Rillington Place episode 1 review: Ethel

The BBC’s grisly new true-life serial killer drama feat. Tim Roth and Samantha Morton sets a foreboding tone in episode one…

Tim Roth in Rillington Place
Photo: BBC Pictures

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This review contains spoilers

‘Reg’ Christie shows his wife Ethel around their drab new London lodgings, through a suffocatingly dark hallway into an overgrown garden that needs “a bit of love and attention, a bit of elbow grease”. They’ll do their own planting, he tells her, if there’s enough light. 

There’s hardly any light in Rillington Place, real or figurative. The first episode of this three-part drama based on true-life serial killer John Christie is an exercise in dread. As the hour passes, the walls of that dingy terrace seem to close in on Ethel, played movingly here with dismal vulnerability by Samantha Morton. 

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Tim Roth is just as strong as the sinisterly restrained Christie, a contained character whose capacity for violence is only glimpsed twice in episode one when he shouts at, and later chokes, Ethel. Roth creates Christie’s character sparingly, building a sense of real threat behind the almost static face and low, even voice.

It’s a feat of atmosphere. With smoky shots of the terraced road and its barely lit interiors, Rillington Place conjures up a real sense of foreboding. Even if you weren’t familiar with Christie’s story (either from the news, Wikipedia or the 1971 feature film starring Richard Attenborough), every inch of the screen creates unease. What would traditionally be romantic gestures—a husband surprising his wife with jewellery or making her close her eyes before offering a box of chocolates—are made to feel horribly foreboding. 

So much so it makes you ask the question lurking behind any true-crime drama: why retell this awful story? There’s no escapist glamour or swagger in this period drama. Aside from the voyeuristic thrill, why ask an audience to look a monster like Christie in the face?

By starting with Ethel’s story—a wife tied to a husband who conceals his hideous appetite for violence to women beneath a reserved facade—Rillington Place has a convincing answer to that. Why tell this story? For Ethel, and women like her.

Even now in the UK, an average of two women are killed by their partners or ex-partners every week. Their murderers aren’t tabloid-famous serial killers like Christie, just ordinary men who do monstrous things. Drama like this, which provide insight into how people get away with those things is worth something. It’s a lesson in our common failings.

This episode patiently built up a picture of Ethel’s sense of responsibility towards Reg, a sense shored up by a society that viewed the role of a wife as a carer and servant to their husband. That commonplace attitude is endemic to her times. Even in the loving home of Ethel’s kind brother, he’s served a hot meal while his wife stands waiting to collect the dirty plate. 

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When Ethel visits a doctor to ask for help with her withdrawn, melancholic spouse, she’s told it must be her fault, that’s she’s not providing him with sufficient love and attention. Later, after Reg has almost throttled the life out of her with eerily calm professionalism, she returns to him. Why? Because to her, his behaviour isn’t his fault, he’s unwell, she upset him by losing a baby, it’s London making him like that… She’s internalised a list of reasons to excuse what he’s done, blaming herself for the wound-up tension of their home life. 

By choosing Ethel’s perspective for its first episode (the next two will focus on Reg and Tim, the young man wrongly hanged for his crimes in the opening minutes of this week), Rillington Place puts a sensationalist picture in a painfully commonplace frame. The dread we feel when Ethel laughs at Reg and exposes his artful lie to a pretty young house guest is horribly recognisable. Serial killers like John Christie are obviously rare, but situations like Ethel’s play out in homes all over the country.

That’s the point of re-telling a story like this, not simply to look a long-dead monster in the face but to recognise the attitudes that protected him and caused Ethel to put herself and others at such risk. 

If drama is about creating empathy, Rillington Place’s first episode is a triumph. At the start of the hour, I couldn’t imagine understanding why the wife of a killer might make the abhorrent decision to cover for his crimes. By its end, Samantha Morton had quietly made me see. 

Rillington Place continues next Tuesday the 6th of December at 9pm on BBC One.