Detective dramas and documentary not for the faint hearted
The trend for re-examining grizzly old murder cases shows no sign of abating, both in documentary form and dramatic serialisations of the cases. Last week saw the premier of The Pembrokeshire Murders on Virgin Media One, a drama focusing on the opening of a cold case that pointed the finger of blame for four unsolved murders on a convicted burglar, and the documentary Night Stalker began on Netflix.
Night Stalker is a four-part series, of which all the episodes can now be seen on the streaming service. The production style seems to have gone back to the genre’s roots, all glaring headlines and be-suited vox pops. Although it’s undeniably a morbidly intriguing tale, I couldn’t get past the first episode.
Its highly stylised production is reminiscent of the traditionally styled American unsolved murder show, the kind you might catch on cable and digital channels that you’d need to scroll for ages to locate.
No millisecond is left unused; music, voiceovers, sound effects, flashbacks and gaudy graphics compete for attention. The case itself is loaded with detail, there’s no need at all for the sensationalism afforded to it; the focus on the garishness of 80s America detracts from the fate the very real victims endured.
On the other side of the coin, The Pembrokeshire Murders takes a Broadchurch-esque approach to their telling of the story, all moody beaches tinged with bruise colours. Luke Evans plays chief superintendent Steve Wilkins, a detective newly returned to Pembrokeshire from London, a devoted divorced dad with nothing but honour and justice on his mind.
He’s been brought on to look into an unsolved double murder; that of Peter and his wife Gwynda Dixon. He quickly establishes links between this case and that of another, the murder of a husband and wife in 1985, by way of clever observations of the MO of two other crimes.
There isn’t enough evidence to convict his suspect, John William Cooper, a man just about to be up for parole for his sentences pertaining to burglaries and robberies. A secret task force is established in order to lure the dangerous criminal into giving them the evidence the police needs, and a criminal journalist is brought on board to help them.
The first episode of The Pembrokeshire Murders aired on Virgin Media One last Thursday night, and continues its three-part run this Thursday. If you can’t wait to see the conclusion, all three episodes are available as a “boxset” on the Virgin Media Player.
It’s a stylish production, well made and carrying a strong Welsh cast. Evans is solid in his role as a decent, dogged, determined detective intent on nabbing his guy. The storytelling is subtle and clever; a title card at the beginning of the series alerts viewers that the timeline spans the years of 2006 and 2012, and background radio news reports and TV footage tease snippets of what was happening in Britain at the time, like prime minister Tony Blair congratulating the queen on her 80th birthday celebrations.
It goes into the nitty gritty of an investigation like this one, showing why it often takes so long to get to the finish line. Keith Allen as Cooper is an utterly menacing figure; his rap sheet proves what a dangerous individual he is, yet he easily convinces the prison board into granting his parole.
With a manipulator like that, who knows his way around his legal rights, he is a tricky one to convict. But his detective counterpart is just as clever, and will stop at nothing to avenge his victims’ deaths.
As a point of interest, if after this you are craving more brooding Welsh detective work, check out Hinterland, on Netflix. Interestingly, this procedural drama is filmed both in Welsh and in English, with the Welsh version airing on S4C (as Y Gwyll or The Dusk) and the English version showed initially on BBC One.
It’s a noir, dark and unyielding in its relative grimness, and each episode is feature length at about 1 hour 30 minutes, give or take. Its tone borrows more from Scandinavian drama than your typical ITV fare, resulting in an impressive, if not somewhat bleak glimpse into the minds of (this time fictional) murderers.
- First Published in The Tuam Herald on 20.01.21