True crime dramas have become a staple of British television and streaming services. Their popularity seems endless and ever growing. Episodes are devoured at incredible rates as the true stories behind the dramatizations are the start of many an internet k-hole.
The British true crime drama has fallen into a somewhat formulaic way of being made. The narratives are almost classical; a clear, yet flawed hero, triumphing over an unquestionably evil villain. The focus is either on the lead police officer investigating the case, or the perpetrator of the crimes. Both or one of them is usually white, they are almost always men. If the focus is on the villain, it’s to show that he is irredeemably cruel, and a master manipulator with those closest to him suffering the most. If the focus is on the hero, he is usually approachably attractive, stern and focused when it comes to work yet soft centred, and he has a personal life that has fallen or is falling apart. All played out in front of a backdrop of grim, overcast skies that are all too familiar.
The Pembrokeshire Murders fits all of these tropes. The hero is DCI Steve Wilkins (Luke Evans), who has just moved back to Wales after working at Scotland Yard in London. He is recently divorced and his relationship with his children, especially his son, is strained, but he’s trying.
The villain is John Cooper (Keith Allen), murderer and rapist who controls his long-suffering wife Pat (Caroline Berry) and is needlessly cruel to his estranged son Andrew/Adrian (Oliver Ryan).
The show centres around the reopening of the 1985 murder case of siblings Helen and Richard Thomas, and the 1989 murder of Peter and Gwenda Dixon. Also, in 2011 a sixteen-year-old girl was raped, and a 15-year-old girl was sexually assaulted at gunpoint. With the help of advances in the processing of DNA evidence, DCI Wilkins not only reopens the cases, but quite quickly has an idea of who is responsible.
This isn’t a whodunnit. If you look up the real Pembrokeshire murders, you’ll immediately see a picture of the tried, convicted and imprisoned John Cooper. Likewise, the show doesn’t try to obscure him from you. There are no twists or surprises, nothing about this drama is sexed up. No glossy, airbrushed shots, no actors perfectly made up, all the performances are understated, and all the costume design is aggressively normal. The rooms they work in aren’t flashy, their resources are not high tech. There are scenes that are, possibly, intentionally dull, where officers reel off information; addresses, numbers, names etc. The point being, that mostly what happens in the investigation of these cases, even the big ones, is basic, boring, police work. Fact checking and file skimming and looking for details you’re not even sure are there.
As with most of these dramas, it does read as mild copaganda. The police are presented as humble, unsung heroes who have to be constantly at the ready and willing to work ungodly hours, all the while asking for nothing but justice on behalf of the victims they serve. It’s a nice image. The idea that rigorous and thorough work will, without fail, lead to results, and in this case, convictions.
While there’s no doubt that hard work is involved, what often gets skipped over, or heaped under the umbrella of police work, is the enormous amount of luck involved in these cases, like the eventual apprehension of The Yorkshire Ripper or the arrest of Dennis Nilsen. Luck in these shows feels inevitable or divine almost. For their transgressions, these men were destined to be caught, and by their virtue and the purity of their desire to do good, the police were destined to catch.
For DCI Wilkins, the lucky break came after looking for a picture of Cooper during the time of the 1989 murders, and coming up empty handed, only to learn by chance that he appeared as a contestant on the darts gameshow Bullseye that exact same year. It is with luck also that they find the shorts they suspect he was wearing at the time of the murder, and luck that there was still a small flake of one of the victim’s blood on it.
In the real life case, it’s likely there was a lot more detail to grapple with, but when you’re condensing an investigation that took 5 years into three episodes of TV, of course only the most pertinent details make the cut, and tropes that are familiar, exactly true to life or not, make the telling of this story easier still.
With the knowledge that there are details missing, some facts have been altered for the show (all covered in a disclaimer at the start), and that the ending is already known, what makes these dramas so compelling?
The fact that most of these shows focus on serial killers, murderers and/or rapists is no coincidence. The most heinous of crimes, the ones people find hard to wrap their heads around, are the stories that sell the best. The human condition has not yet evolved past rubbernecking at disaster. But there is more to it…
In the case of The Pembrokeshire Murders, the performances are very much contributing factors. DCI Wilkins as a character on paper, probably wouldn’t read as incredibly interesting, but Evans gives him nuance and depth with the simplest of looks and gestures. He is someone to be relied upon, someone to get a pint with, an elevated everyman. On the flip side, Allen plays the bitter and unfeeling John Cooper with such ease it’s easy to forget that he’s acting at all. There are some looks Allen throws at other cast members that are truly shudder inducing and although his fits of rage are deeply unpleasant, he is at his most terrifying when saying very little or nothing at all.
There is not a misstep from any cast member in fact, and despite the faint hint of a cheesy line every now and again, (that seems bound to occur with any tale where good triumphs over evil), the world that has been created feels complete, defined and honest.
It’s no surprise that well-made and well-cast shows are popular, of course, but when it comes to true crime, there seems to be something else that gives it the edge. Another reason we devour them over and over again with grim satisfaction: They are oddly comforting. Despite the stacked odds and hiccups along the way, the bad guy will get his comeuppance. Doing the right thing will ultimately lead to victory. Those that were suffering will suffer less after justice is served.
Watching a show like The Pembrokeshire Murders means not having to experience the years of waiting and unsureness, instead we are handed the story as a complete thing, with a beginning and an end, the end being where the comfort lies. Rather than instilling us with fear, knowing that these things happened to real people, it gives us hope that should anything as awful happen to us or our loved ones, that this would be the outcome, that we’d have the luck of the divine, that we’d get the virtuous DCI determined to find the truth. It is comforting to know that there is one more bad man safely locked away, despite it having no impact on our immediate reality or safety. There is solace in the idea that there are good policemen out there, somewhere. When there are so many true stories of injustice and cases falling apart and people doing wrong and getting away with it, it’s no wonder that viewers flock to shows that prove, every now and again, things go right. The Pembrokeshire Murders encompasses all of this in a succinct, and accomplished example of British true crime done well.
The Pembrokeshire Murders is available to watch now on ITV Hub