Real pain lies behind the fiction of true-crime dramas

Though I’m better known as an arts journalist, for most of my career I’ve been a crime reporter. I’ve covered headline-making cases, from the serial killer Levi Bellfield – the subject of ITV’s recent drama Manhunt – to that of Shannon Matthews, whose abduction was the subject of the BBC drama The Moorside. I’m proud of the careful, responsible reporting of those cases by journalists, and am always inspired by the diligent work of police, lawyers and jurors in public courtrooms all over the country.

That’s why I’m wary of fictionalised true crime. Writers of dramas take the trauma of real lives, but then without the same obligations of accuracy and fairness that journalists or documentarians have, can play fast and loose to make fiction about relatively recent crimes. Some is breathtakingly casual. Who did not wince at John Malkovich’s recent musings on the Today programme about David Mamet’s new “black farce about a very badly behaved movie mogul”? “It’s a terrific piece of writing,” he told us.

Many film-makers would retort that they do not play lightly with true crime. That’s certainly true of the director of the Oscar-nominated Irish short film Detainment, Vincent Lambe. His film is based on transcripts of police interviews with the boys who killed James Bulger. Lambe has been asked by the murdered two-year-old’s mother, Denise Fergus, to withdraw it from release, and she is campaigning to stop fictional films being made without the consent of the bereaved. You don’t have to agree with her, or with censorship, to feel unsettled at this glimpse into her unimaginable pain; to ask why the suffering of families is so little considered by producers.

Manhunt, which starred Martin Clunes, was made 17 years after Milly Dowler’s murder and was acclaimed for its sensitive handling. But as Carol Midgley felt compelled to write in the Times: “I still think it’s too soon.” This concern is partly regret at the failure of TV’s ambition. I look back at the power of great drama documentaries to stir public outrage. The impact in 1990 of the Granada/ITV drama Who Bombed Birmingham? was huge. It starred John Hurt as Chris Mullin and Martin Shaw as Ian McBride, the World in Action journalist and producer who campaigned for years to expose how innocent men had been framed for the 1974 IRA Birmingham pub bombings that killed 21 people. Directed by a World in Action director, the late Michael Beckham, its combination of fictionalised recreation, , documentary rigour and star names changed the rules on what primetime crime drama could achieve. The convictions were quashed and all six men were freed the following year.

And pure crime documentary can achieve some of the artistic beauty of great fiction. Nick Broomfield’s film Tales of the Grim Sleeper investigated how a serial killer was able to prey for decades on the most vulnerable African-American women in south Los Angeles because of the attitudes of the LAPD. Determined to give the women dignity, he deliberately shot the film with the glossy quality of a Hollywood picture and focused on the testimony of the survivors.

When pressed on ethics, some writers give oddly defensive justifications, claiming documentary privilege while showing a lack of empathy for those with real memories of the crimes. The writer of Manhunt, Ed Whitmore, bizarrely chose to defend the decision to film the discovery of the body of another of Bellfield’s victims in the “correct” southwest London location, despite the distress for local people, this way: “We took the decision to try to be as authentic as we possibly could. If you decide to be authentic about A, B and C, then why not D, E and F? If we had filmed somewhere else and called it Twickenham Green, people would have said, ‘That’s not Twickenham Green.’”

In February 2017 the executive producer of BBC1’s The Moorside, Jeff Pope, insisted that this work of fiction – made without Shannon Matthews’ input – would be “a clear unbiased accurate version of what happened out there which will help understanding”. As if she might be grateful one day. This despite her grandparents’ opposition – they said her suffering “wasn’t entertainment”. Matthews was 18 when it was made, only nine years after the staged abduction by her mother and a male friend. The drama was beautifully acted, notably by Gemma Whelan as Karen Matthews and Sheridan Smith as Julie Bushby, who led the search for Shannon. But as with Manhunt the question remained: why now?

I’m not saying these shows should never be made. But while some critics declare themselves outraged every time Sarah Phelps dares take liberties with the cool puzzle-plotting of Agatha Christie’s entirely made-up stories 80 years after they were written, it is not a form of censorship to plead with the, mostly male, writers and commissioning executives to show a little more compassion, to pause a little more before turning a cruel crime into our entertainment.