This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper — Killer 50 No.37

ITV, 2000
‘You mean he’s going for innocent women now’ – Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield
Alun Armstrong, Richard Ridings, James Laurenson, John Duttine
Identikit: Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield takes over the police investigation into the hunt for the 1970s serial killer known as the Yorkshire Ripper, a campaign that becomes bogged down in errors and data overload.

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Dramatisation of the real-life investigation for the Yorkshire Ripper in the late 1970s, a meticulous and evocative exploration of the human miscalculations and technical shortcomings of the campaign to track down Peter Sutcliffe. Alun Armstrong puts in a powerful performance as Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield, whose health and career come under strain as the investigation stagnates, drinking and smoking his way through most scenes and going from gruff and forceful to a twitching, gasping wreck by the end of this 120-minute drama. Initially, Oldfield’s arrival seems to give the investigation renewed vigour, as he shifts it away from detectives relying on ‘instinct’ and introduces better record keeping and methodology. This approach is not popular at first, one senior officer asking sarcastically, ‘Can you catch a murderer with paperwork?’ However, the police effort is still blighted by blatant sexism (‘innocent’ women who’d been attacked and offered statements were often discounted because the Ripper was only thought to target prostitutes), along with inter-force rivalries and general confusion. As the years pass and the murder toll rises, Yorkshire police collect some 60 conflicting descriptions of the perpetrator. As one officer says, if it turns out to be Quasimodo they’ve probably got a photofit of him somewhere. And Oldfield himself says in exasperation that they’ve checked bearded men, unbearded, soldiers, sailors, engineers, agricultural workers, big men, little men… And then comes the infamous ‘Wearside Jack’ hoax tape, which throws the investigation off the scent of Sutcliffe’s stamping grounds of Leeds/Bradford towards Sunderland. The drama’s title, This Is Personal, refers to the way Oldfield took the hoaxer’s taunts personally and effectively allowed the investigation to be sidetracked. But the drama also evokes the pain and tragedy that the murder spree inflicted on the victims’ families, particularly when Oldfield promises the parents of ‘innocent’ Jayne MacDonald in 1977 to catch the teenager’s killer, a promise that loads more stress and guilt onto the detective. Apart from the killer, though, there are few baddies in this drama, just flawed individuals struggling to do the right thing – which makes it all the sadder. But the investigation was badly bungled. Before he was convicted of killing and mutilating 13 women, Sutcliffe was interviewed by police nine times, and various statements and reports pointing to him as the culprit were buried in the deluge of data coming in (computers were only just being introduced). The force of ITV’s drama was that it was sober, affecting, quite brilliantly acted (particularly by Armstong), and a world away from the clean, tidy format of most fictional cop shows.

Watercooler fact: After This Is Personal, scriptwriter Neil McKay followed up with stints on Heartbeat and Holby City, but also became something of a specialist in the far more difficult discipline of exploring real-life crimes through controversial – but award-winning – dramas such as See No Evil: The Moors Murders and Appropriate Adult (about Fred West).

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