The Shipman Files: ‘You mean Dr Death, dear’

Three-part documentary concentrates on the lives of Harold Shipman’s victims

Dr Harold Shipman was convicted for the murder of 15 of his patients - and suspected in the deaths of more than 200 others. Photograph: PA

Dr Harold Shipman was convicted for the murder of 15 of his patients - and suspected in the deaths of more than 200 others. Photograph: PA

 

More than 20 years after Harold Shipman was convicted for the murder of 15 of his patients - and suspected in the deaths of more than 200 others – you could be forgiven for thinking his ghoulish nickname came when the details of his crimes hit the tabloids: “Dr Death”.

One of the chilling reminders in Chris Wilson’s determined three-part documentary The Shipman Files: A Very British Crime Story (BBC Two, Monday 9pm), though, is that the name had been attached to Shipman much earlier, by women who might otherwise have become his patients.

“You mean Dr Death, dear,” one local woman informed Mikaela Sitford, the journalist who broke the story. “They say he’s a good doctor, but you don’t last.... That’s what everybody’s saying.”

It’s hard to say what is more poignant about her sardonic remark: that for all the support that Shipman commanded as a once-respected family GP in a small town outside Manchester, the evidence was plain to see? Or that the people on whom the serial-killer preyed – predominantly older women – were trying to raise the alarm?

Wilson, a bluff filmmaker from the north-west of England, frames his documentary with some personal identification: as with many small-town communities, his local GP was an almost sainted figure, radiating authority and commanding trust.

Wilson concentrates on the lives of the victims, as though trying to restore their voices.

Shipman’s murders both betrayed that trust and exploited vulnerability: undergirding his decades of killing was the automatic deference that attended his reports and the troubling sense that the deaths of older people don’t arouse much suspicion anyway.

For these reasons Wilson concentrates on the lives of the victims, as though trying to restore their voices. The sudden death of Kathleen Grundy in 1998, an active 81-year-old and the former mayoress of Hyde – whose will was hastily rewritten to leave Shipman everything – essentially brought his activities to light. (In a further indignity, Grundy, whom Shipman injected with a fatal dose of diamorphine, was originally given “old age” as her cause of death.)

But there had been earlier warnings, like the attention of another doctor, Linda Reynolds, alarmed that so many of Shipman’s patients had apparently died in the afternoon, fully clothed, with their doors open. That Shipman still avoided detection, Wilson puts down to a status “above suspicion and effectively above the law”. Understandably, his interviewees share that incredulous sense of betrayal. “He just put his arm around me and said, ‘Oh, there’s nothing you could have done, dear,’” recalls one despairing neighbour.

To watch this horror revisited under the shadow of a global pandemic brings its own creeping disquiet: each time someone is interviewed, isolated in a cavernous space, you’re reminded of efforts to combat Covid-19, a mass killer that disproportionately preys on the elderly and the vulnerable.

The lingering societal guilt around the Shipman case was the reflex to rationalise the death of his victims as something natural, inevitable, the consequence of “old age”. That self-serving callousness is often repeated about the virus. “Was it his choice of victims that allowed him to get away with it for years?” Wilson wonders of Shipman. In these grim times, it barely sounds like a question.

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