Hush! It’s Tim Roth! Rillington Place Reviewed.
So, we heard from Ethel and we heard from Tim, and finally, we have an episode devoted to the man himself – Reg.
Except of course that we don’t. We don’t understand Christie at all. Instead we’re offered something like a textbook illustration of Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil”. Roth’s Christie exhibits the most banal face you’ve ever seen. Christie on screen (Attenborough or Roth) always reminds me of Heinrich Himmler (more than Eichmann, to whom Arendt was more specifically referring). Christie killed maybe a dozen women, while Himmler killed millions, but the same impassive bespectacled banality is evident in both these faces. Knock as often as you like – there’s nobody home.
Christie spoke very softly, we’re told, a circumstance that Roth makes central to his portrayal. Roth’s Christie voice sounds like Alan Bennett’s unbelievably evil twin from a parallel universe. Christie claimed that World War One gas attacks had left him mute for years and unable to speak loudly ever before. The effect of this quietness, from the point of view of an effectively chilling drama, is that Christie draws you into a tight radius of control. He’s not somebody you can hear and avoid from a safe distance. If you meet him, you’re going to have to lean towards him, just to hear whatever it is he’s saying. His quietness enforces intimacy which in turn enforces claustrophobia and then death.
As a modern retelling of serial killing this was not, after all, a very graphic drama. It was supported by strong central performances and suffocatingly intimate staging and lighting. It was a drama about knowing and not knowing things at one and the same time, a play about silences and willed forgettings.
The story of 10 Rillington Places is a story of things unheard. It is also a story, incidentally, which illustrates how the criminalisation of abortion could enable a murderous predator like Christie. Meanwhile, the story of Evans and Christie has also become a story about capital punishment, thanks to the late Ludovic Kennedy.
Timothy Evans has received a posthumous pardon, but the actual conviction for the murder of his daughter Geraldine has never been overturned. To this day, there are people who believe that there were two murderers at 10 Rillington Place. Evans himself was a terrible liar – in that he lied all the time and was terrible at it. And being a transparent liar while also being the husband and father of murder victims puts you in a terrible judicial position. A cheerful illiterate young man, this BBC drama shows his accent changing when he goes back and forth between London and his native Wales. This is quite bold and believable. My own voice changes quite a bit when I’m in London myself. In this drama, in the final moments of Christie’s life, a priest is desperate to coax a confession from Christie of the murder of Geraldine, but Christie refuses. The implication of the drama is that such a confession would have brought comfort to Evans’ family and Christie enjoyed the final power and sadistic pleasure of withholding it.
Debates about capital punishment often focused on the Evans case, demonstrating the fallibility of the criminal justice and the horrors of judicial murder. When such debates resume, Evans will stand trial again. Nobody can no for certain what happened to Geraldine Evans any more, but the story we’ve just seen dramatised will be told again and again, and will become increasingly politicised.
Post-Brexit, as the political culture within the bits and pieces left over from
Britain becomes increasingly spiteful and retributive and as “human rights” are increasingly denounced as some sort of “metropolitan elitist” imposition, it seems very likely politicians will see cheap and easy votes in bringing back hanging. The cry of “string ’em up” may distract people from the fact that the economy is tanking. And, to the ongoing distress of his family, the weary ghost of Timothy Evans will be invoked by pro and anti death penalty campaigners alike to argue for and against the ability of judges and juries to make final and irrevocable judgments on others.
The story we’ve just seen, we’re going to see over and over and over again.
And the other scary thing is, I’m still trying to figure out whether or not this was or wasn’t Tim Roth’s most sinister role.