Grace Dent on TV: Kirsty Young in a Whistles frock emoting controlled disgust at paedophiles on Crimewatch


For many years Nick Ross told us, “don’t have nightmares”, in the closing moments of BBC1’s Crimewatch. It was a chipper little phrase which we all enjoyed, although it did little to assuage the bleak mental remnants of 60 televised minutes of man’s inhumanity to man. Violent muggings, bank clerks from Rugby – always Rugby – tied up and tormented in vaults, the random unexplained murders and that bit midway through about missing, beloved antiques that no one gave a stuff about. Oh, you lost a vase? My heart bleeds for you, we’ve just watched news of a series of unfortunate events happening to an innocent mother-of-two in a parochial commuter-station car-park.

Obviously, Nick’s nightmare advice made no sense. One has no power over nightmares. That’s the nightmare’s USP. No appointment, one might recall, was made for a visitation by Freddy Krueger. He danced to his own drum. Nor are nightmares anything like Crimewatch reconstructions. I have yet to see Kirsty Young cover a police incident that involves a person spending three solid nocturnal hours bargaining with a mystery man who is apparently Nelson Mandela, but has the voice of your old headmaster and the paws of Mr Foxy Bingo, and is determined to teach you the butterfly stroke. That is a nightmare.

I returned to Crimewatch this week after almost two decades of consciously “giving it a swerve”. I stopped watching when I moved to London after I’d been warned by northerners that in the capital it was commonplace, nay bog standard, to be violently assaulted in broad daylight, and that not only would cold-hearted Londoners refuse to help, they would join in and rob you again. Life is too short, it could be argued, to watch security-camera footage of women losing teeth in return for a TopShop handbag containing £3.75 in coins. We know that this sort of thing happens. The trick is to ignore it. The same goes for the local freesheet newspaper that plops through the letterbox and should be shredded immediately lest you read that your postcode contains sex-trafficked Latvians and are then put off your Ocado guacamole.

In the 1980s, however, Crimewatch was up there with Fame re-runs, Blackadder and Corrie as my top TV treat. It was a family event. The Dent clan would gather round the set, wholly excited at the prospect of being “disgusted by the levels people sink to” with a catch-up segment after the news. Live telly too! Stuttering CID trying to deliver the lines they’d clearly been worrying about all day. Hunky police presenters. That part where they intricately describe how they caught a criminal from last month, which was little more than blatant trumpet-blowing. Reconstructions featuring people far more TV-friendly than the real victim. “Rogues Gallery” was a particular highlight, the family game being to shout out names of unfortunate friends who resembled the fraudster or barbarian in question. We made our own fun, pre-internet. Kids today will never know this rip-roaring diversion.

Format-wise, not much has changed in three decades. Post-X Factor, the reconstructions seem cloying and manipulative. Should we care about a victim more because they’d “had a very bad year and really needed this caravan holiday”? Cameras linger on the victim’s relatives, an off-camera researcher clearly prodding them to cry. What’s more, modern crime-scene evidence now benefits from multi-angle CCTV. Now we can watch the violent drubbings at a more intense, Game of Thrones level. After Tuesday’s episode, I was haunted for days by the very determined stalking and robbing of a 79-year-old Bolton woman by two men, and also by the footage of a man running around Manchester city centre at 6am sexually assaulting women. Crimewatch is an uncomfortable stare at the daily grind of humanity’s dregs. The dishonest, indecent work of people whom, as a good little liberal, I am supposed to want rehabilitated but after 60 minutes would calmly watch put in a tank with sharks.

Thankfully, if anyone can reassure me of a natural, inherent force for good on Earth it’s Kirsty Young in a Whistles frock emoting controlled disgust at paedophile networks and hospital-bedside robbers. Tuesday’s episode featured the killing of Nahid Almanea, stabbed 16 times on the way home from a lecture, and the death of Robert Hart, who was killed at Parklife festival in Manchester. It tried to make sense of the discovery of the corpse of Alan Jeal, found on a beach with a sock stuffed in his mouth.

I promised myself I wouldn’t have nightmares, but then I was far too frightened to sleep. So that all worked out rather well.

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