When ITV announced that it had commissioned new 'Yorkshire Ripper' drama The Long Shadow, I had two initial thoughts, the first being: 'Of course'.


Peter Sutcliffe and his crimes have been documented extensively in books, on podcasts, in the press and on our screens, so why would that suddenly change?

The media produces, we consume, and so the cycle continues.

My second thought was: 'Is this really necessary?'

Given the aforementioned media on Sutcliffe's heinous transgressions, what purpose does it serve to dredge it all up yet again? Is there really a moral imperative, or is it just about feeding our collective morbid fascination with true crime?

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That question was anticipated by ITV and addressed in the press release, which emphasised that this particular re-telling would place the "victims, their families and the survivors at the heart of this series", bringing "a new perspective to a well-documented story".

Regardless, I was still sceptical. We've all seen instances where, despite those assurances, the promise has not been met.

But in the first episode, which aired tonight, screenwriter George Kay kept his word.

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The shadow of Sutcliffe looms large as the murders begin, but we don't meet him. In fact, he doesn't appear until the final two episodes and even then, his inclusion is brief.

If you're looking for a psychoanalysis of the serial killer or an in-depth look at his life, you won't find it here.

Instead, the women he preyed upon are placed front and centre, which was absolutely the right approach to take and aligns with the changing of the drama's original title from The Yorkshire Ripper to The Long Shadow.

Gemma Laurie as Wilma in The Long Shadow
Gemma Laurie as Wilma in The Long Shadow. New Pictures for ITV

Given the scale of Sutcliffe's crimes and the sheer amount of information Kay wanted to include, we spend varying levels of time with the women Sutcliffe harmed. But even those who only appear briefly, such as Wilma McCann, feel like individuals within their own right and not just the "Yorkshire Ripper's victims", reduced to "prostitutes", often incorrectly, or a poster on the side of a police van.

Wilma, the first woman he murdered and one of those wrongly labelled a "prostitute", had four children who woke to find that their mother had not returned home from a night out. They were later told that she would never step through their front door again, a moment of acute devastation that stays with you long after as you consider what that crushing blow would do to anyone, particularly a child.

Wilma's son Richard McCann was also full of praise for the way in which the drama gave a fleeting insight into his mother's love for him and his siblings.

"What came through for me when I watched that first part was it demonstrated the love that mum had for us," he told RadioTimes.com exclusively. "She was putting us to bed, and you saw that beautiful moment where she was putting us to bed and she puts the coat over us, because that is something mum did, just to make it a little bit warmer.

"I know it's almost insignificant, but for me, having for many years experienced that negativity associated with mum and her reputation, to see those beautiful moments like that is just beautiful."

Alexa Goddall as Sonic MCCann and Dylan Hall as Richard McCann in The Long Shadow
Alexa Goodall as Sonia McCann and Dylan Hall as Richard McCann in The Long Shadow. New Pictures for ITV

The drama opens with archive footage from the seventies to impart crucial context about the state of the country at that time, including the significant hikes in the cost of living and disillusioned workers striking for better pay and conditions.

Sounds familiar.

That's vital in understanding how Emily Jackson (played by Katherine Kelly), a strong, proud, spirited woman who cherished her children and loved to dance, found herself climbing into Sutcliffe's car and heading off into the night, a journey from which she also never returned.

With mounting debts and no obvious way out of the mire, Emily felt the only viable way to stay afloat and avoid the judgement and pity from her neighbours was to take up sex work.

"I'm not having those people thinking we don't have money," she said to her husband Sydney after donating the last note in her purse to some carol singers.

There was a similar pattern in 2021 when women whose jobs had been negatively impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic turned to sex work to ease their own financial woes.

The Jacksons were just one of countless families who bore the brunt of government neglect, and The Long Shadow wants us to take a long hard look at the powers that be, both those who make the laws and those who uphold them, for the role they played in facilitating an environment in which Sutcliffe was able to thrive.

It asks us to continually question their behaviour and hold them to account.

David Morrissey as DCS George Oldfield, Steven Waddington as DS Dick Holland and Lee Ingleby as DCS Jim Hobson in The Long Shadow
David Morrissey as DCS George Oldfield, Steven Waddington as DS Dick Holland and Lee Ingleby as DCS Jim Hobson in The Long Shadow. New Pictures for ITV

The Long Shadow also wants us to look at ourselves and consider what role we - the public - play in such cases.

Detective Dennis Hoban (played by Toby Jones) talks about "perception" when discussing how to present the information surrounding Wilma's murder to the local community.

The police believed that she was a sex worker, which not only coloured the attitudes of some of the officers working on the case, in turn having a detrimental effect on the investigation itself as you'll see in episode 2, but Hoban was also concerned that they would lose the public's empathy and interest if that news was publicised.

That feeds into the idea of the perfect victim: who deserves our sympathy, and who deserves our judgement? It casts the spotlight directly on the viewership, some of whom might find themselves questioning the actions of the women themselves – why was she drunk? why did she take a ride with a stranger? – before correcting themselves and recognising that whatever so-called risks they took, our judgment must only ever lie with Sutcliffe.

Katherine Kelly as Emily Jackson in The Long Shadow wearing a chequered coat
Katherine Kelly as Emily Jackson in The Long Shadow. New Pictures for ITV

There will be some viewers who will still have a cynical view of The Long Shadow, even after tuning in, unconvinced that this especially grisly period in British history needs to be revisited.

And regardless of the reason for its making, the series is a piece of entertainment. For all of The Long Shadow's merits, I did find myself conflicted during scenes when it leaned into its role as a drama, utilising an unsettling score or having the camera linger on Wilma and Emily as they inched closer to their deaths.

That also feeds into how the wider public consumes true crime. 'So excited for this', 'Looking forward to this' and 'Starts tomorrow night whoop' are just some of the comments you can expect to find on social media posts promoting the series. Viewing these types of stories through that prism can leave an uncomfortable taste in one's mouth.

There's also the unheard voices of Wilma, Emily and the other women killed by Sutcliffe. Would they want those moments broadcast? Possibly, but there can be no right of reply for those who cannot speak.

But, if we are to go down that road again, this was absolutely the right way to do it, with the facts handled as sensitively as possible – and crucially, with Sutcliffe only included when required.

He is integral to this story - but this is not about him, with one particular comment from Detective Hoban really getting to the heart of why Kay felt compelled to re-visit the 13 women who were murdered, the seven others Sutcliffe attempted to murder, and the others we don't know about.

After coming up short following their initial efforts to uncover the man responsible for Wilma's murder, he talks about the importance of continuing to knock on doors and hand out leaflets to ensure that people don't forget about her.

In that context, Hoban is talking specifically about securing a breakthrough and solving the crime, but for Kay, it's undoubtedly about ensuring these women don't "fade from people's minds", and that we know exactly who they were, even if it's just a glimmer, before they were forever tied to Sutcliffe.

The Long Shadow airs on ITV1 and ITVX. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what's on.


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