REVIEW The Pembrokeshire Murders (S1 E1/3)

The hottest sub-genre of crime drama is undoubtedly the true-crime adaptation.

As regular readers will know, I’m not the biggest fan because, well… why not just watch a really good documentary on any given subject, rather than watch a fictionalised account of something that affects families and people who survived the trauma?

The next in a long line of true-crime adaptations is ITV’s three-part The Pembrokeshire Murders, a retelling of a cold case from the mid-2000s.

Starring Luke Evans as DCI Steve Wilkins, it absolutely dives head-first into the subject matter. There isn’t much set-up, not much laying down the bedrock of characters… it’s straight into it.

So much so, I really found myself a bit lost – I had to go and read a bit about the case to get up to speed.

DCI Wilkins – a hotshot policeman returned from London – is intent on reopening a double murder case from the 1980s. In 1985, brother and sister Richard and Helen Thomas were killed, while four years later in 1989, husband and wife tourists, Peter and Gwenda Dixon, were murdered in similar fashion… by shotgun.

The difference now was that DNA forensics had taken a big leap forward, and Wilkins was intent on reopening these sort of investigations. Bloody big-city cops, coming back here with their fancy DNA and modern investigative techniques.

However, such was the sensitivity of both cases – and the impact that they could have on the reputation of the local police force – he had to tread carefully. So, he set up a covert investigative team – Ottowa – in order to get to the bottom of it.

They did have an adventage – a prime suspect was already in place.

John William Cooper was already doing time for burglary and robberies, so the particular wrinkle of The Pembrokeshire Murders was to find the evidence to nail him. Not a whodunit, but story of bringing someone to justice, and the twists and turns that can take.

There weren’t too many twists and turns in the first episode – it was all about establishing the characters, and laying down what Cooper (played by Keith Allen) was all about. In many ways, he was the traditional serial killer bogeyman. He was pictured behind bars, walking slowly from one place to the next and, tellingly, throwing darts into a board in his cell. He also spoke dreadfully to his wife during meeting times (manipulation, aggression and the worst kind of spousal abuse), which all makes him out to be a very bad man indeed.

What was clever about this episode and set-up was that Wilkins and his Ottowa team had decided to employ a hotshot forensics person who had worked on some high-profile cases. But the problem was that they had only so much budget and time to play with (Cooper was due to be released on remand at any moment). The team had to pick and choose the objects they thought the forensics expert might be able work with very carefully – one wrong object and budget was wasted and time was lost.

It added some jeopardy to proceedings, and felt almost like a strange kind of gameshow.

Another of the more interesting aspects of this first episode was the broken son of Cooper, Andrew. Now an adult, and living in relative anonymity, he was suffering – he looked as though he was a substance addict, had trouble what happened to him as a child, and had to have regular physio on painful-looking injuries sustained long ago but ones that still plague him today.

When, at the end of the episode, he overdosed on what looked like pain relieving medication by the side of some train tracks, you felt for him, and it was a reminder that the tentacles of crime and those who commit crime are still far-reaching.

Paul Hirons

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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