A young, clever, troubled girl finds solace from an oppressive mother in the local library, where she begins to read through the fiction stock in alphabetical order. Which end of the alphabet would you suggest she started at for maximum consolation? In this (though in almost nothing else), the young Jeanette Winterson took the conventional route, beginning at A.
According to Alan Yentob in his Imagine film about her, she'd reached the letter M by the time she was 16, and was being thrown out of her home for a love affair with another girl. Which meant that she'd passed Austen and Eliot and the Brontës, and so had a perfect literary model for her vigils on a nearby hilltop, where she could stand windswept and dream of somewhere beyond Accrington. "Of course, I felt like Heathcliff," she said as she revisited the spot. What if she'd got to Virginia Woolf a little earlier though, and the seductive transgression of Orlando and of Woolf herself?
In fact, Winterson only got to Woolf when she went to Oxford, the first time she had a "room of her own" (unless you count the Mini that became her temporary home). But by then she already seemed to have identified literature – or stories – as a sovereign remedy for an unsatisfactory life. They could substitute for the disappointments of reality, but they could also shape what actually happened to you into a better, more satisfying tale. Winterson effectively wrote herself into being, and Imagine's film captured the charm and exhilaration of that success, and the darkness of the depression that engulfed her when the trick didn't work for a while.
She's a very obliging subject for a television profile, a form of portraiture that even the most patient writers can find tiresome. Taken to visit her old terraced house in Accrington, the site of Mrs Winterson's more extravagant excesses, she appeared to sit down without prompting on the stone threshold, re-enacting the punishments of her childhood. And she knows, as a storyteller, what works well. Her recollection of weeping over Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral for the camera here was, almost word for word, the same as one she published in a newspaper in 2008. This isn't a criticism, incidentally. The story is part of the narrative of who she is, and there's no point telling it less effectively for the sake of novelty.
She also knows, I think, what makes a good picture on screen and will supply the words that make it work. So when this film opened with a lovely shot of her looking out over a city at twilight from a high window, she effortlessly knitted the prospect into her own story, stitching it to memories of youth and the vertigo of fame: "It's the temptation of celebrity to throw yourself off the roof of your own life," she said. I'm still not entirely sure what she meant by that, to be honest, but at the time I was distracted by her knowing pastiche of a tent revival preacher for a book festival audience, very neatly elided here with a similar scene from the television version of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. An engrossing story, nicely told at every level.
Murder Files: The Haircut Killer was as briskly knocked together as Imagine was well crafted, full of true-crime clichés and marked by a melodramatic voiceover. But these things have a way of getting through to even the most disapproving of us (Winterson's adoptive mother was a murder-mystery addict) and Danilo Restivo, the killer profiled here, was a murderer straight from central casting. Five's film was also given a grisly fascination by a police video of Restivo prowling a local beauty spot looking for victims. He said he was collecting insects for his lizard. But his bag turned out to contain a filleting knife, a black balaclava and gloves. He also had a taste for true-life crime stories, which made you think.
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