Opinion: Should real crimes be dramatized?

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The Long Shadow drama series tells the story of the five-year manhunt for the serial-killer who was known as the Yorkshire Ripper. It boasts a familiar line up of high-calibre talent. Toby Jones, Lee Ingleby, David Morrissey, Katherine Kelly, Daniel Mays, Jasmine Lee-Jones and Jill Halfpenny all deliver quite remarkable performances. There are seven one hour episodes in total, each one more compelling and gripping than the last.

While The Long Shadow has generated a bit of grumbling among some of us northern-based media peeps, there has also been much praise for it. Writing and producing a drama, which is based on an unprecedented true story of this magnitude, is such a sensitive exercise that some here in the north may have viewed the idea as a “poisoned chalice”. Leeds and Manchester are cities with thriving media industries and yet The Long Shadow was primarily powered by the south. Were questions raised about whether the north was just too close to the subject and unable to deliver a fresh perspective?

The Long Shadow is a drama which is based on a true story; actual crimes which actually happened; and the worst kind at that. The creators attempt to help us get our heads around that potential paradox by issuing a fairly direct statement at the start each episode. But, like a home-made no parking sign swallowed up by a ten foot hedge, if you blinked, emotionally or literally, you might just miss it. In fairness, it clearly states that some characters and scenes have been created for the purposes of dramatisation.

But the story of the Yorkshire Ripper is so badly burned into the British psyche, that the dramatisation aspect of it cannot be emphasised strongly enough. Some of us may need reminding that we’re watching a drama, not evidence for use in courtroom proceedings, not a factual documentary or a journalistic account of events. A drama. The creators have fabricated some fictional characters and scenes, they’ve been made up, they’ve said as much, right from the off. The sensible viewer must keep this fabrication in mind. The literalists who roll their eyes and protest that “ah yes, but such-and-such a thing never actually happened” have missed the opening statement and possibly the entire point of television drama.

Photo credit: Sam McGhee via Unsplash

Should true crime stories be dramatised for public consumption?

This is a tough ethical question. Rembrandt’s famous oil painting The Return of the Prodigal Son is one artist’s interpretation of a fictional story, made up by no less than *Jesus himself. Much commentary has been made regarding the authenticity of Rembrandt’s scene. Characters have been included which were not mentioned by Jesus. Rembrandt’s art is not a photograph of reality, it’s his interpretation and representation of a powerful story. In a similar way, it seems reasonable to me, that television dramas might transcend the precise literal truth of events, while taking great care not to sensationalize the facts.

Drama invites the viewer to step outside of time and place. Viewing confirms acceptance of that invitation. By continuing to watch, the viewer passes through a sort of portal where there are risks. We risk expanding our horizons, we risk stepping outside of known narratives, comfort zones, mindsets, prevailing cultures, attitudes and agonies. Like the hundreds of people who line up to witness The Return of the Prodigal Son at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, we risk stepping right into the flawed human representation of a powerful story. To engage with creative works of art is to risk changing and expanding our views about the known and the unknown.

For a story as horrendous as The Long Shadow, is that transcendence of literal reality, much more than creative license? Is it essential to the telling of the story? In a case such as this, if we were to demand the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth would we have to witness the re-enactments of terrible crimes which really happened? Acts so evil, so cruel, that some hearts may not be able to recover from the witnessing of them, and that can’t be right can it?

While watching The Long Shadow I was struck just as much by those parts of the story which were left out, as by those which were left in. I limit my viewing of crime dramas, mainly because of gory murder scenes and compulsory conversations around post mortem examinations. As a visual thinker, these scenes are packed with high-impact, high-res images which can soak up too much precious data capacity. Some scenes in The Long Shadow gave me shudders. The creators cleverly capitalize on the true-story-terror and convey a chilling sense of foreboding without depicting any violence and without the shedding of a single drop of blood on screen. The killer himself is not the centre of the story, he’s not glamorised as with some true crime dramas, in fact he barely makes an appearance, and I’m fine with that.

Photo credit: Al Elmes via Unsplash

Some of the filming of The Long Shadow took place in and around a home belonging to a friend of a friend; a real bricks and mortar house which I have actually visited. This added a strange dimension for me personally, bringing a surreal grounding effect to some episodes. Trendy homes back then were about a million miles away from the open plan, grey-beige minimalism of today. The bizarre fashions, the contrived hairstyles, the Deidre spectacles, the wacky wallpaper, they all shout of an uneasy time of turmoil and uprising. The Long Shadow highlights the shocking practices of an era where societal attitudes towards women were even more outrageous than the zany trends of the day. Blatant misogyny abounded. The intensity of these prevailing attitudes are sensitively conveyed by David Morrissey as DCS George Oldfield, the police officer who led the manhunt, a determined but thoroughly misguided individual.

The women in this story weren’t heard, believed or valued. It’s the kind of relatable, conflicted viewing that can make you nod in recognition at the telly, whilst wanting to throw an ugly vase at the screen in protest. Somehow we are spared the most obvious details, at the same time as being smacked square between the eyes with the relentless horror of those five years. I am grateful for the careful omissions, at the same time as being desperately, desperately sad for all those who died, lived, and continue to live with the impact of those crimes.

The Long Shadow highlights a disturbing time in history, a shameful period where many women were badly let down. Many consider it to be a critical turning point regarding women’s rights and women’s voices. My prayers have to be with all those women associated with this story, their families and all the people who love them. The Long Shadow is a modern day work of creative art, as powerful and compelling as any Rembrandt, and as such I hope that the sensitive delivery of it might bring some measure of peace to those who need it most. All in all, it’s very clever telly, and this northerner must doff her metaphorical flat cap and give the creators credit, where credit is indeed due.

The Long Shadow is available on ITV1 and ITVX from 25th September 2023.

*The story of the Prodigal Son is recorded in Luke 15:11-32.

Main Photo Credit: Courtesy of Daniel Mays via Twitter/X

Val Fraser

Val Fraser is a trained journalist with over 12 years’ experience working on staff in various demanding media environments. She has authored/edited thousands of articles including news, travel and features. Val has authored/contributed to nine non-fiction books. A regular columnist, she stepped up to the role of Digital Editor in September 2022 and is responsible for the Sorted Magazine website.
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