry into the chart of worst ever real life serial killers, make another seven parter about Peter Sutcliffe?
The Long Shadow claims at the end of each hour to be “based on extensive research, personal accounts and the book Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt For The Yorkshire Ripper. But honestly, what other new scraps of information can there possibly be? What else is there to read? Who else is there to interview? Why would anyone want to further grill anyone involved at the time about a period they have surely spent a lifetime trying to get past? And who, at ITVX, is going “You know what we need on TV? More real life serial killing.”
Perhaps because I’m not a serial killer or a future serial killer, I’m not obsessed with serial killers. Nor with Peter Sutcliffe. I’m not one of those people who salivated as a new letter from him was unearthed in August. But watching the first two (of seven) episodes unfold here I felt like even I was familiar with every last detail: from the name of the Leeds nightclub where he picked up his second victim, to Sutcliffe’s boot size, to the gruesome specifics of his methods.
The focus here is largely on the life of said second victim, Emily Jackson (Katherine Kelly) and her husband Sydney (Daniel Mays). Briefly, for the uninitiated, they are down on their luck, out of money with kids to feed, and so she – with her husband’s reluctant blessing – becomes a sex worker. Then in January 1976 a car pulls over, and then…
Mays is absolutely excellent (is he ever not?) and Kelly, for the time she is in it – the first episode concludes with her getting into Sutcliffe’s car – maybe even better. Toby Jones is also decent as dog-with-a-bone detective Dennis Hoban, as is Jasmine Lee Jones, in episode two, as Marcella Claxton, who experienced the full extent of the police racism prevalent in Leeds at that time.
It’s a reasonably original take. It’s very well directed and has the requisite eerie music. But… well, even if you are not Sutcliffe-literate, these are story beats that now just feel so familiar. Knowing what is coming makes it feel like we are becoming anaesthetised to the horrors of these murders and others; that they are almost not real and exist only on screen.
It cannot be good to have so, so many gruesome murders on our televisions all the time. I found myself realising, a couple of hours in, that I just don’t know what I am – or we are – supposed to be taking away from true crime shows (that follow documentaries that follow books) like this anymore. Can someone just not make a really witty original comedy or something?
The Long Shadow is streaming now on ITV