This review contains spoilers.
You need only look at the cheerily bright cover of Chat Magazine, with its unnerving collision of a model’s toothy smile and primary colour headlines about strangulation, rape and abuse, to see our popular fascination with grim real-life tales. Those mags fulfil the same function as horror movies – they thrill, disgust, and ultimately reassure. Thank God it didn’t happen to me, we can say. Oh look! A word scramble.
Rillington Place was atmospherically filmed and convincingly acted (to the point where it’ll be hard to look at Tim Roth in future without an involuntary shiver), but in the end, did it achieve anything more than a Chat Magazine special extended issue? Its shocking and grim story reminded us how lucky we are never to have met a man like Reg Christie, but other than that, what did it teach us?
Nothing about Christie’s inner workings. Roth’s character remained as unknowable by the time he hanged as he was the first time we met him. Having waited for episode three to look under the hood of such a man, we were denied insight into his psychological motivation, how he came to be, or how he justified his crimes to himself.
Christie was impassive and distant from start to end. We saw him kill methodically, even reluctantly. Was he proud of his murders? Did he fear being caught? Did his death sentence frighten him? We weren’t shown. He remained unnervingly laid-back throughout his interrogations, having “had an idea he strangled Mrs Evans” but failing to recollect whether he killed her baby daughter. Did Christie take perverse pleasure in refusing to confess to Geraldine’s murder? Did he really not remember? Rillington Place leaves it to interpretation.
That’s where this mini-series differs from the lurid stories you can pick up with a Twix and a pint of milk at the Newsagent – its restraint. While those magazines are eager to broadcast the nasty, perverse details, Rillington Place kept an almost respectful distance from Christie’s acts. We saw his method (gas, rope) but never his sexual gratification. When he took out his killing trophies and began to unzip his trousers, the camera turned away. We saw him tip the body of a recently killed woman from a chair onto the floor as if she were a sack of potatoes (one of the few moments offering a glimpse into his attitude towards the murders), and a close-up of his face looming over the camera, but nothing more salacious. There can be no accusations of voyeurism here.
By refocusing Christie’s story on his direct and indirect victims Ethel and Tim in its first two episodes, Rillington Place justified its existence. The drama served justice by telling Tim’s sad version of events, and showed us a little of the psychology of control in an abusive marriage by telling Ethel’s.
The final episode though, was the least enlightening. It filled in some of the story gaps, neatly splicing the timeline and blending the murder of Beryl with that of a later victim. It showed Christie’s extreme cowardice in avoiding confrontation with his confident, clever West Indian neighbour and preying on only the most vulnerable victims.
And subtly, around its edges, it showed how Christie was allowed to continue with his crimes because of the systems shoring up men like him – men of ‘good character’, decorated war veterans, former special constables, men with the patina of respectability – and casually discarding the uneducated, ‘fallen’ and vulnerable.
As a real-life serial killer story, Rillington Place was terrifically acted, nuanced and restrained, tasteful even. As a TV drama though, it felt unsatisfying. I was left feeling an even greater suspicion of creeps like Christie, but no understanding of them.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Tim, here.