The story of ‘Britain’s first serial killer’, Mary Ann Cotton, is a rarely told tale, and this Halloween ITV treated us to the first of a two-parter that delved back into the harsh Victorian lives of folk up in the northeast. There’s was a world of god-fearing men, women used as baby-making machines and the first notions of a legal system that provided life insurance for those who had the where-with-all to take out a policy. Mary Ann Cotton took full advantage of this, murdering up to 21 people, including husbands, lovers and children… basically anyone who stood in her way.
The two-parter starred Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt as Cotton, and immediately we were thrown into her helter-skelter world. A woman’s life back in the mid-19th century consisted of back-breaking work, satisfying their men and bearing babies. Baby after baby after baby after baby. When we first met Mary she had five children and was married to a miner. Four of them died of gastric fever. Already I wasn’t sure what was going on because there seemed to be such death here – every five minutes a little wooden coffin was lowered into the ground. It was a hard, heartbreaking life without any emotional respite.
And so it continued. It felt like I was watching this but someone was pressing fast forward on a remote control, such was the pace and the sheer amount of people coming and going.
But somehow it was good. Somehow you were drawn into Froggatt’s performance as a woman who was worn down by cleaning, intercourse and the almost constant delivery of children. I can’t have another baby, she said, but then we cut to her standing in the middle of a grimy alleyway holding her stomach, heavily pregnant.
This was a woman who cleaned, took care of her many, many children and was on the verge of falling apart.
So when she found her bed infested by bugs (the size of mice) and was given arsenic to kill them, an idea sparked inside her. She was fed up of everyone else around her failing her; it was time to take action (albeit the most heinous kind). She killed off her husband, and then another. Children died, too. A step mother died. She was on the rollercoaster; she had opened pandora’s box. She received life insurance. She was being rewarded for her actions. She saw a way out of the drudgery.
And it was this context, however frenetically told, that gave this onscreen character at least an extra dimension to her murderous patina: what started out as a determination to provide for her family turned into murderous compulsion, and anyone who stood in her way or threatened her was soon being bumped off. Whenever we saw her make a pot of tea – the camera often focusing narrowly onto the tea-making process – we knew it was more than Tetley she’d put in there. Never has a teapot looked more menacing.
Towards the end of the episode, we saw her infiltrate a posh, grief-stricken (but feckless) doctor’s household, much to the chagrin of his sister. She’s probably going to make a cup of tea for her, too.