Television Review

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The Independent Culture
SERIAL KILLERS are surely amongst the least interesting people on earth. I mean, we all get a bit of a frisson from reading about Hannibal Lecter's appalling personal habits, or watching detectives race against time to stop a madman striking again. But the serial killers of fiction, and the puzzles they set, are as artificially constructed, as remote from real life as anything Agatha Christie wrote - it's fair to say that Hannibal Lecter is the Hercule Poirot de nos jours. Certainly, they don't, as some claim, tell us anything interesting about the human condition or man's capacity for evil.

The same goes for the real-life killers: the horror is real, but dwelling on it doesn't take us anywhere. I can see the point of thinking about Nazi Germany or Stalin's Russia, where people like us - or enough like us to make a comparison seem worthwhile - ended up colluding in terrible crimes. But what do serial killers have to do with anything?

The essential dullness of serial killers was confirmed by last night's Inside Story (BBC1), enticingly christened "The Russian Cracker". This referred to Professor Alexander Bukhanov-sky, a psychiatrist from Rostov- on-Don - "serial killer capital of the world", according to the commentary - who was involved in the capture of the prolific murderer Andrei Chikatilo, and has since analysed numerous convicted serial killers.

The programme's premise was that the professor had gained a unique insight into what makes killers kill. Just what that insight was, though, was hard to unravel from this muddled programme, which implied at least two different views of serial killers. On the one hand, they were products of environmental factors - loveless childhoods and violent fathers figured largely. On the other, they were products of physical damage to the brain (in one X-Files moment, we were shown a scan in which areas of a potential killer's brain had been replaced by black liquid). There was no attempt to explain how these views could be reconciled.

Another time, we were told that Prof Bukhanovsky's view of the role of sexual preference had placed him at odds with the authorities in the historical determinist Soviet Union. But sexual preference vanished from the discussion, and soon the professor was arguing that Russia's economic decline was the chief factor in the number of serial killers. (Another reason for scepticism: no attempt to analyse or criticise the terrifyingly large statistics being thrown about - 12,500 unsolved murders blamed on serial killers.)

The muddle was exacerbated by the way the programme laid out the stages in a killer's development. A caption explained that the first stage involves violent fantasies: this led to the case of Edward, who evinced little in the way of a fantasy life but had committed repeated acts of cruelty towards hens and ducks, as well as necrophilia. Another caption gave the second stage as compulsive sadism; here we met Igor, who didn't admit to acts of violence as such, but had fantasised about stabbing, crucifixion and dipping hands in acid.

Another kind of confusion manifested itself when we met Misha, a young rapist and, in Prof Bukhanovsky's view, embryonic killer who is being "treated" for his condition. Prof Bukhanovsky will not violate the confidentiality of the doctor-patient relationship by reporting Misha's crimes to the police. Misha's anonymity was preserved, or not, by placing a thin black strip over his eyes in photographs; his articulate younger brother was filmed full-face. So much for confidentiality. But this seemed to sum up the programme: it promised exploration of dangerous moral territory; it delivered a long walk in the woods without a compass.