The thing about shows like RILLINGTON PLACE is that you don’t really want to watch them. You know how it’s all going to turn out and you know that for the majority of the episodes you’re going to feel bloody awful about the fact that the killer, in this case the notorious John Reginald Christie – will get away with heinous crimes before finally being caught.
Perhaps that’s my issue with this show, there’s nothing wrong with it all – the script is quality, the actors top drawer, the set suitably sinister and dank looking, bleak enough to house the dark and twisted stories that unfolded within. The problem is, we’ve seen it all before.
Tim Roth (Christie) is a fine actor; appearing in everything from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs to the television film of children’s book Skellig. Here he skulks about, he is quiet and unassuming, a silent brooding man of small stature who could easily blend into the background.
Maybe that’s why it works, and why Christie got away with his atrocities for so long. Roth’s Christie is unassuming, ordinary even, the madman lurking beneath the skin – in this opening episode we only snatch glimpses of the darkness; the disappearances in the night, the odd banging in the cellar that wakes his wife, that creepy unsettling silence.
If you remember 10 Rillington Place (1971) then you’ll certainly remember Sir Richard Attenborough’s take on the infamous monster and, despite Roth being more than competent, the chills Attenborough conjured with a mere twitch of the face were enough to make sleep difficult for the nights that followed.
With so much already known about the crimes, scriptwriters Ed Whitmore and Tracey Malone find a new route to take the viewers down, opting to focus on the often-forgotten wife Ethel (played by the always excellent Samantha Morton), who has that great knack of being able to play the downtrodden, plain sidekick without disappearing completely. She has a wonderful skill for picking up accents; the Sheffield drawl is used sparingly here, the odd word a reminder of her origins whilst not distracting.
It’s an interesting angle to adopt, as we see Ethel return to the marital home after nine years apart whilst Christie was in prison. Her suspicions silently evolving as she witnesses odd events – the overwhelming smell of perfume in the bedroom; the elaborate jewellery and confiscated chocolates her husband brings her; the digging in the garden.
Ethel is portrayed as smart, even strong, as she presses Christie on his dalliances with prostitutes. Her barked warnings about his eyeing up a young, attractive woman leads to the most unsettling moment of the episode. Yet she is a product of her time, trapped by marriage perhaps, as there’s nowhere else for her to go. She plays the loyal wife even when her husband’s true self seems beyond denial.
I don’t think Rillington Place will go down as a classic in the same way Attenborough’s has. But with the next two episodes each following different points-of-view there’s still plenty of interest; not least because it isn’t until episode three that we’ll finally get Christie’s take on events. A bit ploddy perhaps, and lacking the shock and scare tactics of other crime dramas, but the strong performances of the leads carry this; that alone makes it worth a look.
- Aired on BBC1, November 29 2016 at 21:00.