Rillington Place review: a house of horrors that sucks you in

Tim Roth is serial killer John Christie and Samantha Morton is his wife Ethel, but their dank, creepy terraced house where Christie buried the bodies is the real star

Samantha Morton and Tim Roth in Rillington Place.  Photograph: BBC/Des Willie

Samantha Morton and Tim Roth in Rillington Place. Photograph: BBC/Des Willie

 

Rillington Place is aptly titled all right. The BBC’s new three-part drama about British serial killer John Christie stars Tim Roth as Christie and Samantha Morton as his unfortunate wife, but it’s the house they lived in on the titular street which grabs the limelight – and also sucks up all available light, like a terraced black hole.

Number 10 Rillington Place was where John Reginald Halliday Christie murdered a string of women during the 1940s and 1950s, burying some of the bodies in the tiny, scrappy backyard, and concealing others behind the damp, peeling walls of this tenement in the heart of war-torn London.

And the house lives down to its star billing. From the moment Christie opens the front door to his and Ethel’s new home, the place practically swallows them up in its dank, musty maw. The floors creak, the pipes drip, the bed squeaks, but underneath it all is the low rumble of evil.

Or maybe that’s just the ominous electronic soundtrack. It’s the sort of place that would make the crew of Changing Rooms pack up their swatches and flee. “It’s only temporary – a stepping stone,” Christie assures his wife. Alas, as we know already, she won’t be going anywhere.

The first episode follows the story as seen through Ethel’s eyes as she settles into a gloomy life with Christie and slowly begins to suspect she may have married a monster. She and Christie are trying to rebuild their marriage after a nine-year separation, but they’ve sure picked the wrong place to rekindle the flame.

This house has “passion-killer” written all over it in mouldy scrawls. Soon Ethel discovers that her husband is visiting prostitutes, but he’s also doing strange things with hammers in the middle of the night. It’s all very creepy and claustrophobic, not to mention grimy the place is crying out for a bit of Shake ‘n’ Vac.

Malevolent grip

Eventually, Christie shows his hand – by putting it around Ethel’s neck and almost strangling her after she has the temerity to catch him out in a lie. From that point on, Ethel is firmly in Christie’s malevolent grip; when a pretty young neighbour goes missing, and her distraught husband recognises her coat in the hallway of number 10, Ethel finds herself covering for Christie by claiming the coat is hers.

Roth and Morton may be playing mere supporting roles to this grim house of horrors, but they give towering performances - particularly Morton as the doomed spouse who cannot escape her stoic, mustn’t-grumble social programming.

Roth looks like he should be pottering about in the potting shed, not charming the local young ladies and luring them to their deaths. When the episode ends, it’s like having a sack taken off your head, and you can breathe normally again. Take a good breath of fresh air before you dive back into this next week.

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