The chilling true story of Victorian serial killer Mary Ann Cotton
★★★½ ITV, Monday, 31 October, 9pm
FEMALE SERIAL KILLERS are a rare breed, but Victorian England produced a couple, of which poisoner Mary Ann Cotton was a particularly notorious.
ITV has lined up a strong cast, including Downton‘s Joanne Froggatt in the lead role and Alun Armstrong, to bring her to life in two two-hour episodes. Adaptations of true crimes are a speciality of the channel and they have a strong track record in giving dramatic but sensitive insight into the horrors of Fred West, the Yorkshire Ripper and the Moors Murderers.
We first meet Mary Ann as a 24-year-old apparently loving wife and mother in 1854, newly returned to her native North East of England. But faced with poverty and an ailing husband, we see how ruthless she is in pursuing her desires – and a better life.
Arsenic and life insurance
Grim poverty is the backdrop to this chilling tale. The couple move to Sunderland for husband Billy’s work, but Mary Ann is furious when he tells her he is too sick to work.
A life of bedbugs, scrubbing and a screaming baby is all she has. Having also lost five infants, her state of mind is probably not all that balanced. That Billy has life insurance and there is a bottle of arsenic in the kitchen offers her a terrible way out.
Portraying these events at the distance of more than a century means quite a few imaginative leaps have to be made. The resulting drama is not entirely convincing at times, but this is such an extraordinary story that it is still compelling.
Joanne Froggatt as Mary Ann
Adultery, bigamy, fraud and murder are all part of Mary Ann’s escape from the iniquities of Victorian society. Joanne Froggatt is very watchable as the hardened woman whose solution to surviving a brutal world is to be more brutal still.
Poison was a popular 19th-century method of gaining an inheritance, and Victorian society found the prospect of a female serial murderer particularly repugnant.
There is some controversy about whether she was truly the monster depicted in the nursery rhyme (Sing, sing, oh, what can I sing? Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string. Where, where? Up in the air, sellin’ black puddens a penny a pair). However, she left such a trail of victims, there seems little doubt she was a psychopath.
And Joanne Froggatt makes the case well enough here.