The Murder Detectives: a real-life case more harrowing and gripping than any TV drama

Channel 4's three-part film about the investigation into a young man's death is a brilliant, heart-wrenching watch, says Kasia Delgado

What’s it like to solve a murder? We’ve all seen so many cop thrillers that we feel like we know it all – but Channel 4’s three-part documentary about the killing of 19-year-old Nicholas Robinson is more revealing and heart-wrenching than any drama could be.

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“Oh f***ing hell. I have been stabbed really bad” were the last words Nicholas [below] ever spoke, after a brutal attack in the Bristol hostel he lived in last March. 

“Why?” was the first question the Major Crime Investigation Team asked – there was no obvious motive – and then, of course, “Who?”

With no physical identification of the offender, no forensics and no fingerprints, Detective Chief Inspector Andy Bevan faced a murder case that was going to be very tough to solve. 

During the three hour-long films, stripped across three consecutive nights – which only serves to intensify the experience – we go on this journey with Bevan and his team, witnessing the pressures, triumph and pain as they try to find out what actually happened. It’s a gripping watch, as the team face dead-end lines of enquiry, a fearful eyewitness, a concerned local community, and the unpredictable trial itself. Most importantly of all, their desperation to bring justice to Nicholas’s family is palpable. 

And it’s his family, featured throughout, who make it such a harrowing, yet inspiring watch. In a truly horrific twist of fate, this is the second son Nicholas’s mum, Angela Mullins, has lost to violence – her first was killed in a petty disagreement in Jamaica – and now she has no children left.

Their grief is so profound that it’s hard to imagine how they manage to face the day, let alone allow us in on their nightmare, to show how knife crime isn’t just a statistic in the morning papers – it’s a phenomenon that shatters the lives of ordinary people who thought it was going to be another normal day.

When it finally gets to the trial, you’re so invested in the case, the family and Bevan’s team that, whatever you think of prison as an institution, you can’t bear the thought of the suspect not being found guilty of murder and jailed for life. For his mum, dad and fiancee, this is the only way to make any sense of the tragedy. But it’s also sobering to see how the killer, another young man like Nicholas, and his family also have their worlds destroyed by one terrible act of violence.

As the opening narrative of the film states, “Most people lead good lives. Make the right choices between what’s right and what’s wrong. They stay within the lines, until the day comes when they make the wrong call. A decision made in a split second. A young man lying dead. A family desperate to know why…”

Yet as dramatic as the documentary is, there’s no sense of over-editing or manipulation. The twists and turns and emotion of Nicholas’s case, set out chronologically, don’t need to be played up with cliffhanger ad breaks, DUN DUN DUN music, flashbacks or a dramatic, gravelly voice-over. Because the reality of it all is tense and shocking enough.

If you only watch one documentary in 2015, make it this. It’s an example of British TV at it’s best. 

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The Murder Detectives begins on Channel 4 tonight (Monday 30th December) at 9:00pm, and continues for the next two nights