In last week’s first episode of this intriguing and excellent two-parter, we saw David Threlfall’s DCI David Baker and his team investigate the double murder of two teenage girls in rural Leicestershire. Running out of leads (and funds), he joined forces with leading geneticist Alec Jeffreys at the local university, who had been undertaking his own investigation – to come up with a way to unlock the mysteries of DNA. When Jeffreys had cracked the code and invented genetic fingerprinting, Baker went to him for help. Two men on two obsessive quests were now joined together. But having DNA profiling available to them was one thing, how to use it to catch a killer was another thing entirely, especially as Jeffreys’ techniques had eliminated a sure-fire suspect.
“A needle in a bloody haystack,” sighed one of Baker’s team as they hit yet another brick wall. Jeffreys, meanwhile, was seeing a huge turn-out to his lectures, thanks to the publicity of his DNA profiling and the fact that it exonerated a sure-fire suspect who had apparently given a confession during questioning. His techniques were being scotched and furious locals were angry at the fact that, thanks to his profiling, justice was not being meted out as quickly as they wanted it to. The Mob had demanded a swift resolution, but the DNA profiling had lengthened the investigation.
It was the same for Baker and his team. They wanted to nail Gavin Hopkirk but now they were back to square one, facing more work, more combing through files, statements and leads again to find something new.
But Baker had an idea. An ambitious idea but an idea nonetheless. Because research suggested that serial killers tended to live in a five-mile radius of the murders they perpetrate, he asked Jeffreys if it was possible to blood test every man of a certain age in that five-mile radius to see if they could come up with a match. They already had the code, now all they had to do was find someone to match it to. Jeffreys said it was possible, but they were talking about tens of thousands of samples, costing £100 per person and having to send the huge amount of samples to a specialist lab.
Baker and Jeffreys had to not only convince the Home Office this was a good idea (it was only finally pushed through thanks to Thatcher herself) but also the local community – very real fears of an infringement of civil liberties and a case of ‘treating everyone like they’re guilty’ were bubbling up during an emotional community meeting.
The project was go. Despite their fears, Baker and Jeffreys were shocked on the first day when the doors opened to the community centre – the queue stretched around the block. And so the testing started. And it continued through the months without any matches. Doubts started to creep in, both from the community, the police team and those up above, anxious because of the huge expense of the operation.
Just as they were running out of time, they got a tip-off – a woman had overheard a man called Ian Wendy had provided a sample on behalf of another man. Finally a breakthrough – it led them to Colin Pitchfork, who had coerced a gullible employee to give blood on his behalf. Pitchfork had previous. He was a thug. He was bang to rights.
As Jeffreys, who had been suffering from glandular fever during the screenings, emerged victorious from the lab to confirm Pitchfork’s DNA matched the code from the killer, Baker was quietly triumphant. The first thing he did was to telephone the parents to tell them the good news.
As he returned to the station to cheers and popping corks, he almost slumped in his seat, forgoing the celebrations for a quiet moment in his office to reflect on the horrors of the world. He had helped to spearhead a revolutionary new way to investigate crime, but the overriding fact remained – no matter what kind of investigation technology had evolved into, it wouldn’t bring back the victims of hideous crime. This sort of reflection was that of a sensitive, dedicated man. He had also peered into the abyss and would be changed forever.
David Threlfall played this man superbly. Wise, obsessive and caring, he was an old school community copper who was open-minded enough to let new technology aid his investigations. John Simm, too, while playing a very different role to what we’ve seen him play before, was also excellent as Alec Jeffreys.
It was a thrilling, intriguing story. If the first episode was more of a traditional police procedural, this second episode felt more like docu-drama. This isn’t a criticism as the story was strong enough to accommodate these differing styles, but it did have an impact on the script. Any project that has an established narrative to follow falls foul to an almost joining-the-dots expediency. And so it proved with the Code Of A Killer’s second episode.
Despite that, it was very well acted and well produced, bringing the 1980s to life with spot-on detail. We saw the unrevealed killer drive around in his car, an air freshener popular at the time dangling from his rear-view mirror, for instance. The ephemera of the every-day, a killer lurking within the normality of it all. A killer who had viciously taken the lives of two teenage girls who were on the cusp of adulthood. A killer who had finally been caught in a fast-moving decade thanks to a technqiue that would mean the world would never be the same again.
For our review of episode one of Code of A Killer, go here
For our interview with crime novelist Maureen Carter, a reporter on Midlands TV news in the 1980s, go here