This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 3 December 2016.
RILLINGTON PLACE: Tuesday, BBC One
STORYVILLE: THE CULT THAT STOLE CHILDREN – INSIDE THE FAMILY: Tuesday, BBC Four
Few figures in history have encapsulated “the banality of evil” more than notorious serial killer John Reginald Christie.
With his bald bonce, tortoiseshell spectacles and mousy demeanour, he was outwardly nondescript in every way. And yet between 1943 and 1953 he murdered at least eight women in his sepulchral abode at 10 Rillington Place in North-west London.
Such was Christie’s infamy, his squalid saga was dramatised in a classic 1971 film starring Richard Attenborough.
That, seemingly, was the last word on this insidious monster. However, writers Tracey Malone and Ed Whitmore beg to differ with RILLINGTON PLACE, a grimly absorbing three-part drama starring Tim Roth as Christie and Samantha Morton as his conflicted wife, Ethel.
So how does it differ from the Attenborough film? Well, it began by focusing on Ethel as a kind of tragic identification figure. By viewing Christie from her perspective, it provides a chillingly claustrophobic sense of what it must’ve been like to live with him.
It also means that his murders take place off screen – at least for now - as Ethel never witnessed them. Instead we receive terrifying hints – a blood-stained mattress, a suspicious suitcase containing unknown horrors, Christie digging in the garden and skulking around at night with a hammer – while downtrodden Ethel gradually twigs that her shifty husband is more than a “mere” philanderer, thief, voyeur and liar.
Episode one also fleshed out their backstory. It ended as the events of the film began, i.e. the arrival at Rillington Place of doomed neighbour Timothy Evans, who would eventually be hanged for one of Christie’s murders.
Roth and Morton are extraordinary. With his flat, whispered Yorkshire tones and eerie self-containment, he’s like a sinister Jon Ronson disguised as Arthur Lowe. His steadfast calm being broken by a sudden physical attack on Ethel was particularly disturbing, revealing as it did the psychotic violence lurking beneath that apparently pathetic veneer.
Meanwhile, Morton’s subtly expressive face captures Ethel’s perpetual tug of war between hurt, suspicion, anger, disgust and denial. The writers suggested that she covered for Christie on at least one occasion, presumably out of misplaced loyalty to the only man she’d ever been with. To troubling effect, Morton nails this complex ambiguity.
Suitably mired in a dank, shabby, weak tea haze of gloomy wartime and post-war misery, Rillington Place excels on every level. Despite the lurid subject matter, it’s an admirably restrained yet gut-punching study of everyday evil.
Likewise, the sad and angering Storyville documentary THE CULT THAT STOLE CHILDREN: INSIDE THE FAMILY examined the harrowing psychological toll of lives destroyed by mentally unstable captors.
In 1963, Anne Hamilton-Byrne founded an Australian sect comprised of supposedly respectable adults and children either sired by followers, or stolen from vulnerable young mothers.
Believing herself to be Christ incarnate, for over 20 years this charismatic psychopath oversaw a despicably cruel regime in which children were starved, beaten and fed LSD. The programme featured testimonies from “her” children, all of them unimaginably scarred by their ordeal. Even the police officers investigating the case were traumatised.
She got away with it by exploiting draconian attitudes towards unwed mothers, while securing/manipulating friends in high places. When finally apprehended, all she faced was a fine for falsifying adoption documents. Today she resides in a retirement home, her memories vanquished by Alzheimer’s.
The Australian justice system and society at large failed these abused children. It was a scandal beyond your darkest nightmares.