Out of the Shadow
The Long Shadow writer George Kay and executive producer Willow Grylls speak to DQ about their decision to dramatise the story of serial killer Peter Sutcliffe and how they put the victims at the heart of the series.
As true crime dramas continue to fascinate viewers around the world, a shift in the genre has been detected – one that puts the victims, survivors and their families front and centre while the perpetrator is cast into the background.
The Sixth Commandment, which debuted on BBC One earlier this year, was an “anti-true crime” story that centred on the people who were manipulated by Ben Field, before shifting to examine the police investigation and subsequent court case that put Field behind bars for murder.
Now, ITV drama The Long Shadow focuses on the victims of serial killer Peter Sutcliffe and the police officers at the heart of a five-year hunt to bring him to justice, with the aim of bringing a fresh perspective to a well-documented story.
The stellar cast includes Toby Jones as DCS Dennis Hoban, who initially led the inquiry, with David Morrissey as DCS George Oldfield, who took on the investigation. Lee Ingleby is DCS Jim Hobson, while Katherine Kelly plays Emily Jackson, Daniel Mays is her husband Sydney Jackson, Jill Halfpenny is Doreen Hill and Jasmine Lee-Jones is Marcella Claxton.
But notably, Sutcliffe (portrayed by Mark Stobbart) makes only a handful of fleeting appearances in the seven-part series, which begins on Monday.
“If we could have told this story with all the truth and authenticity that was important to us without featuring Peter Sutcliffe, we absolutely would have done,” says executive producer Willow Grylls, CEO of series producer New Pictures. “The reason we chose to feature him is because it was important to show how many times the police missed him.
“If you’re really going to make these dramas with the victims at the heart of everything you do, the last thing you want to do is anything gratuitous, and that is one of the other reasons why he features very little at all.”
It was an approach baked into the series from the outset. Writer George Kay (Lupin, Hijack) began developing the series around four years ago with the aim of keeping the perspective of the story with the people left dealing with the effects of Sutcliffe’s actions.
“I’d had this observation about police dramas, including stuff I’d written, where at the end of a scene with the police, when they leave the room, the camera follows,” he tells DQ. “I wanted the camera to stay and find out what happened next to those people, and even if they’d survived an attack by Peter Sutcliffe, what that did to their lives and how that ruined their lives and those of the people they loved. It felt like there were so many interesting stories outside of the crime itself.
“We’ve had this shift and realisation that so much of the interesting stuff comes after and before the crime. And that’s just a fulcrum moment in their lives, but the characters exist before and after. I hope that continues to be the emphasis, but it doesn’t mean we can’t tell the police story too.”
The Long Shadow is about more than just another police investigation, however. Grylls calls the events depicted in the series – Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering 13 women and attempting to murder another seven – as “one of, if not the biggest true crime story in British social and cultural history of the last 100 years.”
“We’re talking about a man who attacked 20 women. That’s 20 families,” Kay says. “There were 25 children left motherless. The footprint of it all is tragic and important. It’s a really ambitious piece for that, and there’s a huge amount of responsibility. I don’t think you can ever satisfy all those stories. All you’ve got to do is do it with integrity and try to reflect as many as you can.”
The reason for dramatising it now then came down to two factors – it had never been told from the point of view of the victims, and the fact that with themes of institutional prejudice, misogyny and racism, it felt very resonant to the present day.
“There have been multiple documentaries. There’s also been a drama 20 years ago that was that was focused on the police and was very well received. But the real effect – the number of people, children, partners, families that were affected by this – has never really been shown before,” the exec explains.
“The other part of this terrible tragedy that hasn’t been explored before, that has deep resonance for now, is that this case is a catalogue of police error – errors rooted in institutional and individual prejudice, misogyny and racism. It wasn’t that the police deliberately set out to do a bad job. But we were developing this at the time of the tragic events around Sarah Everard and some of the other women who were walking home and were attacked, and there are lots of things that haven’t changed today that need to change.”
