There's always an understandable fear when it comes to true crime dramas based on recent real-life tragedies. It's hugely important to get the tone right, to make sure they're not in any way exploitative, and to do justice to the victims and those affected.


There has perhaps been no recent drama as contentious as Maxine, and that's before it even reached our screens. The 2002 Soham murders case, when Ian Huntley murdered 10-year-old girls Holly Marie Wells and Jessica Aimee Chapman, was so horrific and has stuck so deeply in our national consciousness, that even the suggestion of a TV drama depicting the events surrounding it has raised eyebrows.

It's important to say up front that I don't think the drama is disrespectful to the victims - it remains sensitive throughout. In fact, the series doesn't actually depict them or their loved ones whatsoever, choosing instead to put the focus on the murderer Ian Huntley and, more-so, his then-girlfriend Maxine Carr.

Earlier this year, Channel 5's director of programmes Ben Frow said of this decision: "I was very interested in telling the story of, who is Maxine Carr? How did she grow up? What was her upbringing? What life circumstances made her the person she was, so that at that crucial moment, she sided with Ian Huntley over the police in the investigation?"

Frow went on to say that the series is "our story of Maxine Carr's life and her relationship with Ian Huntley – it's not about the Soham murders".

Jemma Carlton as Maxine Carr and Scott Reid Ian Huntley in Maxine.
Jemma Carlton and Scott Reid as Maxine Carr and Ian Huntley in Maxine. Channel 5

I would dispute this - Maxine is absolutely about the murders. It may thankfully not depict the atrocity, but it does centre all of its action around it. There are brief glimpses of Carr's life before 2002, but almost everything else is about the local reaction to the girls' disappearance and the discovery of their murder.

From the press and police investigating and eventually to the legal system, everything revolves around Soham murders. The series therefore needs to be tactful and thoughtful in the message it wants to make in order to make a dramatisation worthwhile. Unfortunately, Maxine doesn't know quite what it wants to say.

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It reminded me of the far superior true crime drama Four Lives, which aired earlier this year on BBC One. That series also depicted and examined a recent murder case, the 2014-2015 Barking murders, but through a completely different lens.

As opposed to Maxine's decision not to depict those grieving at all, Four Lives was entirely about the victims, their friends and their families. It spent some limited time with the murderer Stephen Port, as played by Stephen Merchant, but he was in no way the focus.

That series had a clear point to make - it showed us that these four young men all had rich and full lives, families and friends, in order to then examine failings in the police investigation as they sought justice.

Jemma Carlton in Maxine.
Jemma Carlton in Maxine. Channel 5

Perhaps because the creatives behind Maxine were so aware of how contentious it would be, the series never quite gets to any larger point. Instead, it skirts around numerous potential insights, but never fully commits to them.

Was Carr unduly targeted by the press for Huntley's actions because of her sex? Was she so willing to lie for him because he had been so abusive in their relationship?

Both of these questions are briefly laid out but quickly skirted past, with the drama instead choosing to show us more of Huntley, more of the press, more of the police. It never truly settles on what it wants to be, or to say.

The show's writer Simon Tyrrell recently said that in writing the series, he was "keeping the balance on a knife edge" between viewers potentially warming to Carr as much as being repelled by what she did. He said this was a "big discussion between us all and Channel 5, to ensure we kept that in check".

This comes back to the decision not to depict the lives of the victims or their loved ones. It does mean the drama avoids being disrespectful, but if you can't present those individuals, so central to the story, without being disrespectful, or if you don't have their approval to do so, then should their story have been dramatised at all?

Similarly, if it's impossible to make an insightful point about Carr without falling off the knife edge, then does the drama not just become an exercise in misery and revisited trauma without any real purpose?

Maxine will likely not be the series that some feared it would be. And plaudits have to be given to the cast, particularly newcomer Jemma Carlton who puts in a strong and stirring performance in the central role.

It's just that in dramatising such a painful point in our national history, Channel 5's series really should have had more to say about it than it does.

Maxine continues on Tuesday 11th October at 9pm on Channel 5. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.


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