In The Decline of the English Murder, written 60 years ago, George Orwell reflected on how murder reflected the times. The celebrated pre-war murders typically featured respectable men who had got themselves into unrespectable affairs with women, often of a lower social class, who were done away with by poison. The wartime murders which prompted the essay, in contrast, were done by an American Army deserter and his British girlfriend, who seemed to kill their victims – almost existentially – because they could. The randomness of war re-enacted as a celebrated crime.
The thought is prompted by Patrick Forbes’ documentary The Force, shown on Channel 4 this week, about Hampshire Police investigating a body found burned beyond recognition in the village of Dummer. This murder also reflected its times. The victim was Polish, the murderer Bangladeshi, who had worked together in an Ibis hotel in London and had started having an affair. Her mobile phone had been used to delay suspicions about her disappearance; his by the police to piece together his movements around the time of the murder. Fragments of the story were pieced together from CCTV footage, most compellingly when the police traced the film which showed him dragging the suitcase with the woman’s body in it to his car. But the breakthrough came from traditional policing, knocking on doors and handing out photos. And the motive was also traditional: he killed her out of jealousy. As a by the way, some of the housing conditions seen or reported during the film were quite shocking.
I need to declare an interest; I work with Patrick Forbes’ wife, and she had reminded me the programme was on. But – in contrast to most of the factual programming on British television – the film used the people and the pictures to tell the story. Even the rhythm of the events – with only a small amount of programme-maker’s artifice – provided the cliff-hangers. And what a relief all of that was; no celebrity presenter, no urgent voice-over, and none of those horrible post-ad break intros which now seem compulsory at Channel 4, in which you’re told, again, what the programme is about, which have the unintended aesthetic effect of making every programme seem the same (“I’m Kevin McCloud and I’m on the trail of the 18th century aristocrats who transformed the way Britain thinks about design”. Please).
In other words, it was a proper documentary. It’s repeated late on Friday and there are two more to come, on the next two Tuesdays. [Update: There’s a reflective review in The New Statesman.]
The picture at the top of the post is courtesy of Channel 4.