Viewers complain that they can’t hear every word being said in Rillington Place (BBC One, Tuesdays, 9pm) because the actors mumble. That might be a blessing in disguise. After all, this is the story of Reg Christie, the softly spoken serial killer who murdered at least eight women in his London flat.
Tim Roth does a superb job of portraying a shy, vain, manipulative little man whose crimes dispel the myth of a pre-1960s golden age. The decor in his Ladbroke Grove residence is almost faecal. Brown, peeling, fetid – thank God that television can’t broadcast smell. And his 1940s London, far from the cheeky Cockney paradise of Passport to Pimlico, is cold and lonely. Easy to get lost; rare to be missed. Christie surmises that his women friends who have strangely disappeared are probably lying under Blitz rubble – and the world shrugs its shoulders. “I studied medicine for a bit,” he lies to a pretty friend who suffers from catarrh. She snaps up the offer of a free consultation. This is pre-NHS, too.
Why are we obsessed with serial killers? Ghoulishness, maybe. But also because the scale of their depravity shatters our illusion that we live in a well ordered, neat little society. All it takes to upend everything is a mix of evil and effort – and yet we’re still surprised. Mary Bell proved that kids can kill. Myra Hindley did it for women. There was something familiar about Fred West – you could easily have hired a man like that to dig your garden. And Christie was respectable. Why? Because he was anonymous. The first thing people say when they discover their neighbour is a killer is: “He kept himself to himself.” Evil is rarely a monster with fangs or bolts in its neck.
Although Tim Roth is brilliant, nothing can quite match Richard Attenborough’s performance in the 1971 movie. Samantha Morton convinces as one of those women who knows something’s up but can see no alternative for herself, so she keeps coming back to her man. But the real star is 10 Rillington Place. The flat makes your skin crawl. Happily, they tore it down.
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