We often claim to feel humbled or moved by documentaries; in awe of the subjects’ bravery, fortitude or simple misfortune. Those statements will be harder to make convincingly in comparison to The Murder Workers (Thursday C4; 4oD), an unadorned and quite astonishing look at the work of Victim Support’s National Homicide Team. When someone’s loved one is murdered, these are the people who have to visit a few days later and do what cannot ever be done: make it better.
One of the team, Alli, said the hardest question she has to face is: “Am I ever going to be better?” Since nothing can really assuage grief (“Some families adjust to managing it”), The Murder Workers was more about all the other crap that washes up afterwards. The person left behind has their life taken away and replaced with baffling administration, unanswered questions and months where nothing gets done because nothing feels right or real. We learnt that the average family bereaved by murder loses £37,000 in the subsequent financial upheaval.
Sharon in Plymouth couldn’t pick out a dress to bury her daughter in, because the killing was unsolved and her daughter’s flat was still a sealed-off crime scene. Her to-do list: reclaim Sallyann’s body from the autopsy (“I want her brain back”), apply for a grant to pay for a funeral, hold a funeral.
Admittedly the film refined its impact by choosing extreme cases. Marie, whose son Lee had been beaten to death by four doormen in Germany, had to Google Translate court documents letter by letter and faced 29 separate trips to legal proceedings. Her support worker Carol prepared her for being in a room with the killers.
Carol was clipped and direct like a headmistress and unswervingly professional, but with a river of magnificent compassion underneath. She and Marie shared a unique, never-let-you-go bond that effortlessly spanned the class gap between them, and wasn’t diminished by Carol having to cultivate the same bond with several other people in the same week.
“I know the hardest part for you will be seeing those… assholes,” said Carol, pausing very briefly to choose the best word and finding one that sounded almost comical coming out of her mouth, but which got the required mix of anger and pity. Knowing what to say was the murder workers’ great skill, and it was all the more moving when they did it with something awkward or prosaic.
Still there was a more shocking case. Jackie in Kent was looking after her three grandchildren because their father had stabbed their mother to death in the family home. The youngest, Maisie, went through a photo album with the specialists from bereavement charity Winston’s Wish. She put her hand over her dad’s face in each one. Then she described how she’d seen Daddy killing Mummy, before “phoning the police and blaming it on Mummy”.
These kids might have had as good a chance as anyone featured in the film of coming out the other side intact. The main crap Jackie had to deal with was 13-year-old Kallum staying in his room all day, playing XBox and refusing to communicate, like a teenager. When he was coaxed down to talk to Winston’s Wish and started unravelling what had happened to him, it was a scene so delicate, beautiful and appalling, you couldn’t believe you were witnessing it and you wondered if you should.
Concerns about the documentary intruding on private hells had to be laid aside, however, when it was explained to Kallum that not everything that was being filmed was going to be on the telly, and that he could talk to (unseen film-maker) Jessie Versluys about that. Suddenly seeming five or ten years beyond his real age – before long he’d be relating how he’d once narrowly decided against killing his dad to stop the ongoing abuse – Kallum replied. He calmly summed up why, presumably, everyone involved had allowed such deep access. “I need people to know what it’s like.”
Unfortunate to be on in the same week as The Murder Workers, but still culpable: The Fall (Mondays BBC2, iPlayer), another drama where a serial killer picks off attractive lone women.
Funky, gentrified Belfast, the present day: a grief counsellor, played by Jamie Dornan, was the strangler, and a senior Met Police detective, played by Gillian Anderson, was the supercop shipped in to despatch an unsolved case she would soon see was part of a pattern. A slightly confusing opening episode saw Dornan stalk his next victim while Anderson analysed the earlier death of a similar-looking woman.
The Fall had a sheen of class, all on the surface. Scenes took place in wine bars, nice houses and expensive hotel suites. Lighting was set to coffee-and-petits-fours dim, hiding the bog-standard coincidences and close shaves. It moved slowly, often content to let Anderson and Dornan, separately and for very different reasons, stare at things inscrutably. After one hour of five, we have no idea why Dornan’s character kills, knowing only that his insane misogyny clashes with having a wife and two children at home – a point that was hammered in.
What was left was a lot of creep and dread, since we knew immediately that a headstrong, sexy architect was going to be throttled in her bed, but had to wait for it happen. In between, the killer was watching her: in the park on the next bench along; click-clacking up the path to a dark house; inside, spooked by noises in the night and the memory of coming home to find her bra, knickers and vibrator laid out on the duvet, which was how the game started.
Tension, ie entertainment, came from waiting for a character who had been made to feel afraid and sexually vulnerable have those fears confirmed. We took on the viewpoint of the killer. When the murder occurred, the camera lingered on the victim’s terrified eyes a little too long. Well shod as it is, The Fall so far is a pant-sniffing heavy breather.