The Yorkshire Ripper has spawned quite the true crime industry across the past decade. There was David Peace’s Red Riding trilogy, which repurposed the murders as an evocative backdrop (Peace was an ambience chaser for whom the Ripper was the perfect mood-enhancer for his sub-James Ellroy noir). In 2019, the BBC made a three-part documentary, The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story. Inevitably, Netflix followed in 2020 with The Ripper. It dropped the original title of Once Upon A Time in Yorkshire, presumably because it wasn’t exciting enough.
Now comes The Long Shadow (Virgin Media One, Thursday 9pm), a dramatisation of the killings and search for the perpetrator Peter Sutcliffe. The seven-part serial killer drama is based on the book Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt For The Yorkshire Ripper and scripted by George Kay, creator of Lupin and the surprise Apple hit Hijack.
It does its best to be sensitive to the killer’s victims – but you have to wonder if this story needs retelling again. What is to be gained from revisiting these crimes? Or, for that matter, serving up reheated cliches about the north of England in the dog days of the Jim Callaghan Labour government?
Indeed, it could be argued that The Long Shadow has a great deal in common with the BBC’s dreadful attempt at unpacking horrors of the Magdalene laundries, the Woman in the Wall. That drama made a huge fuss about telling the story from the victims’ perspective. Yet it could not resist piling on the stereotypes with a trowel.
The Long Shadow plays the same game. Here, instead of wacky Father Ted types banging on about the banshee, it’s grizzled Yorkshire men swigging pints in dingy workingmen clubs. Late 1970s Leeds was hardly Shangri-La. And it is heartbreaking that so many women were forced into prostitution (easy pickings for the killer).
Even so, it’s hard not to feel that the series is amping on the “grim up north” caricature, painting Leeds as a bleak rhapsody of nicotine-stained wallpaper and sun-deprived council estates. Kay, it is fair to point out, has form when it comes to stereotyping. In Hijack he depicted two working class Dublin plane passengers as short-fused racists, whose first instinct was to punch the nearest foreigner.
The first episode focuses on the second victim, Emily Jackson (Katherine Kelly), who was encouraged into prostitution by her husband (Daniel Mays) as they struggled to pay the bills. Kelly is riveting, every glance communicating pain, fear and frustration. Yet Jackson is ultimately reduced to a laundry list of archetypes: mother, wife, prostitute and victim.
Otherwise, all the attention is on the police investigating the killing. Irish actor Michael McElhatton pops up as a smug chief constable. Toby Jones is affable as a hangdog Detective Dennis Hoban, though it does stretch credulity to suggest that most of the cops were on the side of the women the killer initially targeted. As portrayed here, just one rogue copper dismisses the victims as “only” prostitutes – when we know that was the general attitude of those working the investigation.
The killer is not shown – as is only proper. His name deserves to be forgotten as much as it is important that the victims are remembered. But it’s hard to see how the Long Shadow helps with that. The Yorkshire Ripper case is an example of police incompetence and misogyny that has lessons for Ireland as much as for the UK. And yet, the ceaseless repackaging of the story for mass entertainment surely has to stop.