REVIEW: Manhunt (S1 E3/3)

For two episodes, we’ve seen Martin Clunes’ DCI Colin Sutton go on the hunt for the killer of Amélie Delagrange… and Marsha McDonnell… and Milly Dowler. Reports in today’s newspapers suggest that the killer – Levi Bellfield – may have attacked more people.

We’ve seen Sutton battle with his own obsessive nature (that has caused friction with his wife), the Surrey police force who are working on the Dowler case (that has also caused friction with his wife), and internal rumblings within his own team. These may have been real-life undercurrents that actually happened, but they’ve provided a dramatic counterbalance to the procedural investigation.

We left Sutton and the team battling against the clock – they had five days to gather enough evidence to bring Bellfield in before the News Of The World was to run a story naming him as a suspect.

The race was on to find enough evidence to not only arrest Bellfield, but prove he did it. What followed was a tense, extremely well-constructed procedural journey – there were pitfalls, there were breaks in the case, there were frantic searches, there were lots of exasperated swearing and there were mistakes made. Real mistakes made. This helter-skelter journey to justice was enhanced by the appearance of Bellfield himself, which had the same sort of effect as seeing Edmund Kemper in Mindhunter – it was grotesque, it was terrifying and you were thankful that even an actor playing Levi Bellfield was separated from you by a TV screen, so snarling, unstable and horrid was he.

At the centre of it all was Martin Clunes’ DCI Colin Sutton, a man who backed himself and once he got a sniff wouldn’t let go. He formed a very watchable double team with DC Jo Brunt, and it was good to see that she unearthed a crucial piece of evidence near the end. Another crucial piece of evidence? The way Bellfield’s partner – who had put up with years of psychological and physical abuse – had provided Sutton with courageous testimony and, tellingly, gave him the link between her partner and Milly Dowler.

As the evidence built up, there were dead ends and a few head-in-hands moments – Sutton implored his team to continue to be thorough and carry on. He had finally become a Churchill, and the team now took notice.

So what did I make of Manhunt? It was well-made, well acted and to be congratulated on showing respect to the victims and as much of the mundane elements of real police work as possible. Saying all that, and it was a praiseworthy series, I do find these dramatisations difficult to judge. The dialogue was perfunctory and expositionary in the extreme at times and it was very join-the-dots in terms of plotting and pacing. But what was I really expecting? As I said in episode one’s review, writers of dramatisations often find themselves between a rock and a hard place – go too off-road and they’ll be accused of exploitation of sensitive subject matter; stick too close to the facts and they might as well just make a documentary.

Which leads me to an all-pervading question I found myself asking at the end of this: why do we watch these kinds of dramatisations? What value do they have to the drama genre, and what effect do they have on the greater societal psyche? It’s a question that’s always grappled with when it comes to true crime. On the one hand, if you have people coming forward with new information – as in this situation – then it has given people courage and/or jogged their memories, and it has been worth it.

Judging by a lot of the social media reaction to Manhunt – largely very positive, with a lot of people enjoying those hardcore, non-sensationalist procedural elements – people like to shout from their sofas, “MONSTER!” as if Levi Bellfield is a pantomime villain. Manhunt shows he is assuredly not, but there is that element of booing and hissing at a killer on the telly. And, there’s another explanation: we like to be scared, it gives us a rush and the nearer to the real world it is, perhaps the scarier it is and, therefore, the more strangely thrilling it is. Maybe there’s a bit of collective grief here, too, and there’s perhaps the fact that crime fiction and crime drama – even based on real-life events – generally come with a resolution, and is a kind of controlled, hermetically-sealed experience.

Mix all these ingredients up into a bowl and I’m sure the answer is in there somewhere – it’s a question we’ll always continue to ask, especially when it comes to dramatisations of sensitive, tragic, real-life events depicted expertly in Manhunt.

Paul Hirons