BBC drama turns spotlight on victims of Suffolk Strangler

Three-part film will depict the lives of the girls killed by Steve Wright in 2006

Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Annette Nicholls, Paula Clennell... to most of us the names are unlikely to mean much. It's more likely you'll remember Steve Wright, not the Radio 2 DJ but the so-called Suffolk Strangler, who murdered the aforementioned young women – all of them drug-addicted prostitutes in and around Ipswich, during an intense killing spree in late 2006.

Not that Wright plays much part in Five Daughters, a new BBC1 drama about the killings – or even in the background to them. "He's just a presence... you see his car. But we don't ever have him as a character", said Philippa Lowthorpe, director of the film, on the set in a disused bottling plant on the outskirts of Bristol. "The effect of what Wright did was tragic, and you have to say that, but I didn't feel like he should be given any airtime in their story."

This is little short of revolutionary – the antithesis of traditional true-crime drama, where the mass-murderer is the star. Five Daughters concerns itself wholly with the victims. "They were all serious drug-users and that's why they went on the streets, so the problem starts with the drug taking," says Lowthorpe. "We found that these were pretty ordinary young women, who had potential and things to hope for, just like the rest of us."

Which is why Aisling Loftus, who plays Wright's second victim, Gemma Adams, didn't research the real Gemma. "Initially I thought that would be a good idea, but actually the point of this programme is that it could be my sister... it could be me, should I take a wrong turning," she said.

This was the message broadcast by the Suffolk constabulary, particularly by the officer leading the investigation, Detective Chief Superintendent Stewart Gull (played by Ian Hart).

Executive producer Susan Hogg said: "Initially, the press were talking about them as prostitutes and there was an outcry from the public about it. The police were incredibly careful not to do that. They consistently, right from the start, used the girls' names."

Detective Superintendent Roy Lambert, the now retired senior investigating officer on the case of Anneli Alderton (Jaime Winstone, right), supervised the arrest of Steve Wright. He said, at last week's press screening: "There was a definite decision to personalise it – it's quite easy to dismiss women who work in prostitution."

The production team had the full co-operation of the Suffolk police, and Ipswich's pioneering drugs outreach programme, the Iceni Project, which put them in touch with friends of the the victims.

Getting the assistance of the victims' families was another thing entirely. Brian Clennell, father of 24-year-old Paula, told the local press in East Anglia that he thought it was too soon to make such a drama. Paula's mother and sister disagreed, however, as did all the mothers except that of the first victim, Tania Nicoll.

"Tania's mother felt her story was a private story and didn't want it told," said Hogg. "That's fair enough. It's such a sensitive story that you couldn't portray somebody who didn't want to be portrayed."

The parents of Gemma Adams did not want to be portrayed either, although they were happy to co-operate in other ways, and were eager for Gemma's story to be told.

The families, who were paid for their time as "script consultants", have seen the finished film – which will be screened over three consecutive nights – and are apparently pleased with it. They don't think it was too soon to be making the drama.

"They didn't want it to be in 20 years time," says writer Stephen Butchard. "They said they wanted their story out there now and put things right that had been portrayed wrongly – they wanted people to know that they loved their daughters. We were surprised at quite how strong their positive reactions were to the finished film."

Five Daughters is more than just a human-interest story, says Butchard. "Our hope is this drama provides a glimpse of the real girls, and leads to further debate on the impact of drugs and sex industries on every town, every city, in this country, and what action is or isn't being taken."

Action has been taken in Ipswich at least, where the police and the Iceni Project have started working together.

"Part of the outcome of what happened is that they did get almost everybody into rehabilitation," added Butchard. "That's the positive story – how the police stopped arresting people, and how they started getting them to get proper support."

'Five Daughters' starts tonight on BBC1 at 9pm

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