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When did television fall in love with murdering women on screen?

We must beware of glamourising these monstrous acts

Last Saturday, we went to St James Theatre in London to see Scenes from a Marriage, based on an old Ingmar Bergman film. It is a dark portrait of a dysfunctional marriage.  Half way through the husband – about to sign divorce papers – locks the door and savagely assaults his wife, who fights back.  The brutality is in your face – the sounds, blood, cracking bones, animal fury and terror. She survives and they make up (as happens all too often).

This, of course, was fiction. As are all those increasingly graphic TV murder stories watched avidly by audiences. Most of the slain are female, mostly young and beautiful. Cameras love them, following their terror and helplessness as they are trapped, and then their mutilation and murder, in minute detail. And then comes the real treat – slow dismemberment by brisk forensic pathologists, some of them women, who talk about the bodies as if they are animals in medical experiments. This week, British crime writer Ann Cleeves condemned the extreme, now embedded violence offered up as entertainment, and the way female leads are used to make it acceptable. She said the trend began with popular Scandinavian genre, Nordic noir. In truth, Brits too are at it and have been for some time – think of Waking the Dead, Prime Suspect and most recently The Fall, with Gillian Anderson investigating the slaughter of professional women.

Such art inures us to the actual female murders committed. Life is just not as thrilling as art, the real cases can’t compete. Domestic abuse is perpetuated indoors, is a secret, a lie. Countless women endure it, some through to untimely deaths that are noted briefly in the middle pages of newspapers or not at all. They depart still isolated and unrecognised. They had names, faces, desires, they had achieved things, loved their kids, families and friends, wanted to live. But it came to nothing. They were nothing.

That injustice and indifference of society so affected blogger Karen Ingala Smith, from Walthamstow, that she decided to commemorate them by naming each victim. She started in January 2012 with a tally of 197 women. The ages range from 16 to 88.  This remarkable young woman is, awesomely, waking not the dead, but consciences. Check out her website.  

This week, at least two more will be added to the list. A fell runner, Adrian Muir, 51, was convicted of the manslaughter of his lover, 55-year-old Pamela Jackson. They rowed, he broke her skull, and then buried her in moorland. Oh, but he did leave flowers on the body before shoving earth over it. An inquest also heard about the tortured life of Andrea Johnson, wife of Keith, a Norfolk Tory council leader. She was abused for decades, left, was lured back for a chat and was then murdered by her husband, a respectable member of the community.

One is quite spoilt for other choice examples. In Newport, last month, a wife was felled by her “jealous” husband, in the street. In Dorset, in 2010, Katarzyna Ryba told the police about her abusive husband. After an affair with PC Richard Allen, who was in charge, she was stabbed to death in front of her three-year-old by her spouse. A year later, Isabelle Trindade met the same fate. Before that, she had called Lincolnshire police so many times that they classified her reports as anti-social behaviour.

Inconsolable parents across the country can tell tales of police not intervening early enough in domestic brutality which would have saved their daughters. In some cases, the children are also slaughtered as part of demented revenge.  

The figures are stark. Before homicide, the women will often have been beaten, raped, controlled, bullied, drained of will. Currently, UK police get one call every minute from such women. American research shows most women are not murdered by strangers, but by intimates. New studies of 66 countries by the London College of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that women were six times more likely to be killed by men they knew than were men, and that in the richest countries, 40 per cent of homicides were “domestic”. One of my relatives used to beat his wife black and blue and bought her a big gold necklace to cover the marks on her neck. The day he died (of medical ailments) was the day she began to live.  

Songs and stories have always glamorised these monstrous acts – everything from Bizet’s “Carmen” to Kenny Rogers’s song “Ruby” to “Delilah” by Tom Jones. In “Ruby”, a disabled man says he would if he could, put her in the ground because she takes “her love to town”. Delilah had to die because she was with another man. The tragedies, grotesquely, are seen as shared tragedies arising out of intense love. 

Imagine if hundreds of men were the victims of murderous female hatred. Or the same number of black people were butchered by racists. Both happen, of course, but not in these numbers. If they did, there would – rightly – be hell to pay. No songs would be written for the murderesses. No one would try to explain the acts as “crimes of passion” or emotional implosions as people do when women’s lives are possessed and smashed by the men who know them too well. One woman in Walthamstow is trying to do her bit to confront the evil. Is there any excuse for the rest of us not to follow her example?