The real-life story of 1940s and 50s serial killer John Christie has been told before (famously in a 1971 film starring Richard Attenborough). What made Christie’s heinous crimes even worse was that there was a shocking miscarriage of justice during the investigation, which allowed Christie to carry on his dark work. There’s no doubt that Christie’s story is a chilling one viewed from every angle, and this three-part re-telling has brought out the big guns to give it some clout – Tim Roth and Samantha Morton star as Christie and his doomed wife, Ethel, with Jodie Comer and Nico Mirallegro as their equally doomed neighbours, Timothy and Beryl Evans. As with all dramas based on real-life events where the facts and endings are known, it’s always interesting to see whether something can keep us gripped and keep us with it.
And keep me gripped it did. Right from the very first, cleverly edited montage – where we were shown exactly what was going to happen and Timothy Evans stepped into a noose, protesting his innocence to the last – I was hooked. It was a bold move to show the end of the story before it had even started; and was a move that trusted its own ability to tell the story well. Within five minutes I had forgotten that ending, so enveloped was I in the all-pervading, creepy atmosphere, the supreme acting skills and deep characterisation.
We first met Ethel Christie at her family home in Yorkshire, where she received a letter from her estranged husband. John Reginald Christie had been missing for nine years until he sent that letter to his wife, and she reconciled with him while he was about to be let out of prison. Why he was there we weren’t sure, but because this episode was entitled ‘Ethel’ we saw things through her eyes, and she was just happy to have her husband back regardless of his misdemeanours.
They moved into 10, Rillington Place in west London and as soon as they entered the ground-floor flat, she sensed an atmosphere – wallpaper was faded, warped and peeling from the walls; it was dank, dark and stale; the colours were muted. It was if they stepped into the kind of black hole that sucked life out of everything and everyone who stepped inside it. Reg, as she called him, said in his calm whisper that they could make something of it, but you could tell that Ethel wasn’t so sure. Throughout the episode the way the street itself and the flat was photographed (all rising mist and black/green tinges) made it feel like it was somewhere otherworldly; a portal to hell.
Ethel’s misgivings about the place slowly materialised and during their humdrum life, Christie left clues to his hidden personality. Up until the stains on the bed, his creepy flirtations and philandering with prostitutes, Tim Roth played Christie as a shuffling, quietly-spoken, seemingly placid man. He lavished his wife with gifts (where from, she’d often ask? “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” he whispered ambivalently) and took her to the pictures. These gestures were designed to to keep her on a psychological leash. This episode was not only a masterclass in acting from Roth and Samantha Morton, but also a masterclass in manipulation from Christie – his quiet putdowns barely registering killer blows, but landing enough jabs to dent his wife’s confidence and question her role within the marriage. His inoffensive manner and unthreatening gait hid insidious motives and sneaky ways of domestic, psychological abuse.
When Ethel finally confronted him about his fraternisation with other women, he exploded into violence, strangling her to within an inch of her life while he looked on impassively, calmly and without expression. And yet she still came back to him. Even when she saw a huge stain on the bed and blood splatter on the frame, she stayed. She even bailed him out of trouble when the husband of a missing woman (Muriel) called round and saw his wife’s coat on the hanger in the hallway. Morton’s acting during this scene (as it had been all episode) was sensational and so beautifully nuanced – in that moment she knew her husband was a killer and she had to make a choice. She chose to tell the husband of the missing woman that it was her coat, thus letting her husband off the hook.
At times Rillington Place felt like a horror film. It was creepy, with the atmosphere of the street and the flat (characters in their own right) always encroaching, always threatening. Roth and Morton were simply superb, and while this first episode was slow and swirled like a nightmare, the Christies’ quiet existence was rudely interrupted right at the end by the arrival of two newlyweds – the twentysomething Timothy and Beryl Evans. They injected colour, energy and life into proceedings, life that would eventually be sucked from them by Christie.