In 2006 John Simm – one of my favourite actors – starred in a supernatural, time-hopping police drama called Life On Mars. What was interesting about it was the relationship between John Simm’s cop-from-the-future character, Sam Tyler, and Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), his partner and nemesis, the embodiment of the old school way of doing things. Whereas Tyler was all empathy and profiling, Hunt was all fists and fury. It was like a comedic, genre version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. That’s a bit of a tangent to start off this review of a new crime drama, but John Simm is back in that period for Code Of A Killer, playing geneticist and DNA pioneer Dr Alec Jeffreys. Simm’s partner in (solving) crime this time is DCI David Baker (David Threlfall) an old school cop like Gene Hunt, but the exact opposite in temprement. He’s sympathetic, hangdog and facing a race against time to find the killer of two teenage girls in Leicestershire.
It’s the pairing of these two different characters, initially working along separate narrative rivulets, that makes Code Of A Killer so interesting.
There’s DCI Baker’s narrative, which is a heartbreaking trawl through mid-1980s village life, knocking on doors to personally tell the families of two teenage girls that their daughters’ bodies have not only been found, but they had been raped and murdered.
The first was 15-year-old Lynda Mann, who didn’t come home after walking back from her friend’s house one winter’s evening. She was left in a heap on a deserted footpath known locally as, portentously, the Black Pad. Baker took it as his personal duty to find the killer, realising that the close-knit community had been shaken to its core. He set up an investigating hub in the village cricket pavilion to make sure the locals knew (and the killer) that they were working around the clock. He visited the Mann family on Christmas Day to pay his respects and to see how they were doing. He paced the footpath out of hours looking for clues. He wore the young Lynda’s like a heavy winter overcoat.
As the investigation drew blanks and the months and years ticked by, and thanks to budget cuts to the police force and pressure from his boss, the investigation was scaled back. There was no end, or no resolution, in sight.
Elsewhere, in the second thread of the story, we met Dr Alec Jeffreys. John Simm played Jeffreys as a bearded, obsessive and hugely enthusiastic mad scientist. He had blunted his Manchester accent into something more home counties, which was initially a strange thing to get used to. We’re so used to seeing and hearing Simm as a northerner with a Manchester accent, using his natural mischievous glint in his eye to give his characters plenty of spark. Here there was plenty of spark about Jeffreys, but a more considered, contained and academic energy.
Like Baker Jeffreys was working around the clock, often to the detriment to his home life, to find a way of producing a DNA fingerprinting system. With his assistant Vicky (Lydia Rose Bewley, in a welcome serious role) they had managed to produce their eureka moment, which led to Jeffreys being in demand – soon he was using his new DNA fingerprinting system to help in immigration and paternity cases.
Baker and Jeffrey’s narratives crossed when Baker saw Jeffreys on a TV news story, explaining what he was able to do with his new breakthrough. Baker was investigating a second murder, that of 15-year-old Dawn Ashworth, raped, murdered and dumped in Ten Pound Lane (every lane or patch of land has a name in provincial villages). Technology they had available to them suggested that the same man committed the second murder/rape and this time Baker and his team did have a suspect – local teenager Gavin Hopkirk, who had confessed (in a way) during the interview process. Baker went to Leciester University and asked Jeffreys to help him prove that Hopkirk did it; Jeffreys, with his DNA profiling, proved that he didn’t. Baker was at once distraught and relieved.
Because of these two equally interesting narratives – and the eventual convergence of the two – Code Of A Killer proved to be an engrossing watch. And because it was from an age where high-speed internet and 24-hour rolling news channels were a thing of the future, there was a refreshingly old-school feel to it all as Baker had to rely on his way of doing things that had been tried and tested for years – looking for clues, questioning people, taking statements.
In fact the whole thing reeked of the 1980s, and full marks to the production designers for recreating that musty, dark-wooded ambience that imbued many a working-class, 1960s-built house in any provincial town or village during that period. As a Child Of The 80s myself, and also growing up in a Midlands village, there were a lot of details that rang true – I could almost smell the cigarette smoke and the furniture polish, see the Cortinas, Capris and Escorts parked in the streets, see they strange wallpaper and carpets and hear the quiet buzz of village life. Buildings in cities (in this case Leicester) were grey and Brutalist, oddly beautiful but a hangover from the post-war rebuilding efforts that took place across the country, their futuristic glimmer long faded into a uniform greyness. But there were also tape recorders, early computers, car air fresheners, enormous spectacles and all the ephemera I remembered from that period. There was also a nice reference to a ‘new band’ called The Smiths.
And this sense of history and place produced some very anti-CSI montages while Jeffreys worked in his lab. Yes there were musical sequences as he injected things into things and machines whirred around, but because it was the 1980s even these little segues felt low-tech.
Aside from the nostalgiagasms, at its heart Code Of A Killer was about two obsessive and skilled men at work, driven by sense of justice. Now they’re working together I can’t wait to see how they cracked the case.
To read our interview with David Threlfall go here
To read our interview with John Simm go here