The story of Peter Sutcliffe is peculiarly British. I wondered idly as Thursday night’s documentary unfolded whether his infamy extended outside of these islands. Could anyone else understand and decipher the chilling resonance of Northern England’s Bingo halls; puddle strewn, half lit pebbled car parks; abandoned grassy play parks? Sutcliffe’s hunting grounds may have been under the viaducts where the prostitutes lurked, however his crime scenes were invariably the places where we ourselves might amble on despondent dreary days.
Manhunt (the first of two parts) made for uncomfortable viewing. The physical grimness of the interviewees, the ugliness of the locations, the crudity of the investigative technology, the belligerence of the murder weapons. Ripper survivor Jane Bower had the kind of demeanour that had never seen youth. One was forced to question for a moment what it had been that had selected her for Sutcliffe’s attentions. As she related her experience, describing the disorientation of her encounter (”I kept falling down, wondering what was wrong with me”) the cruel absurdity of the situation was apparent and left one feeling fearfully exposed. Yet the understated manner in which she recounted her story, was both compelling and telling. The Ripper tale (like that of any serial killer) is that of the violent intrusion into the mundane; and director Gwyneth Hughes ensured that the recounting of the events never drifted in to hyperbole or postulation. There was no romanticism about this documentary, nor should there be. The victims were neither martyrs nor special; the murderer neither enigmatic nor demonic, and the investigating officers never parodic or culpable.
In fact, the recounting of the police investigation became the most provocative element of the documentary. Tacit knowledge informed me that the police had allowed the Ripper to remain free until 1981. I already knew that Sutcliffe was interviewed on a number of occasions and passed over due to the detectives’ failure to adhere stringently to lines of investigation. However,Manhunt revealed that those who labelled the police “bunglers” or “incompetents” were not only misleading, but lacking in compassion. The detectives interviewed all betrayed the burdens of mistaken logic, and failed hunches. Only later, were their errors apparent, yet their guilt hung heavily. Their fragility had been betrayed by a propensity to expend time and energy on the most tenuous of leads. One could see that the overwhelming mass of data would never be the preferred route to solve the crime whilst the possibility of a sensational break through could result in a quicker and more satisfying conclusion. Yet, as I suspect we shall see in the second episode, this killer of the hum drum lay in police captivity all along, as one name on one index card amongst 170,000 others.