The Long Shadow review: Hard-hitting series walks a dramatic tightrope
The ITV series may not be particularly subtle, but it's a gripping drama with a respectful approach.
"I found that there was a responsibility to keep telling a commercial police story. We must, in order to do those people justice, keep telling a story that grows and becomes narratively compelling. So, we're in this world where we have to do a cop show, as well as a piece on our society. I think there's a sort of interesting tension there."
Is there a justification for dramatising the horrific crimes of a real-life individual for a commercial audience, knowing that there will be viewers coming to it purely for the thrill of the detectives hunting down their man, as they would any other fictional police show?
There is, yes. Whether you agree with it or not is another question, but that justification is that drama helps to illuminate the emotional human story of the victims far better than a straight factual re-telling in a documentary or book ever could, while also helping to reach a wider audience.
However, as Kay says, in order to do that, you first have to make the drama compelling. Nobody will watch if it isn't. You just also have to do so respectfully, sensitively, and with the victims and all those who were affected by the crimes in mind.
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So, how does The Long Shadow do in achieving these goals? Well, for the most part, it succeeds.
The Long Shadow tells the story of the five-year hunt for Peter Sutcliffe, the serial killer who was dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper by the press.
The series tells the story from multiple different angles across the timeline, charting the police investigation through its multiple different lead detectives, while also telling the stories of the victims and their families. Crucially, Sutcliffe's physical presence in the series is minimal, and none of his violence is depicted on screen.
To tell the story from so many angles, a sprawling cast has been assembled, with the likes of Toby Jones, Lee Ingleby, David Morrissey, Katherine Kelly, Daniel Mays, Jasmine Lee-Jones and Jill Halfpenny filling major roles, although that is only scratching the surface.
The reason it's important that such a strong cast has been assembled, even beyond the headliners and the bigger names, is that empathy is key. These actors have to sell the story Kay has crafted here, which is absolutely intending to provoke a reaction, while also embodying the intricacies of these real, fully rounded individuals.
Everyone brings their A-game in wholly different ways, whether it's Jones as the professional, compassionate detective, Ingleby as the cynical, judgmental officer promoted beyond his capabilities or Halfpenny as the grieving mother of one of Sutcliffe's victims.
Particular praise must go to Kelly and Mays, who in the first two episodes manage to captivatingly tell the heartbreaking, complex story of a mother and wife, driven to prostitution to provide for her family, with an absolutely compelling grace and nuance.
This is, of course, also thanks to the writing, and Kay has done excellent work here.
His most recent series based on real historical events was, of course, the four-part drama Litvinenko, but this is definitively a cut above.
While that series also told a long-term true story across a sprawling canvas, and did so competently, it struggled to make each instalment feel part of a whole, or to retain a consistency of approach. The Long Shadow has no such issues.
The show is gripping from start to finish, more than earning its seven hour run-time by packing the episodes with detail. This is evidently extremely thoroughly researched, making the drama as informative as it is emotional.
Where the scripts do sometimes fall down is in the dialogue. Nothing here is left unsaid - if there's ever the chance that someone could have missed an inference or a motivation, a character will make sure to lay it out definitively in as many words as possible.
This is evident from the first half-hour, when Jones's detective explains in explicit detail why he is choosing to forefront the children of Sutcliffe's first murder victim Wilma McCann to the press.
The show has been made with the involvement of a number of those whose lives were impacted by Sutcliffe, whether they be his surviving victims or the families of his victims.
Sutcliffe's crimes reverberated around the entire country at the time, particularly for those in Yorkshire, so it's impossible for everyone to have been consulted.
Some may find that the drama does veer too far into the sensational, and there are moments, particularly a sex scene involving Kelly's Emily Jackson when she first starts engaging in prostitution, which this reviewer feels borders on the gratuitous. Not salacious, but gratuitous.
However, for the most part, the stories of the individuals depicted feels as though they have been tactfully handled, while also being rightfully brought back into the public consciousness. It definitively does not in any way glamorise Sutcliffe, as some previous true crime dramas have been accused of doing with serial killers.
It's a thoughtful and above all impactful piece of drama - once those final moments arrive and the sheer breadth of the police investigations' failings comes into focus, viewers will most likely be left stunned and appalled.
This is not an easy watch, and nor should it be. In the current TV landscape, where binge-watching has become the standard, a week's break between episodes has never seemed like such a good idea.
But it's clear that the intentions from those behind the camera appear to be in the right place, and that they have therefore managed to stick the landing after walking the dramatic tightrope of true crime.
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