by Allan Fish
NB: while I have a shorter version of this, I decided to just repost the longer version first posted here in 2010.
p Simon Lewis d Philippa Lowthorpe w Stephen Butchard ph Chris Seager ed David Thrasher m Peter Salem art Tom Bowyer
Jaime Winstone (Anneli Alderton), Natalie Press (Paula Clennell), Eva Birthistle (Annette Nicholls), Aisling Loftus (Gemma Adams), Kierston Wareing (Nina), Ruth Negga (Rochelle), Sarah Lancashire (Rosemary Nicholls), Juliet Aubrey (Maire Alderton), Ian Hart (DCC Stewart Gull), Lisa Millett (PC Janet Humphrey), Sean Harris (Brian Tobin), David Bradley (Patrick Palmer), Kate Dickie (Isabella Clennell), Joseph Mawle (Tom Stephens), Anton Lesser (Dr Nat Cary), Lauren Socha (Dawn), Vicky McClure (Stacy Nicholls), Christopher Fairbank (DCI John Quinton), Holly Grainger (Alice Clennell), Jo McInnes (ACC Jacqui Cheer), Chris McCalphy (Steven Wright),
There’s always a sense of the distasteful about using contemporary cause célèbres for dramatic purposes. Not only does it recall a million dire disease/murder of the week TV movies on Hallmark and its ghastly ilk, it recalls the events themselves. Remember Warner Bros indefinitely postponing the VHS release of Natural Born Killers in the UK after the Dunblane massacre or the delay in the release of Gone Baby Gone in the UK for fear of parallels being drawn to the Madeleine McCann case. Or remember how Warners had to postpone the last episodes of Buffy‘s third season when one of the episodes, ‘Earshot’, was too close to the bone in light of the Columbine tragedy. Even several years after the event, many found United 93 an impossible watch. So when the BBC announced that it was dramatising the events of October to December 2006 in Suffolk, I have to admit to a deal of uneasiness about the enterprise. I still remember Paula Clennell speaking to Anglia TV reporters only days before her death about the fear of getting in cars, but having to do it for the money, or Anneli Alderton on that fateful train CCTV footage back to Ipswich and her imminent death. I didn’t watch it immediately when it was broadcast, and it’s perhaps unusual I am writing it now.
As I write it’s less than a week after events in the west of my home county which even now seem to beggar belief, of the already infamous Derrick Bird’s gun spree, of 12 victims whose lives were ripped from them almost without them knowing it. It’s been a hard year in Cumbria, our own house nearly went under to the rising flood waters, while several people were killed and thousands made homeless. Perhaps, however, conversely, it’s in such a sense of disbelief that these events are best witnessed, for Five Daughters, as the BBC’s drama was called, aimed to take a different stance to the usual police dramas with their cop clichés. Unlike say Zodiac or its like, which focused on the investigations, or films about Jack the Ripper, which either follow the killer or the police, Five Daughters was most concerned with the real tragedy at hand, the victims and those they left behind. To people watching the daily horrors unfold in Suffolk just before Christmas 2006, it’s too easy to just pigeonhole the victims as chav prostitutes who, if they didn’t deserve what was coming to them, were at least criminals and not ‘decent people’. Just faces in a montage. Yet they were always more than that, and writer Stephen Butchard aims to remove the girls from the purgatory of statistics, ticked boxes for criminal profilers.
For the killer, Steven Wright, there’s nothing for him but the periphery, the margins of the essay. The text, as it should, is about Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Paula Clennell and Annette Nicholls. 122 years ago, when five other women were murdered in Whitechapel, we knew virtually nothing of them. They were all prostitutes, but doing it to survive, and to fund drinking habits. Yet they were, with the exception of the unfortunate Mary Kelly, all in their forties and past their prime. The oldest of Steve Wright’s victims was 29, the youngest 19, these were young women who could have had a future but were denied even the chance. Easy to dismiss as prostitutes, it doesn’t effect you as much that way and, besides, humanising them doesn’t sell papers. The gutter press, effectively invented in 1888 as a result of Jack’s atrocities, were still around in their tasteless hordes, circling around the homes of victims’ mothers, like parasites seeking another food source. And when the DCC announces the finding of two bodies, the reaction of the press is not one of shock but of speeding for the exit to get the news to their offices in time for deadlines. Technically, it could be seen as a cliché, and yet it’s a deserved swipe on behalf of the victims’ families. Likewise, the fact that the girls were all doing it to fund a drugs habit is one that is highlighted, for in the end, the prostitution is merely a means to the end of a score. Doing something to stop prostitution and it’s like punishing someone for not mopping up a leak spillage on the floor. Better to stop the leak, better to get the girls off the drugs. And if the depiction of the Iceni centre and its councillors may seem like the voicebox of the writer by proxy, we can forgive them that, for the writer has earned the right to preach, not on his own behalf, but on behalf of the girls left behind afterwards. The only other possible complaint is the killer’s vehicle, cornering round to its next victim like a hearse, with music swelling to sombre highs as if to say “it’s him”, recalling indeed the spooky piece used to accompany the killer’s coach in the 1988 drama about Jack with Michael Caine.
