|Alan Bennett (left)|
How do you like your serial killers? In Britain, while the crimes are being committed, or prosecuted, we like them with a dose of old testament horror, bordering on titillation. In retrospect, the sensations are numbed, and vile evil is portrayed, often, as a morbidly fascinating puzzle. Rillington Place (BBC iPlayer), is based on the real case of the notorious serial killer John “Reg” Christie, and was immortalised in a film starring Richard Attenborough in 1971. So what’s new?
Mostly, the innovations are matters of mood and angle. This series presents the events from three different perspectives, starting with his long-suffering wife, Ethel, played as a fearful, passive spouse by Samantha Morton. It takes place in a grimly recognisable post-war London, a place where all the colours are shades of grey and blue, where tablecloths are waxed, and intimate conversations struggle to stretch beyond a dutiful murmur. “Still one sugar?” says Reg (Tim Roth, on returning home after a nine year absence. Reg and Ethel have moved into a miserable looking house, with ominous trains rattling the walls, and a grim garden. It “needs a bit of love and care,” Reg notes quietly. “Spot of elbow grease. We’ll do our own planting. If there’s enough light.”
Roth’s Reg is a shadow of a man, his face shaded by his hat, his legs foreshortened by a raincoat, his expression masked by serious spectacles. Roth plays him as cross between Alan Bennett and Mr Benn, so everything is understated and polite and logical. At first, the restraint seems strange, as Roth is an actor known for easy violence. With time, the sense of menace builds. It’s a little bit League of Gentlemen. “Do you fancy the pictures?” he says in 1944. “Is that the door? Not expecting anyone?” He would, you think, be hard to love. But Morton portrays Ethel as a woman from a more dutiful age, her morals slowly melting as the horror unfolds. “Be nice to get things back to normal,” says Reg. “Ship shape. Nice cup of tea?”
The second series of The Missing (BBC iPlayer) ended, as it had to, with a question, and a flash of psychological manipulation. This series has been as hard to love as it has been to understand, though most of the questions were answered in the end, with a suitably tense showdown in the woods in Switzerland. There was a shoot-out, a chase, a cliff-edge; every kind of jeopardy except the plausible sort. As a story, it was perhaps too rich. Mixing the horrors of the Iraq war with a cross-border tale of child abduction might seem like a good idea, but it doesn't leave a lot of room for emotional engagement. It works, when it works, because of the character of the detective Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo), who is like Inspector Morse played as a limping Frenchman by Harvey Keitel.
Similarly, as Westworld (Sky On Demand/Now TV) draws towards the end of its first season, a hierarchy of characters has been established, with the broader existential questions pushed aside in favour of ultraviolence; a carved midriff here, a bit of gunplay there, a surprising head-butt for Ed Harris, who’s had it coming. Still, there is some nagging intelligence at play. The most sympathetic character is Thandie Newton’s vengeful robo-madam, Maeve, while Anthony Hopkins’ Dr Ford is now established as a fully-blown Dr Frankenstein. But then, why did Bernard - newly revealed as a murderous lump of artificial intelligence - say to Ford, “Arnold built us, didn’t he?” He’s probably right. But who’s Arnold?
Oh, look, a sexy French cop. In The Passenger (All 4), the latest European import in Channel 4’s Walter Presents strand, the lovely Raphaëlle Agogué plays Bordeaux policier, Captain Anais Chatelet, whose misfortune it is to be in charge of a murder investigation in which the victim is discovered naked in a pit with a bull’s head on his shoulders. Chatelet, as well as being tough and lovely and flawed - she has scars on her arms - is clever, and quite capable of Googling “minotaur”. There is a suspect, and a lot of evidence, but an annoying doctor gets in the way with his diagnosis of “trouble de la personnalité” and other maladies mentales. All is stylish and generic and forgivable, because Agogué has French hair and walks like a cowgirl.
(As published in London Evening Standard, 2 December, 2016)