Our fascination with true crime dramas
Updated: Aug 22, 2021
Something the UK does very well is television dramas. However, one specific genre that stands out is crime dramas.
The current pandemic means we’re all stuck at home watching a lot more tele, and as a result people are discovering series that they might have missed the first time around… or in my case – watching them again.
Don’t get me wrong, I like American TV, but I do find that when it comes to this genre they don’t have the same sort of quality. American TV is good at explosions and in-your-face drama, but British dramas are in a league of their own in my opinion - especially the ones based off reality. Whilst America can go above and beyond to create cliff hangers and thrills, British dramas are much more subtle and as a result the end result is a high-quality series.
Great actors, well written scripts, and the added suspense of the fact that we’re reminded at the start of each episode that these things have happened in reality means that people are left on the edge of their seats night after night.
Here's a look at some shining examples of some of these types of shows:
The Serpent (2021)
I’ve watched this most recently and I’m not exaggerating when I say it was the best thing I have watched in A LONG TIME. There is one specific episode that is so tense I didn’t relax for the whole hour – there was no opportunity to nip to the loo or get a drink, I was not missing a second of that.
It tells the story of Charles Sobhraj, a serial killer and conman operating in the 70s. What is so clever about him was the fact he rarely got his hands dirty which made him so difficult to catch.
It’s called The Serpent because that was Sobhraj’s nickname due to the fact he was so good at slithering out of the law.
Tahar Rahim plays the title role so well. There is a Ken-doll quality to the appearance of Sobhraj, just a bit too perfect looking. This appearance then made his dark side is all the more disturbing. He was excellent as gaslighting his partner, Marie-Andree Leclerc (played by Jenna Coleman), and gaining the trust of innocent travellers before finishing them off.
Coleman’s character is a confusing one. She goes from being an innocent girl that has just fallen for the wrong guy, but then the line is crossed when she is involved with his crimes and you’re left wondering if you feel sorry for her or not by the time the credits roll.
One thing I would say is you need to stay alert with the time-hopping. Often, rather than saying ‘two year before’ it would just give you the year – leaving you wanting to note down what happened in what year in order to get the order of everything right in your head. It moves back and forth between the crimes, and the process of catching him from the perspective of a determined diplomat at the Dutch embassy. I can see they’ve done this to add to the cat and mouse tension, but sometimes they overdo it in my opinion and you can be left a bit confused about what happened when.
Overall though, I can’t recommend this enough. You’re left cold and disturbed at what happened not too long ago and for the tension alone it is worth the ache you’re going to get for sitting on the edge of your seat throughout most of this series.
Available on: BBC iPlayer
The Pembrokeshire Murders (2021)
Another true-crime series looking into the investigation of the murders that terrified the community of Pembrokeshire in the 1980s. It took 20 years for the right man to be behind bars for the crimes, and this looks at the team that looked back into the case to make sure justice was done.
The team is led by DS Steve Wilkins, played by Luke Evans. He is never in any doubt about who the guilty man is, and it is this determination that really makes you route for him to get the end he wants.
Keith Allen plays the prime suspect John Cooper. Allen is EPIC at these kind of roles, I've only ever seem him as the bad guy and he does it so well.
What I loved as a journalist was the fact the role of the press is included in the drama too. Jonathan Hill was the ITV News reporter that worked closely with Wilkins throughout the investigation. Usally the media is presented badly, but in this case it showed how useful it can be if the police use them to their advantage.
The Serpent had a bit more to it I thought, but this definitely didn't disappoint. If you do watch it, definitely follow through with the documentary talking to real-life Wilkins just to add a bit more of a chill to the whole series, reminding you that this really wasn't too long ago.
Available on: ITV Hub
I have to start by saying that David Tennant looks JUST LIKE the real-life killer Dennis Nilsen, and it makes the whole things even more shocking and disturbing.
Rather than being aggressive and unpredictable with a hint of psychopath like Charles Sobhraj, Nilson is man that lacks a dramatic flair. He doesn't put up a fight when the police turn up, instead he gets in the car and simply tells them how many people he's killed before looking back out of the window.
He seems relieved if anything that's it's all over. There's no tension in the capture of Nilsen, but instead it's the process of getting him charged that makes the audience worried because it can't be that easy to catch a serial killer.
The success he had as a killer was down to his unextraodinary personality. He went undetected because no one really paid much attention to him in society. He wasn't
flashy like many other killers we hear about nowadays.
I've seen Tennant in a lot now, as the good guy and the bad guy - he can do it all. He plays Nilsen in a very
controlled and chilling way and I loved
every second. This isn't high drama and
edge of your seat stuff, instead it's all about the script and it really delivers.
Available on: ITV Hub
White House Farm (2020)
Yet another crime I didn't know anything about before watching the show - the 1980s killings in Essex. I would say this is a positive side to these true-crime series, it makes people more aware of recent history and often triggers them into watching documentaries on the crimes too.
Of course it does mean that we go into the series knowing who has committed the crime, which some people could argue takes away all the suspense of it, but I think it makes you root for the good guys even more because you see the struggle they go through to get the right man behind bars.
This crime was the murder of five members of the same family all under one roof. The murders were blamed on the 'mad daughter' Sheila Bamber, suggesting she killed them all then shot herself, but it wasn't like that at all.
It did include the slight cliche of one man seeing the true murderer and having to prove it to his narrowminded boss and colleagues, but that's the thing with this series, we have to assume these things did happen - hence why it's included. If anything this cliche just paints the police in a negative light because it's showing the public the side to the investigation we wouldn't have seen originally.
The cast is great in this, with recognisable faces throughout to take audiences through a well-written dramatisation of what happened. I would highly recommend this.
Available on: Netflix
Other true crime dramas I would recommend:
Appropriate Adult (2011)
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies (2014)
Rillington Place (2016)
Three Girls (2017)
*I do not own any of the images used in this blog post*