Monday, May 22, 2006

No one is innocent

I found “See No Evil” -- ITV’s docu-drama based on the notorious Brady-Hindley murders -- very disturbing viewing. But possibly not for the reasons the filmmakers intended.

Before watching the film, I knew practically nothing about the case. Naturally, I was aware that Ian Brady and Myra Hindley had murdered several young children in the 1960s. I knew that Lord Longford believed that since Hindley had become a devout Catholic, she was a reformed character and should be considered for parole. I knew that the Sun thought that since she had peroxide hair, she was evil and should not be. But I didn’t really know who they had killed, under what circumstances, and why. This extremely gripping but curiously evasive three-hour drama didn’t leave me feeling much the wiser.

Dealing with this kind of material presents a writer with two problems. First, he has to stick to the facts. The film is proud of the fact that it has been made in close collaboration with the victims’ families, police officers and others closely associated with the case. The very first thing we are told is that “This is a true story”, and one gets the impression that no incident is put into the film which hasn’t been checked against two sources. In itself, this is a Good Thing: it would be quite unacceptable to take a real-life Orrible Murder and use it simply as a jumping off point for a work of fiction. But it creates an obvious difficulty. Hindley and Brady never made full confessions so their states of minds at the time of the murders is a matter of conjecture. Even the precise details of their crimes aren’t fully known or knowable. This leaves a gaping hole in the middle of any fact-based drama. Secondly the film wants to avoid being sensationalist, exploitative or ghoulish. So it has to adopt a “tell, don’t show” approach. We hear what the police say that Myra did; we hear what little she admitted to; but we actually see very little of it. A lot of the time, this approach makes perfectly good dramatic and documentary sense. The scene in which the police officers search the moor and dig up a child’s shoe is far more distressing than any Brady themed slasher-flick could have been. But sometimes it leads the filmmakers into unintentional surrealism. The evidence which damned Hindley and Brady was, of course, the discovery of a tape recording of a little girl being tortured. There is, thank goodness, no attempt to recreate this tape for the edification of TV audiences. Instead, as the horrified police play the recording on their old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder, the TV audience listens to a child's voice singing "The Little Drummer Boy".

The solution to this structural conundrum -- a true crime movie which can't represent the actual crime -- is to take Maureen Hindley and her husband David Smith as viewpoint characters. For almost the whole of episode 1, nothing happens. Maureen and Dave spend time with sister Myra and her weird boyfriend Ian, and the film allows Dramatic Irony to create its own chilling effects. The audience knows what Myra is doing, even though the police and her family do not. Myra comforts Maureen over the death of her first baby: but we know that she is simultaneously plotting to murder other children. Myra let's slip that she knows what a dead body looks like, and quickly claims that she is talking about childhood friend who drowned. We know the real reason. Myra mentions in passing that her car is convenient for carrying bulky luggage... None of this is made explicit in the screenplay: we don’t “know” that Myra and Ian are murderers until the very end of episode 1. I wonder what a Martian, or come to that an American, who has never heard of the Moors murders would make of the film?

Meanwhile, some old-fashioned no-nonsense police officers - the type whose idea of detective work is to yell “You killed him, didn’t you!” at suspects - are investigating a string of missing children, only gradually spotting that the cases are connected. Inevitably, one of the coppers is Obsessed with the case of Keith Bennet, and has Started to Take it Personally. We even see him sitting in his office staring at the “Have you seen this child?” poster at one point. Even if this is what happened in real life, it's still a dreadful cliché.

So what we have is basically a high quality episode of Columbo. Not a "who dunnit" or a "why dunnit", more a “when and how will the police realise that that they dunnit.”

In the last ten minutes of episode 1, Dave goes to the Hindley/Brady residence and witnesses them committing a murder. We do get a glimpse of this killing, but only momentarily, and in flashback. The bloodstained Dave tells Maureen that "Brady has killed a man" -- and then we flash for a few brief seconds to a shot, lit heavily in red, of Brady frenziedly attacking Edward Evans with an axe while Hindley watches impassively. Nothing that comes beforehand in the story really prepares us for this scene and nothing which comes afterwards explains it. It’s presented as out-of-context, free-floating self-existent terror. As a Stephen King moment, it's quite brilliantly done: two demonic figures presiding over a literally hellish scene. The juxta-positioning of the banal and the horrible; the jump from the world of cop-show and soap opera into the world of gothic; the jump from "perfectly normal Myra" and "pretentious bragger Ian" to "Satanic child killers" certainly had the desired effect. My immediate reaction was "Is that what they did? I can see why people call them Evil."

