The BBC’s crime investigation reality show re-examined.
Real-life crime documentaries are everywhere. This is not surprising – they pull in viewers and pander to the idea that we’re educating ourselves whilst also making our adrenal glands pulse in the face of actual real-life horror. This has led to an obsession with certain members of the criminal fraternity by film and TV producers – I for one never want to see another documentary/fictionalisation of Ted Bundy ever again – and also the potential glorification of heinous acts. I’m reminded of Robbie Coltrane as brilliant-if-unsteady forensic psychiatrist Fitz in ITV’s Cracker, saying calmly to Robert Carlyle’s disturbed and dangerous Albie “you just want to be a somebody. That’s all. Commit a crime, you become famous!”
Considering it was a fictional script, those words hold a lot of truth. But, frustratingly, all anyone talks about are the criminals – it begs the question of what about those who were the victims? One programme that did more than pay lip service to the horrible realities of crime was the BBC’s Crimewatch UK – arguably the UK’s first ever punt at ‘infotainment’. First broadcast in 1984, this programme lasted for nearly 30 years, until eventually axed in 2017. By the time it disappeared, it was a glossy, hi-tech beast, presented by Jeremy Vine and had pounding background music. But when originally broadcast in the 1980s, it was a serious, muted affair, which fitted perfectly into the troubled decade, one that for most people was a world away from the red braces n’ bubble perms of a mystical Thatcherite London. The programme was composed of four main strands: three reconstructions, using unknown actors for major investigations; two uniformed officers presenting Photofit, four photos of suspects; Incident Desk, in which breaking crimes were put forward, and Aladdin’s Cave, where an antiques expert presented recovered objects of beauty and wealth in the hope someone would claim them. The whole point was that the public would watch, have their memories jolted, and ring in. It was not a case of being a nosey parker, but of actually doing some good. What propelled its popularity was undeniably the original presenters – Nick Ross and Sue Cook. Unlike the perma-tanned and shrieking characters that litter TV in the 2020s, both Ross and Cook delivered their lines with the calm earnestness of news readers, whilst dressed in smart, sober clothes that made it clear that the programme was not all about them.
I watched Crimewatch UK in the 1990s as a teenager, and remember being simultaneously scared by it (I know, wuss), and also fascinated. So when I discovered that YouTube had episodes uploaded from its conception to the late Nineties, I had to go back and watch them. And what I discovered was that in the reconstructions, which were usually weighted toward unsolved murders, the BBC was creating four-minute horror films. The pilot programme, broadcast in June 1984, contained a reconstruction of the murder of Collette Aram, a teenage trainee hairdresser who was found dead after walking home from visiting her boyfriend on Halloween 1983. The sequence of events that unfold is highly disturbing – a monotonous voiceover taunts the police that they cannot catch him, two horse riders are watched from the perspective of a hiding man, a car cruises a suburban street and tries to entice a young woman inside, and finally, the suspect enters a pub, where the landlady recoils when she notices dried blood on his hands after serving him. These are the type of events that are standard in police procedurals on TV, but the knowledge that police believed this is what happened in real life makes it utterly chilling. It’s also quite jarring to watch events that were aided by the lack of mobile phones and Uber – now, wouldn’t she have rung her parents en route to tell them she was coming home? Wouldn’t she have used her app for a ride?
Similar questions stirred in my mind whilst watching February 1986, in which a young woman from Upminster vanishes in Hackney Wick when going to visit her boyfriend, with an eerie shot of her walking over the railway bridge in the pitch black, alone. Wouldn’t you now text or WhatsApp from the train so he could meet you? What also makes that reconstruction grim is the dark, miserable world that Hackney was in the 1980s – a world away from its gentrification of expensive flats and boutique coffee shops. Then, there was the sinister death of Christopher Laverack in 1984, a 9-year-old left alone with his baby nephew while his guardian for the evening went to the pub. Cue YouTube comments exploding in indignation that a young boy was left alone. Not to mention the episode where two young women started walking home at midnight from an isolated pub, only to be raped. Cue again comments of “why didn’t they…”. The sheer speed with which life has moved on makes many oblivious to how different and difficult some aspects of life really were.
Also notable is that the 1980s Crimewatch programmes make the police procedurals of the 1980s and 1990s appear much more far-fetched than they are when viewed in isolation. We had Inspector Morse, who drove round in a red Jaguar solving complicated deaths with the ease of a crossword puzzle; Prime Suspect, in which a deeply flawed woman took down the misogynists at the Met whilst solving gruesome murders, and Cracker, when a drunk gambling addict who also happens to be a genius psychologist gets confessions out of people whilst a young DS looks on adoringly. Crimewatch brought home the reality of police investigations – long, tiring, and often with no reward. It’s a shocking fact that some of the more notable murders were not solved until the 2000s, due to fluke DNA matches with people already being investigated, or in prison – notably the murder of Shani Warren and the aforementioned Christopher Laverack.
By the 1990s, Crimewatch was becoming a slightly slicker affair, and then, shockingly, had to present a reconstruction of the death of one of its own presenters when Jill Dando was shot dead on her own doorstep in West London in 1999. By the 2000s, with the rise of social media and CCTV surveillance, a programme like Crimewatch appeared redundant. Everyone is watching everyone, so crime can be reported at any time. But the constant rolling coverage can make you feel helpless and believe that everything is violent and dangerous. It does make you long for the kindly voiced Nick Ross to reassure you that these crimes featured were rare, and so don’t have nightmares, and do sleep well.
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