This week sees the start of a new, three-part crime drama on BBC1, which tells the real-life story of serial killer from the 1940s and 50s, John Christie. Reconciled after living apart for nine years, John Reginald Christie (Tim Roth) and his wife, Ethel (Samantha Morton), move into the ground floor flat of 10 Rillington Place, West London. The adjustment to a new life, in a small, rundown property, is particularly felt by Ethel but she strives to please her husband. Ten years on, Timothy Evans (Nico Mirallegro) and his wife Beryl (Jodie Comer) move into a flat upstairs and fall prey to Christie’s influence and tales. When Beryl becomes pregnant with a second child, already struggling to make ends meet following the birth of baby Geraldine, the Evans allow Christie to help them with deadly consequences for the young newlyweds. We managed to get hold of an interview with Tim, which you can read after the jump.
The Killing Times: Were you aware of the case before joining the project?
Tim Roth: I’d seen the film when I was a kid but I haven’t seen it since, and John Hurt had talked about it when I worked with him. Of course, the case itself we knew about when we were kids. I was born in 1961 so it was recent history and the death penalty was outlawed not long after, with the case and the possibility of Evans’ innocence put forward as one of the reasons. Bogeymen were a thing of kids’ stories at that point and that’s who Christie was.
TKT: How did you feel about taking on the role of John Christie?
TR: The idea of taking him on was really a challenge. I’ve never played anything like this before. It is especially a challenge when someone is so deceitful in a psychopathic way. He deceived the public and he deceived people close to him. He murdered with virtual impunity. He used and abused his power and was allowed to go about his merry way. His circle was quite small but he operated within it well. I can’t believe he got away with hiding the truth in the court room.
TKT: How much do you actually know about Christie?
TR: I know facts about him and I think Attenborough would probably say the same thing that, up to a point, you can peel away the layers but you hit stone after a while. You can’t get to the core of him. But the fact of not being able to get at the inner workings of the man actually says a lot about him. He developed a character, a performance, that was very warm and comforting to people around him, to his neighbours, his peers and people at work. Although his downfall seemed to be that he really loved power and he couldn’t stop himself.
TKT: Why do you feel it’s important to be re-visiting the story?
TR: It will hopefully spark some interest in that case again which, remembering that there’s a whole new generation who will have no idea who Christie and Evans are, I think will be a good thing. The life of Evans before this event is fascinating. That would make an interesting film in itself. If you go back and look at the police work, it’s shoddy. They missed so much as they weren’t looking in the right direction. There was an inherent classism that was at play because they would believe this man and they would never really believe Evans.
TKT: Would you say that Rillington Place itself acted as an accomplice to Christie?
TR: I kind of think it worked against him. There is a certain kind of seclusion but I think in the end it defeated him. They lived in two and a half rooms in pretty grim, box like conditions and he ran out of space. Once he went to walk about, it was only a matter of time before the police would come in and something would be discovered.
TKT: What do you think will draw viewers in to watch it?
TR: People are intrigued, and always have been since the time of Shakespeare, with the devils that are within us. That kind of stuff is always going to be part of human nature. The question then becomes, how do we give justice and respect to the people who died at his hands? If you have a woman who, like Ethel, is quite obviously abused on a psychological and physical level, we have to give her her voice. You can do that in your performance, as Sam does with Ethel. It’s a difficult line that she has to dance around but you owe that to the victims.
Rillington Place, Tuesday 29th November, 9pm, BBC1