Image: Justin Slee / ITV

Here are the victims

Television can glamorise killers and their crimes. ‘The Long Shadow’ shows a different way forward
November 1, 2023

When Netflix released its series Dahmer last year, a dramatisation of the crimes of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, the showrunners claimed that they had tried to do something different. Instead of making yet another show about a serial killer that glamorised his crimes, they wanted to make one that gave space and respect to the victims’ stories. There is, in fairness, an episode that dwells on one of those victims, a young deaf man, and his hopes and dreams. But, as a whole, the series did not feel like a departure from typical true crime. Indeed, one of the victims’ family members, who is depicted delivering a statement to Dahmer in the series, didn’t even know about the show until it was released—and described being “retraumatised” by it.

This whole “centring the victims” thing is a soundbite that the makers of true crime increasingly seem to wheel out. The tide of public opinion is turning on whether it is ethical to make entertainment out of the most harrowing moments of real people’s lives. Can a crime show be about sensationalism, rather than sensationalist? How to do it in a way that doesn’t foreground the murderer? That doesn’t just see victims through the lens of their fate? ITV’s new seven-part series The Long Shadow is, if not a perfect answer to those questions, at least a pretty good one.

It’s a big ask to make an original drama about one of the most infamous serial killers in British history. The story of Peter Sutcliffe, otherwise known as the Yorkshire Ripper, and the 13 murders he committed in the 1970s is extremely well known. But this is not the first time that the writer of this series, George Kay, has attempted a feat like this. He also wrote last year’s Litvinenko about the murder of the British-Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Here, the suffering of Litvinenko and his family as he died from polonium poisoning, meant that the series didn’t feel like a translation of splashy headlines to screen.

What Kay has done with The Long Shadow is even more successful. The series focuses on the effect Sutcliffe’s murders had on the victims he failed to kill, the families of those murdered, the police officers handling the case and the wider public at the time.

And that is genuinely where the focus remains, unlike in Dahmer. We meet Sutcliffe’s victims, know their names, understand how those who survived his attacks were gaslit by the investigation and ostracised by their communities on the suspicion of being sex workers, as many of Sutcliffe’s victims were. No violence is shown on screen, and the dead bodies of the women are only shown briefly, from the knee down. There is no gore, no screaming in fear or pain, no salacious shots of Sutcliffe cleaning his weapons.

The “rip” injury that Sutcliffe inflicted on his victims’ stomachs is shown only once, in a scene in which one of the survivors examines her wounds for the first time. That scene is about her feelings about what was done to her, not a gratuitous look at Sutcliffe’s calling card. Sutcliffe himself—played by Mark Stobbart—does not appear until later episodes, and his scenes are limited to those strictly necessary to tell the story of his eventual capture.

The danger is that a series such as this could have felt like an antidote to more prurient true crime shows but been worthy and lacklustre for it. Not so, here. The Long Shadow is well paced, well shot and well performed by actors such as Toby Jones, one of the investigating officers, Daniel Mays, the husband of one of the victims, and Katherine Kelly, a woman driven to sex work to support her family. It is heartbreaking in parts. You come away from the final episode, in which one of Sutcliffe’s victim’s sons talks about the lasting effect his mother’s death had on him and his family, understanding exactly how long this shadow has been—and how devastating to those it has touched.

Unavoidably, what ties these characters together is the violence of Sutcliffe. His intervention into their lives is what makes this story dramatically viable. The question remains about whether any of this should be made into entertainment. But if we must have true crime dramas—and it seems that we must—then The Long Shadow demonstrates a more acceptable, more affecting way to do them.