Written by Tom Augustine.
Each year I try to catch up on series that I haven’t seen and which have sat unexplored for years by yours truly. It’s a universal thing to have gaps in your televisual resume, shows that you’ve been exhorted watch, but which, due to the sheer number of seasons or just because it isn’t the right time, have passed you by. This year, I was drawn to a series a little lower on the critical register than I’m used to, but one that I found no less rewarding – Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Starting from the beginning, I’ve slowly weaved my way through the series’ many highs and lows. Along the way, an appreciation started to set in for formula – the way shows like this established the televisual language that would come to define the modern true crime era. The compulsiveness of needing to find out how it happened, the gruesome but potent morbid curiosity that draws us to these stories in the first place. When the SVU formula is on, it is well and truly on. Execution is everything.
It’s also fascinating, watching a show that started in the nineties, to see the influx of DNA technology sweep across these shows – a slow drip that eventually becomes a flood. The astonishing scientific advancements of DNA technology altered the landscape of the justice system the world over – people long thought guilty could be exonerated, while others hidden unsuspected were placed at the scene of the crime. The Welsh series The Steeltown Murders, arriving in New Zealand care of the Rialto Channel this month, places at the centre of its drama the revelatory power of DNA evidence, and provides a compelling, slow-burning alternative to the sugary trash of much of the modern true crime output. Based on the true events that led to the capture of the ‘Saturday Night Strangler’, a serial killer who murdered three sixteen-year-old girls in the Welsh town of Port Talbot, the series hops deftly between two time periods – the initial investigation in 1973 and the re-opening of the case in the early 2000s, when advancements in technology heated up a case long left cold.
Screening for the first time in New Zealand on Rialto Channel this month, this under-the-radar Welsh crime series is a sobering, fascinating plummet into the real-life, thirty-year hunt for a serial killer. Atmospheric and fascinating, this four-part series offers a glimpse into historical police corruption that benefits from a well executed time-hopping structure.
The Steeltown Murders fits easily into a certain prolific subgenre – the BBC crime miniseries, but Murders subtly but perceptibly moves itself toward the superior end of a lengthy list through evocative period recreation and a welcome new perspective on the British crime drama. It’s not to say that there aren’t other series about goings-on in Wales, but the country has often felt a little under-represented in the grand scheme of United Kingdom offerings, much of the oxygen taken up by it’s grander, showier neighbours. The Wales of Murders is a fascinating, gloomy place – the industrial landscape of the Seventies evocatively captured with an exacting eye for period detail, all block-shaped cars, potholes and choking clouds of cigarette smoke. It shares an unshakable, working class misery that would come to define the Thatcher era of Britain a few years after the events of this story. The rendering of the 2000s, meanwhile, is cold and bleak – a manifestation of the questions and lingering doubts that have haunted the detectives hunting the killer for decades.
Said detectives are played by a strikingly-moustachioed Philip Glenister and Steffan Rhodri in the noughties sequences, as DCIs Bethell and Bach, two cops who were a part of the tragic bungling of the case in the Seventies. In the two episodes watched for review, said undoing is still largely to be excavated, but an unmistakable feeling of irresponsibility, miscalculation, corruption and doom linger over the Seventies iterations of these characters, played in that era by Scott Arthur and Siôn Alun Davies. It’s Bethell who is largely our window into this world, and actors in both eras carry the character with a sense of slowly withering upstandingness, being chipped away by a ruthless police system of the shoot first, ask questions later philosphy.
The series takes its time setting up its many threads, and early on there is a bit of drag as Murders takes great pains to make sure the table is set for the future reveal. This proves to pay off, however, as Murders intriguingly appears generally uninterested in the whodunnit aspect of this story. Instead, the series walks a fine line between the lurid pleasures of true crime and maintaining a sense of sensitivity and humanity. Few characters in Steeltown Murders are throwaway, from minor suspects to police figureheads. I was reminded occasionally of another patient, rewarding work, the Tomas Alfredson adaptation of John LaCarré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a film that is all the better for daring to cast aside the low-hanging fruit of the spy genre for something thornier, more difficult, more unmistakably aware of the cost of this kind of work on the souls of its characters. The Steeltown Murders, care of veteran crime television creators Marc Evans and Ed Whitmore, is painfully aware of the desensitisation that has swept through the glut of modern true crime, the packaging of bodies and those that mangle them into consumptive morsels. Its a willingness to look beyond the salaciousness that ironically sets The Steeltown Murders apart.
Steeltown Murders premieres from Sunday December 3, 8:30pm only on Rialto Channel. New episodes every Sunday throughout December.
Movie title: Steeltown Murders (dir. Marc Evans)
Movie description: Screening for the first time in New Zealand on Rialto Channel this month, this under-the-radar Welsh crime series is a sobering, fascinating plummet into the real-life, thirty-year hunt for a serial killer. Atmospheric and fascinating, this four-part series offers a glimpse into historical police corruption that benefits from a well executed time-hopping structure.
Date published: November 30, 2023
Country: United Kingdom
Author: Ed Whitmore
Director(s): Marc Evans,
Actor(s): Phillip Glenister, Steffan Rhodri, Keith Allan
Genre: Crime, Drama, History