I was remember being horrified by the 1971 movie starring Richard Attenborough and John Hurt when I was a teenager. And this sense of horror in turn led to my reading the book of the same name by Ludovic Kennedy and feeling overwhelmed by the weight of tragedy that had smothered and extinguished so many people unlucky enough to have ever met Reginald Christie.
The story of Timothy Evans has a ring of tragic inevitability that has a bell-tolling chime to it that sounds positively Greek. The Fates seemed to have it in for him long before he wound up in Notting Hill. Born with about as few advantages as anyone born in North West Europe can be, unable to read or write more than his own name, a hopeless liar (in the sense of both being addicted to lying and not being very good at it), as soon as his wife was murdered, his own appointment with Albert Pierrepoint seemed irrevocable.
The Evans case teaches us much about winners and losers in criminal justice systems and how evidence is arranged, prioritised and ignored once polices forces are convinced they have “the right man”. And the story of 10 Rillington Place, and Kennedy’s telling of it, and Kennedy himself, tell us a deal about the story of the end of Capital Punishment in Britain.
From a theological point of view, it is instructive to consider that Kennedy, a lifelong atheist, had a more profound sense of the ubiquity of human error and yet the capacity of humans to admit error and repent, than most people calling themselves “Christians”.
As for this BBC adaptation – well, it’s going to be in three parts, following the “perspectives” of Ethel Christie, Timothy Evans, and Christie himself (insofar as Christie could be said to have had anything resembling a “perspective”). Samantha Morton’s portrayal of Ethel Christie depicts someone destroyed by a world in which marital separation was always deemed failure and spousal abandonment always the woman’s fault. As she returns to Rillington Place in the final section of the drama, her previous near fatal strangulation apparently forgiven if never forgotten, the indication of a death sentence being passed is palpable. The wartime blacked out windows (marked with St Andrew’s crosses as cinematic pointer to impending murder) create a sense of impending slaughter as does (in a 1940s context) the chimney bellowing smoke.
The actual London landscape for this drama no longer exists, although it just about did for the 1971 movie. Not only was the street demolished and redeveloped (in the 1970s) in ways that erase the very pattern of the neighborhood, but 1940s London itself cannot be reassembled except with strategic lighting and darkened skies. By contrast, the Richard Fleischer film with its brighter skies and longer shots is better at asserting the normalcy with which this awful house and its occupants presented itself to the world at large. Attenborough’s Christie was able to sustain for a while, the documented truth that Reg Christie, special wartime constable, really was assumed by many to be a respectable pillar of the community. Roth’s Christie, on the other hand, seems like a demented serial killer from the outset. This is partly a function of Roth’s own portrayal, partly a function of the sinister/surreal staging and music, and partly a function of the sequencing. Because we meet Christie through Ethel – who already knows him as a criminal and a liar (to say the least), there is no point at which the veneer of respectability is ever solid enough to be shattered in the first place. Perhaps if the Evans episode had come first, then we would have been given more of an initial context for Christie’s public face and the revelation of his unspeakable crimes would be more chillingly gradual.
But this episode was Morton’s. Neither an independent woman, nor a stupid woman, nor a completely passive woman, nor a woman capable of transcending gendered oppression, Morton’s Ethel can neither escape, submit, nor survive.
Part of me half expected “Stand By Your Man” by Tammy Wynette to play over the closing credits.