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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Steeltown Murders

The new four-part BBC One drama Steeltown Murders is from writer Ed Whitmore and director Marc Evans, who between them produced Manhunt and Rillington Place – both, in different ways, sterling examples of how to dramatise real-life tragedy without sensationalising or cheapening it.

Unfolding over two time zones in the Port Talbot area of Wales, it tells the story of the rape and murder of 16-year-olds Geraldine Hughes, Pauline Floyd and Sandra Newton, and how developments in DNA testing helped catch the perpetrator. Philip Glenister plays 2002-era Paul Bethell, one of the original detectives put back on the case. Scott Arthur plays the 1973-era Bethell, who suspects they’re dealing with a serial killer.

Glenister of course memorably portrayed chauvinist blowhard DCI Gene Hunt in Life on Mars, but here he’s dogged, moustachioed, subdued. He works out of the same office as in 1973 (a dusty crypt of rotting manilla folders), as if in penance for the unacceptable attitudes of previous eras.

Both versions of Bethell are well played (even if a search party is sometimes needed for Glenister’s Welsh accent), and a strong cast includes Aneurin Bernard and Priyanga Burford.

Investigating murders against the odds is always a good game and this story has the full set: an anal DS, jurisdiction squabbles that mean a Neath case isn’t automatically investigated by Port Talbot, the shoe-leather-intensive inquiries that can still miss the prime suspect. The series, has a USP, though: it’s an account of the first criminal investigation in the UK to successfully employ DNA testing.

As 30 years separates the murders and the reopening of the case, the script necessarily has a double-helix structure, switching between the two strands with two different casts, often with quick-fire editing.

Where Steeltown Murders scores is in its concern for more than the minutiae of police procedurals. The murder isn’t shown, no maimed bodies appear, and police briefings are kept to a minimum. The people in the aftermath, and that includes the investigating officers, are its main focus.

Glenister gives a compelling, sensitive performance as a man whose career, he is often reminded, never really took off but who stuck to his guns. He’s an old-style copper who listens to his gut feelings and is happy to go off-piste to collar his man. His gut isn’t always right, but he’s the one with a moral compass here.

It’s a respectful, even affectionate piece of work that maps the toll of an unsolved murder on the people in pain left behind. Steeltown Murders is a sharply honed piece of drama, balancing suspense with respect and restraint.

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