ITV’s excellent detective series Manhunt is back, and it makes for superb, compulsive viewing. It’s the dramatisation of the memoirs of real-life copper Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton of the Metropolitan Police (now retired). In an earlier, slightly less sensationalist age, the series might have gone by the name of Inspector Sutton’s Casebook, but that does sound altogether too wholesome for the sort of crimes Sutton was given to sort out.
Starring Martin Clunes as the unpretentious ace detective, the first run in 2019 centred on the hunt for serial killer Levi Bellfield, the nightclub bouncer eventually convicted of the murder of Milly Dowler, among others. Now Sutton is running the manhunt for Delroy Grant, better known as the Night Stalker.
Grant was a prolific burglar and rapist who preyed on elderly women living alone across south London from about 1992 until he was apprehended in 2009. His 17-year reign of terror made fools of the Metropolitan Police. For Clunes, DCI Sutton must have been a difficult challenge; unlike proper fictional detectives, he really is an everyman figure, a chap in spectacles and woolly pullover with a rucksack slung over his back, no quirks, no outward manifestation of his brilliance. We just marvel as he asks the struggling Operation Minstead (as the Night Stalker investigation was named) some plain, honest questions about work.
The insights he offers aren’t some Sherlock-style magical deductions about the personality of this offender, but about the inefficient use of police resources and how to make the best of a bad job. There are no shootouts, no dramatic car chases, no drunken rows and affairs, just arguments about overtime, databases and swab samples. As a senior officer “reviewing” (in reality taking over) the inquiry, Sutton has to spend time on office politics, smoothing ruffled feathers. It’s striking to see how policing, in that respect, is no different to accountancy or retail management.
These familiar disputes are a lot more dramatic than they sound, because the backdrop is one where, through everyday police failings, evil gets its opportunity. That is where much of the tension in this story lies. We have here a very ordinary man, Sutton, using unremarkable methods to pursue the most extraordinary and dangerous people in the country. Another tension is how, in the Stalker’s case, he is as meticulous in his crimes as they are depraved. The writers and directors and a fine supporting cast get the balance just right between seeing the vulnerable, traumatised elderly victims and affording them a measure of privacy and discretion.
It’s a sensitively filmed production, then, that rightly never glamorises the criminal, and you almost shudder as the calls come through to the incident room that “there were another three last night”. The other impression, though, from this recent trend in TV of reinvestigating high-profile crimes (including the murder of Stephen Lawrence and reopening Fred and Rose West’s case) is how the police are often incompetent and rely on a few superstar detectives to pull floundering inquiries out of a mess. That might be misleading, or things might be better these days, but watching Manhunt certainly makes you go and make sure your windows are safely locked.
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