Manhunt review: An exploitative theme-park ride through one of the biggest tabloid stories ever

 It is competently if unimaginatively made, but should TV play Midsummer Murders with real lives?

Ed Cumming
Sunday 06 January 2019 23:05
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Trailer for ITV murder-mystery series Manhunt, starring Martin Clunes

Colin Sutton was the lead detective in the prosecution of Levi Bellfield, the shaven-headed psychopath who murdered three young women in and around west London during the early Noughties. The cases led the news and Bellfield’s final victim, the 13-year-old Milly Dowler, would become an important figure in the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

Manhunt (ITV) is a new three-part dramatisation of Sutton’s memoir of the same name. For anyone wondering how Sutton sees his role in all this, the strapline of the book is: “How I Brought Serial Killer Levi Bellfield to Justice.” We can hardly blame the old boy for wanting to cash in on his biggest hit, but we might ask whether ITV could have been more circumspect.

The first episode opens with the case of Amélie Delagrange, a 22-year-old French woman who was found bludgeoned to death on Twickenham Green in August 2004. Quickly it was established that she could have been killed by the same person who murdered Marsha McDonnell 18 months earlier.

Enter Sutton, our hero, to start piecing things together. In terms of making yourself seem sympathetic there is no simpler or more powerful gesture than being portrayed on screen by Martin Clunes, the everyman’s everyman, who has the added advantage of making you look grizzled and handsome. We see Sutton the loving father, worried about his daughter walking around with a psycho on the loose. Sutton the loving husband, being gently reminded by his wife (Claudie Blakley) not to let the case affect their relationship. Sutton the calm boss, encouraging the men and women at the station to give the case their all. Sutton the dutiful employee, recognising the pressure his superiors are under from the media but not letting it affect his judgement. Sutton the compassionate man, insisting someone tell Amélie’s parents in person rather than over the phone.

None of which is to say that Sutton was not a decent bloke doing a good job. Perhaps he was. This hagiographic view of his role, however, means the dramatic interest comes from the cases themselves. Clunes has said he was drawn to the procedural aspects, but all we see is police station working like most other offices, with groups of men and women trying to get along and do a good job. The victims are barely given a look-in. These stories are not ancient history. Most viewers will remember them. Kate Sheedy, the woman Bellfield attempted to murder, is still alive, and so are the victims’ families. So is Bellfield, serving life imprisonment at HMP Frankland.

At times, Manhunt feels like an exploitative theme-park ride through one of the biggest tabloid stories of the millennium. It is competently if unimaginatively made, but should TV play Midsummer Murders with real lives? Others might watch the remaining episodes to watch the net close in around Bellfield. I will not be joining them. We know how this story ends. I have no interest in being guided through it by likeable Martin Clunes.

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