One show I forgot to mention in last week’s 10 Best Crime Dramas Of The Week was this radio play, The Thrill Of Love. We don’t cover nearly enough radio crime dramas here at The Killing Times, which is a shame because radio is perhaps my favourite medium. But… when I saw that this new, one-hour story – produced by the excellent Savvy Productions, starring Maxine Peake, Siobhan Finneran and Joe Armstrong, and written by Amanda Whittington – was to tell the Ruth Ellis story (the infamous killer who became the last woman in the UK to be hanged) I was immediately onboard. In fact, if I had remembered to put it into my round-up, it would have surely been number one.
The Ruth Ellis story has always held a grim fascination for me: she populated that seedy Soho club world of the 1950s, and was an enigma. Like so many before and after, she was drawn to the bright lights in the big city, her movie star beauty and quick wit helping her to get a job as a hostess. She fraternised with stars, celebrities, politicians and sports stars. She was living the dream. Or the nightmare, depending on which way you look at it. I was too young to watch Dance With A Stranger when it first came out, but had read bits and pieces about the story – her story – without ever going too deeply into it. It was the photographs of her that ignited my fascination: the 50s platinum blonde; the gaze frozen in the flash of a bulb, a gaze frozen in time. A life being lived. High cheekbones, coiffured hair. A sadness in the eyes. A woman who had everything and nothing.
Add to all this the fact that Maxine Peake (who I will watch in anything and listen to anything she appears in) was playing Ellis and this was a bit of a no-brainer for me.
In any story that’s been told and told again, and the ending well known, it’s a difficult ask to keep tension high and the story going, but impressively writer Amanda Whittington (who also wrote the play) does an outstanding job creating characters and scenes that add so much flesh to the bone and adding new dimensions to the story.
The Thrill Of Love opens in fine, evocative style with Peake coarsely singing along to Billie Holiday’s ‘Taint No Body’s Business If I Do until she calls out her lover David Blakely’s name and shots ring out. And this is what you get in this outstanding production throughout – well-used effects and lashings of Billie Holiday.
The story, which seems to be based, in part, on Carol Ann Lee’s book A Fine Day For Hanging (that argues that Ellis had shielded another of her lover’s involvement in the murder), paints Ellis – at first – as a decadent society girl with a withering, cynical edge, working at The Court Club, near to Bond Street in London. She’s under the tutelage and stewardship of Sylvia Shaw (Finneran), a brassy madam who looks after her girls and has seen it all before (“I don’t do ablutions or dressings”). What she’s seeing in Ellis is a woman who’s under the spell of Blakely, a hotshot racing driver but also a drinker, a philanderer and an abuser. It’s these scenes between Ellis and Shaw, as well as newer club girls Vicky Martin and Doris Judd, that adds a human dimension and socio-economic dimension to the story that hasn’t previously been explored. It was post-war Britain and London was stepping out of the shadow of war – its streets teeming with people who were beginning to dare to dream again. Indeed, the conversations between Ellis and Martin, talking about their men and their dreams of wealth and stardom are not only touching and funny but, crucially, rooted in historical context.
It’s not long until Ellis gets a promotion to a club down on the King’s Road, where she gets a shot at running the place. But this escalation in responsibility in her professional life juxtaposes with the fragility of her personal life. Blakely, who she loves passionately to the point of obsession, becomes ever more possessive and abusive, and, subsequently, Ellis’s mental state begins to crumble. Make no mistake, this is a story about a woman coming to terms with domestic abuse, in a world where women are decorative and used for the pleasure of men. Self-esteem is low, and they know their place. They also know that it’s difficult to escape a world like this; a world that gives them celebrity and wealth but a world they did not construct and cannot control. As Ellis begins to come apart at the seams – drinking more, taking more and more beatings – Peake puts in an outstanding performance, her voice becoming more and more cracked with every extra gulp of gin.
Concurrent to this heartbreaking story is the narration by Inspector Jack Gale (Joe Armstrong), who comes across like a Cockney Marlowe. Some of his dialogue is sparkling, and so noir you could walk it down a dark alleyway and put a Fedora on it. Check this sequence out: “Midnight. Bottle of scotch, half full. Cigarettes. Case file. The story of what, where and when. Needle on wax. The singer. The song. Beneath her the hiss of static, with a melody all of its own.” And this: “You couldn’t swing a cat in here, but boy, did it swing.”
As a self-professed lover of noir, I was in heaven with some of Gale’s dialogue. But Gale wasn’t just there for narration and plot propulsion. No, he had a feeling that Ellis was hiding something. There was no doubt that she had done what she had done, but in her first statement she said that she had owned the gun she shot Blakely with for several years, a gift from a client. But the gun, Gale thought, was too well oiled to have been just taken out of a drawer and used for the first time in years. No, the gun had been prepared for her to carry out this act. All fingers pointed to besotted lover number two, Desmond Cussen. Despite Gale’s fervent pleas for the truth, Ellis declined to fully and completely implicate Cussen. She knew she was doomed. It was what happened to girls like her.
Before I sign off, here’s another sample of the exquisite dialogue that peppered this outstanding drama:
Doris Judd: “Mrs Ellis, what is it about him?”
Ruth Elllis: “They call it chemistry, dear.”
Vicky Martin: “So was Hiroshima, ma’am.”
Lines to die for.
The Thrill Of Love is available to listen on iPlayer for 29 days (as of Saturday 5th November)