The police aren’t ignored in the process, we got to see the always reliable Ian Hart and his team go about their daily work. Some criticised the depiction as mundane, and yet is that not what police work is really about, doing the mundane things to narrow the search. If it were not based on real events, the writer would have been accused of the biggest deus ex machina since Russell T.Davies’ Doctor Who finales when, just like that (one half expected the cop to come in in Tommy Cooper’s fez), they get an incontrafutable DNA match for the killer. Yet that’s the disturbing thing, but for the DNA, the police were no nearer to catching Wright than they had been to finding Peter Sutcliffe before his car was pulled up by chance. In Jack’s day there were no forensics, no DNA, heck, not even fingerprints. Even postmortem photography was new. Jack killed five women inside 9 weeks, here five bodies had been found over 10 days, the biggest manhunt since Sutcliffe, a small constabulary stretched to breaking point. A feeling of hopelessness got over in a truly upsetting opening sequence where, having been alerted to having found a body 20 feet from the roadside, the helicopter surveying the scene hours later shows up another corpse only a few hundred yards away; two horrific discoveries for the price of one.
The title is what matters here, however, these are five daughters, though it could just as easily have been five mothers, sisters or friends. The last three victims knew the dangers, but addiction cannot be just put into a corner. Tell an alcoholic another drink will kill him, most of the time he won’t stop. These girls needed the money, some for heroin, others just to pay off debts of pimps wanting their vile cut. We are shown four of the girls in total (one, Tania Nicol, is never seen), and all are fully rounded characters, perhaps stereotypes in some ways, but flesh, blood and very much alive. This drama tells the story of not just how they were killed, but rather why they were taking the risks in the first place. One had been released from prison and seemed to be going straight, until the news of the death of her friend sends her spiralling back into her hardcase, smackhead shell. Another is struggling to keep up payments to her pimp and is about to be evicted from her home. Her only solace is a notebook of musings and poems she spills out her soul onto. Then there’s one living in an abandoned flat with another prostitute, having lost her three children to care and continuing to take heroin simply to forget the pain she’s caused.
By the end of the piece, one is left numb. There may be an uplifting final caption, telling of how street prostitution has been all but wiped out in Ipswich and how Rochelle and Nina have turned the corner, got off drugs and started new lives. There may even be hope that by telling their stories it may prevent others following suit, and the likes of Cathy Come Home and Hillsborough have both shown the power of television drama to make a difference to public perception. Yet that doesn’t make it any less numb. The shots of parents expecting the worst but finally breaking down when it becomes fact – the next time someone tells you to prepare for the worst, they may as well ask you to jump the moon because you cannot prepare for that moment when all hope is lost. One especially recalls the moment when Aubrey identifies her daughter in the mortuary chapel and breaks down and Lancashire’s numbed shock, just wanting to see her daughter’s body but prevented from doing so by police procedure of preserving the crime scene in situ. “She’ll be cold“, she protests, and our hearts sink.
It would be easy to praise the performances of the cast, and doubtless they’d feel uncomfortable receiving any praise in the circumstances, but beyond the obvious surface dramatics, there’s a purpose to their work, to portray the plight of these girls and their families and support workers, as not merely names in print. This they all do faultlessly, from first to last. As a triptych of victims’ mothers, Sarah Lancashire, Juliet Aubrey and Kate Dickie are astonishing, while there is also superb work from David Bradley and, especially, the ever-blistering Sean Harris as a kindly but exasperated drugs’ councillor (complete with an accent which was praised for its authenticity at a time when many portrayed those from East Anglia as if they came from the west country). His casting and that of Joseph Mawle as a suspect recalling earlier portrayals of monsters, of Harris’ Ian Brady, of Mawle’s one-scene Sutcliffe in Red Riding. And then there’s the girls, with Loftus haunting in her few scenes as Gemma, the first to be found, Wareing, Negga and Socha (remember her as the disaffected teen in The Unloved?) as the ones lucky enough to escape, Press as raw as an exposed nerve as Paula, Winstone (Ray’s daughter) never better than as Anneli, literally transforming from a considerate girl into a brash, loud monster, simply by dying her hair and adopting a persona as apposite as could be imagined. If one remembers anyone, though, for me it’s Birthistle as Annette, her poems (or rather those Butchard put into her mouth, for her family wouldn’t let the writer see her real notebook) providing the dimming heartbeat of their soon to flat-line existence.
“I’m not a bad person. I’m not a waste of time, space or oxygen. I deserve the air I breathe.”