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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Lucy Mangan

Steeltown Murders review – the hunt for the Saturday Night Strangler could not be more timely TV

Steffan Rhodri as Phil Rees and Philip Glenister as DCI Paul Bethel in Steeltown Murders.
Steffan Rhodri as Phil Rees and Philip Glenister as DCI Paul Bethel in Steeltown Murders. Photograph: Tom Jackson/BBC/Severn Screen

Which will we run out of first? Stories about historical police failures/corruption, or audiences with whom such stories will still resonate now that we have moved so far beyond such horrors that they are almost unfathomable?

It’s a trick question, of course! The answer is – neither! With every new day’s headlines, a time when police haplessness (at best) and venality (at worst) will become lost to the past rather than desperately resonant with the present seems a greater impossibility. Steeltown Murders, based on real life events investigated dangerously poorly in the 1970s by various factions of the South Wales police force, feels as relevant as ever, as we wade through the latest reports of derelictions of duty by the Met and their regional brethren.

When the march of science makes new DNA evidence available on the 25-year-old unsolved murders of two 16-year-old girls, Geraldine Hughes and Pauline Floyd (Calista Davies and Jade Croot), by a man who became known as the “Saturday Night Strangler”, two of the original detectives are assigned to carry out a re-investigation, along with a newcomer, DC Geraint Bale (Gareth John Bale). The man in charge and still gnawed at by past mistakes from when he was a junior officer on the case, DCI Paul Bethell, is played by Philip Glenister (producing his usual effortless-looking everyman performance – though the Welsh accent is less convincing). His righthand man is Phil “Bach” Rees (Steffan Rhodri) and together they reapply themselves to the problem of solving the case and to connecting it, as Bethell always suspected, to the case of 16-year-old Sandra Newton, similarly raped and murdered on her way home from a nightclub.

In an extended flashback, with the younger Bethell played by Scott Arthur and younger Rees by Siôn Alun Davies, who do themselves proud, we see the methods and attitudes that hampered the first investigation. Sandra was having an affair with a married man called John Dilwyn Morgan and the officers fixated on him as the prime suspect at the expense of other possibilities. Bethell’s attempts to shake their attention loose get him relegated to minor duties, and his suggestion that they look at Sandra’s stepfather Dai (Keith Allen) is ignored (although this was a red herring – he was not the killer). Geraldine and Pauline are considered to be “nicer” girls, and more resources are allocated to finding their killer (though the lead detective turns down help from Scotland Yard, seemingly for reasons of national pride).

The twin timelines are, for once, necessary and illuminating. We see how scientific progress – the case develops into one that deploys for the first time the use of familial DNA tracing to determine the killer – can still be hindered by stasis or regression elsewhere; for example, the re-investigation, which requires an extensive swabbing programme of men who lived in the right areas as the right times, is hampered by swingeing cuts being experienced by the forces. And, although the chief constable is now a woman, misogyny (gasp!) persists, as does its shaping of how the murders were perceived. It asks questions about how much we can ask of trauma victims – Rees is reluctant to let Bethell question a suspected rape victim of one of their suspects so many years on – and how much closure can be brought to suffering.

The drama was written by Ed Whitmore, who was responsible for the utterly bleak, utterly brilliant retelling of another murderous real-life tale a few years ago in Rillington Place, starring a seethingly malevolent Tim Roth as Reg Christie, and a stricken Samantha Morton as his wife. Whitmore does full justice to the painstaking and never glamorous policework that finally found the Saturday Night Strangler, and the difference integrity makes to a job and to a life. More importantly, it does so without ever losing sight of the shock, the intensity of the loss created by a man who, like so many, should have been stopped before he escalated to murder, and the endurance of the grief he caused. It takes its time but never flags or becomes ponderous (thanks to Marc Evans’ directorial talents, as well as the dense script, and it takes its responsibilities to the living and to the dead seriously.

Steeltown Murders is on BBC One and iPlayer.

• This article was amended on 16 May 2023. A previous version incorrectly stated that this investigation involved Dyfed-Powys police.

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