Kay’s previous credits include Litvinenko, another true crime series that dramatised the death of a former KGB officer whose poisoning sparked one of the most complex and dangerous investigations in the history of London’s Metropolitan Police.
On that project, the writer worked with Marina Litvinenko, the wife of victim Alexander, to spotlight his story and her pursuit of justice – a process that was helped by her alignment with the goals of the police.
But with The Long Shadow, “there was a lot of conflict between the police and the people who were affected by Peter Sutcliffe, and you are trying to do that right by everyone involved,” he says. “No one set out to not catch the guy, but everyone can see the mistakes that were made and has a right to be angry about that. You’ve just got to strike a balance and, in the end, your judgement is key because there are so many contradictory arguments, you’ve just got to try and find some moral path through it.”
Both Kay and Grylls speak of the extraordinary respect they held for the real people affected by Sutcliffe’s crimes and the responsibility they felt to do justice to their stories on screen. This included deciding very early on in development that they would not refer to Sutcliffe as the Yorkshire Ripper, as he became known in the tabloids, out of respect for the relatives of the victims. But it is used in the series to reflect what happened.
“We really wanted to learn and get to know their stories and, because of that, we were very swift to agree and change and learn and grow about all of this stuff,” Kay says. “That’s part of getting to the victims’ perspective on things.
“There’s a huge amount of responsibility. I don’t think you can ever satisfy all those stories. All you’ve got to do is do it with integrity and try to reflect as many as you can.”
The care and attention to making the series extended to everyone on set and the way they conducted themselves on location around Leeds, in West Yorkshire, where Sutcliffe carried out the majority of his attacks. However, scenes weren’t shot where the crimes actually took place, and real locations were only used when the survivors and relatives of Sutcliffe’s victims approved that choice.
“We wanted to make sure that, as much as possible, the people who were most affected were comfortable with us filming in Leeds,” Grylls says.
“The other challenge we had in production is that it was a huge undertaking. It’s a tragic event that takes place over five years, and the long shadow of it extends to different people. This was a programme made on a terrestrial budget that had 100 different sets, period sets, and each one needed the same care and attention.”
That there was just one writer and one director – Lewis Arnold (Sherwood, Time, Des) – working across all seven episodes also brought challenges, but The Long Shadow benefits from being a fully formed, authored piece. Sacha Szwarc (Sherwood, Time, Des) also edited the entire series, which had its budget boosted by an advance from distributor All3Media International, which is handling international sales.
“ITV and All3Media supported us to make the show with the authenticity and integrity we wanted to all the way through,” Grylls notes. “They were incredibly light-touch and we’ll always be grateful for that.”
In addition, shooting the series by location, rather than in blocks, meant there was more money to spend on more locations instead of having to return to the same ones. That kind of shooting schedule is also more attractive to actors, who can come in and film their scenes in one go, instead of having to come back and forth into the production.
“There are some characters that may only appear in one episode. There are others that appear over several episodes,” Grylls notes. “We were totally blessed by an incredible true ensemble cast that are all delivering stellar performances, but cumulatively they’re even greater than the sum of their parts. The fact they were willing to come on this journey with us is really a testament to George’s script and then to Lewis and the way in which he works as a director.”
With interest in true crime seemingly endless, are there any cases that couldn’t be dramatised?
“No story is off limits,” Kay says, “but there’s an approach you should try to take if you can, where you’re not putting undue focus on someone who may have done things that are universally seen to be hurtful. You need your characters to be redeemable and to be understood.
“The danger is if you stray into characters who do things that are unfathomable and irredeemable. Then you’re in trouble dramatically, let alone in terms of your responsibility to those involved, because you are unable to change those characters, and actually drama is about how characters change. You need to see a shift in those characters.”
“I really hope viewers will take away a different understanding of the people who are most affected by this,” Grylls adds. “I hope they will be surprised by details about this terrible tragedy that they didn’t know, and I hope it is going to spark a discussion about the parallels between then and now and what things still have to change.”