And there’s the problem. Actress Maxine Peake offers us three separate characterisations of Myra Hindley. She spends the first episode playing her as an aggressively normal northern lass. We entirely understand and believe that Maureen never suspected anything bad about her sister. She spends most of episode two as a film noire villain -- sneering at the court, refusing to admit to her part in the killings -- very much the callous play-acting monster that we’ve come to know and love through 40 years of “evil-Myra” news-stories. And then, in a coda, we see a no-longer-peroxide Myra telling her sister that she has found God in prison and is truly sorry for what she did. The big question, narratively and philosophically is what connects these three women. Can someone be both normal and murderous? Can someone go from murderous to remorseful? Why did Myra become a murderess but Maureen turn out all right? No attempt is made to suggest, or even hint at an answer. Significantly, the explanation which Myra herself is shown offering is pathetically inadequate -- she thinks that she is “damaged” because her father beat her.

Brady is even more of a problem. He seems to be some kind of Nietzschean super-man; believing that if he is strong enough to commit murder, he will make himself superior to the common heard. He hasn’t been on screen for five minutes before he is asking whether or not animals have souls, and suggesting that if souls don’t exist then the whole idea of god and morality is “shite”. He implies that Dave isn't a proper man because he's never killed anyone; lends him copies of the Marquis de Sade and forces him to play Russian roulette as an initiation rite. (Brady may have been “grooming” Dave Smith as a second accomplice, but when Dave witnesses the murder, he goes straight to the police. Dave is still alive and presumably helped with the making of film, which bends over backwards to show that he didn‘t do anything seriously wrong.) Of course, as an explanation, this doesn’t go very far beyond “He murdered people because he was the kind of person who murdered people.”

At least since “Silence of the Lambs”, we have had a rather ambivalent attitude to mass murderers: they are to be feared and locked away, certainly, but we also find them rather attractive because of the energy they draw from their “evil”. I don’t know whether the real Brady expressed these kinds of views, or if he is slipping into the role of T.V serial killer, in the same way that Detective Mounsey slips into the role of TV cop. But this characterisation makes him a dangerously romantic, even heroic, figure. More than once, I caught myself thinking “This guy seems rather interesting; and of course, he is still alive: I'd sure like to read an interview with him" This was not, I imagine, what the writers had in mind.

So: the film proposes no reasons for the Moors murders. And popular wisdom has always said that there are no reasons. Hindley in particular is in a unique metaphysical category called Evil and nothing further can be said. To try to explain what happened -- in terms of damage to her personality, madness, addiction, manipulation by someone else, childhood abuse, even literal demonic possession -- is to make excuses for her and therefore lessen the evil of what she did. And to do that devalues the suffering of the people she murdered and their families -- who are, of course, at the absolute pinnacle of the modern cult of victim-worship. The film, due to its very structure, draws us into this tabloid worldview. While I was watching it, I felt myself starting to think like a Daily Express reader. I found that very disturbing indeed.

The film trips over its own feet trying to deal with the question of Myra’s eventual reform. Maureen believes that Myra is truly remorseful; but Dave rants that she is even more evil than Brady on the philosophically intriguing grounds that he is “just” a sex monster, but she is “still human”. (I fear that this means "You expect this kind of thing from a man, but when a woman does it, it's really bad.”) Despite the fact that the trial judge had (more or less) sentenced Brady to life without parole but Hindley to between twenty five years and life in prison, successive home secretaries refused to consider her for parole. David (spit) Blunkett said in so many words that she couldn’t be let out because ordinary people didn’t think she had reformed: that is, her sentence was decided by her image in the tabloids, an image which films like this tend to perpetuate. There is actually a more interesting movie to be made about what happened to Myra Hindley while she was behind bars: Lord Longford’s diaries, her own prison writings, and forty years of journalistic gossip, would surely provide a lot of documentary material for this. But it would have to explore the forbidden territory of "explanation".

Even at its best, TV is the most clichéd of media. Just as there is an etiquette for reporting a royal death or an election, so there is an established vocabulary out of which dramas about "real life tragedies" have to be constructed. From the first, inevitable establishing shots of the wind-swept moors we knew -- we just knew -- that the film would end with a caption saying "Keith Bennet's body was never found“. But, as the credits rolled in silence over images of the five real life murder victims, there was one significant break with established practice. The continuity announcer was somehow persuaded to keep his mouth shut.

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