On 19 August 2004, 22-year-old French student Amélie Delagrange was attacked and left for dead while she was walking home through the west London suburb of Twickenham.
On 24 April 2018, residents woke to discover police tape once again sealing off Twickenham Green, the place of her murder. Men in white protective suits, posters pinned to trees and “Can you help?” witness appeals all pointed to a gut-wrenching case of déjà vu.
Except this time they were just props, used by the makers of ITV’s drama Manhunt in their depiction of the police investigation into Amélie’s death and the subsequent conviction of Levi Bellfield for her murder, and also the murders of Milly Dowler and Marsha McDonnell.
“We took the decision to try to be as authentic as we possibly could,” says writer Ed Whitmore. “If you decide to be authentic about A, B and C, then why not D, E and F? If we had filmed somewhere else and called it Twickenham Green people would have said, ‘That’s not Twickenham Green’. If you call it something other than Twickenham Green you’re starting to stray away from the real story you’re telling. Then you’re in more treacherous waters because you could be accused of playing fast and loose with the truth, which is serious.”
The truth about what really happened on Twickenham Green is, of course, appalling, and Whitmore accepts that a script so closely mirroring an awful, and still familiar, reality risks triggering renewed pain for the families of those involved, although the show’s executive has insisted it would never have gone ahead if any of them had objected. “Whenever you base a drama on real events you run that risk,” says Whitmore. “But if you can look yourself in the eye and say that you’re telling the story for a good reason and you’re doing so with integrity, respect and sensitivity, then I think it is legitimate.”
The “reason” cited by Whitmore is an important one. For it’s right to point out this thoughtfully made drama is not a murder re-enactment. Based, as it is, on the memoirs of the detective who led the investigation, DCI Colin Sutton (Martin Clunes), it tells the story of one man’s tenacious pursuit of Amélie’s killer, a manhunt that led him to connect Bellfield to two previous murders.
“This is not a thriller,” says Whitmore. “We took the decision very early on to take any melodrama out of it. Our fundamental aim was to put the audience in the shoes of Colin Sutton. When he got the case he said it would be the most important thing in his life. Whatever it took, he was going to bring Amélie’s killer to justice. It was a heroic line to take in many ways, and obviously there were repercussions to that.” Sutton’s marriage, shown to be under pressure in the drama, later collapsed.
It’s true, also, that the retelling of this story — across three consecutive nights — will have repercussions for the three families involved. All have been consulted about the drama and consented — or rather didn’t dissent — to it being made. All three have been sent the film to watch and RT understands that the McDonnells and Dowlers have seen it, though have yet to comment.
It’s reasonable to assume, however, that Milly’s family wouldn’t have been happy about a film crew returning to the precise spot in Walton-on-Thames where the 13-year-old was last seen, almost to the day of the 16th anniversary of her disappearance.
Whitmore accepts that was wrong. “It’s unfortunate if you are insensitive in any way when making a drama like this because there is already the potential to cause upset. That was unfortunate timing, definitely.” He hopes, though, that the families and viewers will see the drama for what it is, a vindication of one man’s tireless pursuit of a brutal killer. “My overwhelming sense is that the families were supportive of seeing Colin’s story told, because to them he is a hero. He’s the man who caught Levi Bellfield, and that’s a story worth telling.”
Manhunt airs nightly from Sunday 6th to Tuesday 8th January – at 9pm on ITV