Real steel

Real steel

By Michael Pickard
May 10, 2023

In production

Severn Screen’s Ed Talfan tells DQ about the story behind BBC true crime drama Steeltown Murders, which explores the community impact of a decades-old murder case and the pioneering technology used to catch a killer.

When DQ visits the Cardiff offices of Welsh producer Severn Screen, the final touches are being made to the first episode of BBC factual drama Steeltown Murders. Set between 1973 and the early 2000s, the four-parter centres on the hunt to catch the killer of three young women in the Port Talbot area and the story of how – in the first case of its kind – the mystery was solved almost 30 years later using pioneering DNA evidence.

“This is a 50-year-old case, from 1973, when there were three murders, one in July and a double murder in September,” says executive producer Ed Talfan, Severn’s creative director. “It was a notorious case, a traumatic case for the local community and a case that had never been dramatised. But it also had specific things about it that made you feel like it was a different kind of story, with a degree of public interest as well, given it involved the first ever use of familial DNA on the planet to actually identify a killer. There were lots of things about the story that felt distinctive.”

Co-commissioned by the BBC and BBC Wales, Steeltown Murders doesn’t just focus on solving the spate of murders, but seeks to paint a portrait of a town dealing with the repercussions of an unsolved case three decades on, and asks if justice can ever truly be found.

Heading the police investigation on screen are Philip Glenister (Life on Mars) and Steffan Rhodri (In My Skin) as DCI Paul Bethell and Phil ‘Bach’ Rees, with their younger selves in the 1970s played by Scott Arthur (Good Omens) and Siôn Alun Davies (The Sandman), respectively.

Severn Screen’s Hannah Thomas and Ed Talfan

They are joined by Keith Allen, Priyanga Burford, Sharon Morgan, Nia Roberts, Elinor Crawley, Gareth John Bale, Kriss Dosanjh, Matthew Gravelle, Amy Morgan, Oliver Ryan and Dyfan Dwyfor.

“Because the community had to wait such a long time for an answer, there were a number of people whose lives were blighted by the rumours that flew around in the 70s,” Talfan says. “Some people had to wait 30 years to be vindicated, so there was a lot of hurt in the community. It was right that the police came back to the case, and even though the stakes were high, they committed to reinvestigating it and they solved it.”

The producer describes working with two retired senior police officers familiar with the case as “fascinating,” because the show also spotlights the changes in policing over that 30-year period, contrasting the methods of the 1970s with the forensic breakthroughs of the early 2000s.

“You go from the analogue world of typewriters and phones that have bells in them to a world of modems and fax machines, and the soundscape, the technology and the protocols and the systems are entirely different,” he explains. “It’s been really interesting meeting people who were policemen in 1973. You learned how committed they were. But you also learned, in a sense, how basic it was. It was before computers, so it was all notepads. A man used to sit at a board cross-referencing hundreds of sheets of paper, making notes and making sure everybody’s alibi is tied with everybody else’s.

Steffan Rhodri (left) as Phil ‘Bach’ Rees and Philip Glenister as DCI Paul Bethell

“These days, you have computer systems that cross-check the key points with different statements. So it was a technical challenge and, artistically, it was a creative challenge and an opportunity to really look at the 70s.”

Talfan set up Severn Screen in 2010 and co-created and produced Hinterland, the crime procedural credited with putting Welsh-language drama on the global stage at a time when non-English-language series were finding new audiences around the world. Severn then produced Craith (Hidden), another Welsh-language crime series, and has since partnered on ITV true crime drama The Pembrokeshire Murders and overseen the Welsh filming block of Sky’s Gangs of London.

Steeltown Murders – which debuts on BBC One on Monday, May 15 – now reunites Talfan with Hinterland and Gangs of London director Marc Evans. But the series, distributed by All3Media International, marks the first time he has worked with writer Ed Whitmore, who worked with Evans on the second season of ITV drama Manhunt. Whitmore’s credits also include Safe House and 10 Rillington Place.

“From the off, Steeltown was a project that would be Marc Evans directing again, building on that relationship,” Talfan says. “Ed came into that fold and then we ended up writing the series, taking it into production and shooting it all in the space of a year.

Steeltown murders takes place in the 1970s and the early 2000s

“It’s fast but it’s been a really good experience actually. Phil Glenister, who led the charge on screen, was absolutely brilliant. The whole cast were great. But Phil’s an absolute star, he’s so kind. We just had one of those shoots where it’s always fun to turn up to work. Marc was brilliant as always. He’s such a talented, nice guy.”

Talfan, Whitmore and Evans worked closely with producer Hannah Thomas during development, with a strong emphasis placed on supporting the community and the people featured in the story.

“You have a responsibility with stories like this, and you feel it,” Talfan says. “There’s another layer of that when it’s your local community. South Wales is a very small place, so your due diligence is making sure people are consulted and informed, and aren’t surprised.

“You also have to make sure the facts are right, because 50 years is a long time since the case and people’s memories of events are different. There’s a lot of work to be done to research that. Ed is an amazing stickler for gathering that big pot of research and endless files. He loves immersing himself in all that detail, and you feel that in the programme. There’s a love of detail in the writing.”

The four-part series debuts on BBC One next Monday

It’s because of Steeltown Murders’ dual examination of a police investigation and a community that Talfan describes the series, as well as Hinterland and others like them, as a Trojan horse, where the crime element is used as a way to delve inside the deeper character stories concerning those affected by the crime.

“And if you’re working in Wales, certainly in decades past, big network shows generally weren’t being commissioned out of the regions,” he notes, “so we’ve often missed the opportunity to capture these communities in those maybe iconic decades, the 70s, the 60s. So when you have a show like this, it’s really exciting to take on the challenge of trying to recreate that time it in a way that doesn’t feel phoney to the people who live there, because they remember it.”

As a result, visual effects have been used to create certain exteriors, such as nightclub frontage, while the blast furnaces that appear against the Port Talbot skyline have been restored after the real ones were demolished in the 90s.

“The industrial landscape of South Wales has changed profoundly in that 50 years,” Talfan adds, noting that the show takes its title from the history of Port Talbot – a town that was suddenly bypassed in the late 60s when the M4 motorway was built beside it.

“So a lot of people in Wales are familiar with driving across Port Talbot, but fewer people have been down into the town. But in the 70s, it had a casino, and tens of thousands of men largely working at the steelworks. It was a boom town, with people coming from all over the place, so it’s been brilliant going back to 1973 and recreating some of that colour, the sass and the fashion. You’re recreating worlds.”

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