This review contains spoilers.
“It’s not the eighties anymore” Detective Sergeant Steve Fulcher reminds a colleague in the first episode of ITV’s new true crime drama. He’s right about that. Had the events of A Confession played out before Code C of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 was introduced, Fulcher might still be a serving officer.
He isn’t, for reasons described in his 2017 memoir and dramatised in this six-part series, the latest from writer-producer Jeff Pope (Little Boy Blue, The Moorside, Hatton Garden). Martin Freeman plays Fulcher, and does very little to draw attention to himself in the role. Fulcher isn’t portrayed as a dangerous, rule-breaking maverick, but a responsible everyman who so far, takes every precaution. Compared to the high-energy thrills of say, Line Of Duty, you might even call him boring.
What happens to Fulcher, and what it means for policing is not boring. And neither is this drama, which highlights the emotional experience of victims’ families.
Directed by Paul Andrew Williams (Broadchurch, Murdered By My Boyfriend), episode one of A Confession is as unshowily competent as its main character. It sets about its work with the same careful seriousness with which Fulcher is shown to lead the search for a young woman reported missing in March 2011. Steadily, the hour builds a picture of events and introduces an extended cast of family members and suspects without displaying any weakness for frivolity or sensation. Like its lead, it appears to be a model of restraint.
Not that Fulcher is the lead in episode one. As the senior investigating officer on the case, he’s at the front of the police briefings and at the centre of the family press conference, but this isn’t yet his story. At this stage, it belongs to Elaine and Karen (Siobhan Finneran and Imelda Staunton), the mothers of two missing women – Sian O’Callaghan and Becky Godden Edwards.
As you’d expect in a drama made with the cooperation of those involved, the women and their families are treated with dignity and a lack of judgement. There’s no insinuation by the drama or the investigation that either the missing women or their parents’ shortcomings could be to blame. Pope’s true crime dramas are respectful to a fault.
Blame will play a part in later episodes that depict the professional fallout of Fulcher’s actions, as described in his 2017 memoir. This hour is about setting the stage and establishing the facts. “This is a true story.” reads the on-screen preamble, “A dramatisation based on extensive research, interviews and published accounts.” Including, but not only Fulcher’s book, is the unwritten addendum. This drama clearly doesn’t want to be seen as an apologist for Fulcher, who contravened legislation in order to get the titular confession, but also doesn’t care to show him as putting a foot wrong. We see him take Sian’s disappearance seriously from the start, press for expensive resources to be spent on the search, and approach all leads with a level head.
A Confession wants to enter into a similarly level-headed discussion about whether the price paid by victims and families to protect the rights of the accused is too high. Those viewers who remember Pope’s Little Boy Blue, which told the heart-rending story of 11-year-old Rhys Jones’ murder, will also remember the sea of solicitor-advised “no comment” statements from witnesses that came close to derailing the whole process. No, it’s not the eighties anymore, or the seventies, or the sixties and nobody wants to see a return to confessions being fabricated or extracted through brutality. But, this drama suggests, when it comes to the preservation of life, there’s a debate to be had.
Pope’s true crime dramas are becoming a genre of their own. They’re not whodunnits – we all know, or can find out at the click of a button, the perpetrator’s identity. They’re not documentaries either, but an agreed version of the truth. Most of all, they’re an agent for empathy, injecting news headlines and tabloid simplifications with a depth of feeling most of us wouldn’t otherwise be able, or even bother trying, to understand.
A Confession continues next Monday at 9pm on ITV. Read about The Barking Murders and more new British drama arriving this year and next.