The Weekend's TV: Five Daughters, Sun, BBC, The Ricky Gervais Show, Fri, Channel 4
Where the streets have no shame
Monday 26 April 2010
Like the difference between studying Victorian history and reading Dickens," one viewer has said of Five Daughters, Stephen Butchard's three-part drama-documentary about the murder of five Ipswich women in 2006.
It's a neatly economical précis of the often long-winded debate about the competing virtues of straight reporting and dramatic reconstruction in such matters. On the one hand, you have verifiable fact, on the other, emotional involvement. But this particular comment comes with an extra, melancholy authority, because it was made by Maire Alderton, the mother of one of the victims, who, along with other relatives of those who were killed, gave Butchard her blessing and her assistance with his research. More to the point, the story they were setting out to displace was not some sober academic martialling of the known facts, but the lurid penny-dreadful created by media coverage at the time. For most news outlets at the time it was "prostitutes" who were being killed and dumped in the countryside around Ipswich. This drama, as the title insisted, set out to remind you that they were somebody's children too.
There's an established rhetoric for a crime like this in television drama and Five Daughters employed it – the sodium glare of street lights bouncing off wet tarmac, a car cruising like a shark down a rainy street, the camera tight on a pair of high heels teetering towards something dreadful. But what Butchard restored was all the moments when these women were something other than just the next victim. He began with Anneli Anderton, emerging from Holloway prison with a qualification in hairdressing and the dream that she might stay clear of drugs. She hopes to tug her friend Gemma Adams with her into normality, and though you can see from the wary looks exchanged between Anneli's relatives that she's made such resolutions before, there seems to be a genuine prospect that this time she might make it. All of these women, in fact, live with the dream of getting back to a place in which their lives might be regarded as worthwhile, by those that love them and the world at large. "I'm surprised they can be bothered handing this out," said one girl, looking at the police leaflets that follow the first disappearances. "One less tart, one less druggie." "I'm not a bad person. I'm not a waste of space, or time, or oxygen", Annette Nicholls writes in her journal, as if she needs to see it in black and white to be convinced about it.
There must have been an overwhelming temptation here to take just one little hit of what television has long been addicted to – the serial- killer manhunt, with its easy injection of tension and narrative hook. But Butchard pretty much stayed clean. And he stayed entirely clear of the man who was committing the crimes, concentrating instead on the compulsion that drove the girls out at a time when the risk was overwhelming. It's arguable that there was a downside to the compassion with which the drama had been framed – and the intimacy of its writer with some of those who'd been bereaved – because you suspected that it had downplayed how painful loving them must sometimes have been.
The girls here hardly ever swore and were sweetly tender to their mothers, and the drama veiled what was most sordid in their lives. They were viewed, understandably, in the kindly light of grief, which forgives faults and magnifies virtues. Only when Anneli was knocked off the straight and narrow by grief at her friend's death did you get a glimpse of the hardened, aggressive shell that addiction can form. But if the drama erred towards kindliness it was a good way to go wrong. Dickensian, you might say.
"Karl! You are living in a cartoon world!" shrieked Ricky Gervais, in the very first of the podcasts he recorded with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington. They all are now, HBO having taken the original recordings and added Hanna-Barbera-ish visuals to what they introduce, in a portentously grand American voice, as "a series of pointless conversations". Gervais looks like a knock-off Fred Flintstone and Stephen Merchant like some amiable gump out of a Seventies road-safety film, while Pilkington is just a baffled pink golf ball. If you missed the originals, Pilkington is the point of thing – his stupefied take on the world the catalyst for Merchant and Gervais's flights of fantasy (and delighted incredulity). "I've seen him blossom from an idiot into an imbecile," said Gervais fondly as they started out, though half the fun of it is that in between absurdities, Pilkington will occasionally stumble on an undeniable truth: "If you haven't bungee-jumped by the time you're 78," he pointed out flatly, "you're not going to do it."
The animation has allowed HBO to fill out the more florid phrases, so when Gervais reacted to a particularly groggy aperçu from Pilkington by saying "he sounds like he was found in a glacier and thawed out", you get a little sequence showing the defrosting. This quite often adds to the comedy of the original. But there are times when you sense a loss too, particularly in the yelping reactions that follow some particularly dopey remark from Pilkington. On the ear, these eruptions of hilarity were very infectious, and the deliberate simplicity of the animation occasionally seems to mask the expressiveness of the voice, rather than match it. It is still funny, though, not to mention a very canny bit of recycling.
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