Code of a Killer, ITV, review: A stodgy, seen-it-before crime drama

Despite its fascinating real-life subject, the drama had the feel of an Open University programme you find yourself accidentally watching at 2am

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The temptation is to label Michael Crompton’s admirable drama as a lo-fi ‘CSI Leicester’, an offbeat and very British reboot of the super-sexy-crime-science US franchise – ‘Before Las Vegas and Miami, it all began with a nice bearded man in a jumper in the East Midlands’.

Sadly Code of a Killer can’t help but suffer comparisons to its glitzy American cousins, dealing as it does with the conception of DNA profiling in criminal investigations. While John Simm wears his academic’s beard well as the eager Dr Alec Jeffreys and David Threlfall lends real gravitas and humility to the dogged DCS Baker, this was a stodgy, seen-it-before crime drama, despite its fascinating real-life subject.

The concluding episode dealt with the mass blood-testing of 1000s of local men, as the police hoped to close the net on the killer of two teenage girls, Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth.

More might have been made of the resistance to this new-fangled science, and the press controversy that surrounded it, but this was essentially boiled down to a brief moment where the villagers harrumphed as if faced with witchcraft, a civil servant uhmed and ahhed about money, and a local hack asked one or two awkward questions.

There was never any great sense that careers and reputations were at risk despite Dr Jeffreys saying ‘careers and reputations are at risk’. But we knew they weren’t, not really.

This is surely where the drama had to focus, as the subject material meant that this was no ordinary manhunt – there was no great thrill in finding out whodunit, but instead in finding out if this new science was going to catch the right man. Sadly it boiled down to how exciting you find waiting for blood test results, which, for me, is somewhere between watching paint dry and queuing for chips.

Of course this was the grey mid-80s, not the blinking and booping wireless 21st Century, so the inevitable science montages were never going to be pulse-racing. However the lingering shots of blood in test tubes and moustachioed lab assistants in white coats, alongside a dreamy electronic score, gave the whole thing the feel of an Open University programme you find yourself accidentally watching at 2am.

Simm, Threlfall and the excellent supporting cast stopped it all slipping into the realms of blandness (though fans of women may have been disappointed that the female roles amounted mainly to grieving mothers, victims, and Lovely Ladies Being Patient and Understanding Towards a Brilliant Man) and it was an interesting insight into one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in recent history.

The final, enduring image was of the real life Dr (now Sir) Alec Jeffreys, a fitting tribute to a remarkable man. Sadly this drama had the fingerprints of countless other by-numbers crime thrillers all over it.

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