A trio of British thrillers for those who prefer authenticity and grit over quaint, pretty villages

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Although it might sometimes seem otherwise, not every British crime drama is set in a cosy village somewhere in the sunny countryside where the colours are inevitably bright and the villages are insufferably quaint. Far from Midsomer, Miss Marple’s St Mary Mead, Father Brown’s Kembleford, and vicar Sidney Chambers’ Grantchester, a trio of recent suspenseful series offers a very different outlook.

The masterful Steeltown Murders (2023, Binge), The Pembrokeshire Murders (2021, BritBox) and the two seasons, so far, of Manhunt (2019-2021, the first on BritBox, the second on 7Plus) are all based on actual cases. They’re rigorously constructed and attentively designed police procedurals shrouded in oppressively gloomy settings, rural or urban. At their heart, they’re also sad stories about the consequences for communities of discovering that there’s a murderer in their midst and about the efforts of the police investigating the cases to ensure that justice is served. The only substantial reward on offer for anyone is the knowledge that it has been.

Martin Clunes plays Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton in Manhunt.

Produced for the BBC by Severn Screen, which is based in Wales, Steeltown Murders is set in Swansea and its rundown surroundings in South Wales. The murder of two teenage girls after a night on the town in 1973 has gone unsolved, despite an extensive police investigation and the targeting of several suspects. Thirty years later, the case is reopened after “new evidence” emerges, with Detective Chief Inspector Paul Bethell (Philip Glenister) in charge, answering to a fledgling “super”, Jackie Roberts (Karen Paullada), who would prefer him to call her “boss” or “Jackie” rather than resort to the old-fashioned “ma’am” (pronounced “marm”).

The four-part series niftily entwines the present and the past, when Paul was a novice (played by Scott Arthur). And it studiously reflects on how times have changed during the intervening years, and how they’ve remained the same. Just as a policeman’s form of address to his female superior has been revised in line with those times, DNA testing has added an invaluable weapon to the arsenals of forensic investigators. “It’s like a very powerful torch,” Bethell explains to his team of two, Phil Rees (Steffan Rhodri) and Geraint Bale (played by his nephew, Gareth John Bale). “It lets you see in the corners you couldn’t see into before.”

But other matters, such as the need for a “multi-focused” approach to the hunt for a killer rather than a “tunnel-vision” one, and the importance of being sensitive to the situations of bereaved family members and friends, remain the same.

Written by Ed Whitmore and directed by Welshman Marc Evans with the real-life Bethell and Rees serving as consultants, Steeltown Murders is no routine police procedural. Taking us inside what it must feel like to do this kind of work, it’s meticulously grounded in the stressful realities that police officers have to deal with as they go about their business.

Alongside the laborious work involved, there are frustrating dead ends, thuggish colleagues who don’t play by the rules, human errors, constant budgetary limitations, and “high-ups” whose primary interests are in covering their backs. Then there’s the cost the work imposes on their lives away from the job, and an ongoing concern for the victims’ loved ones as the police visit and revisit them searching for further clues. A sceptical Rees worries to Bethell about the human cost, asking, “What if all we do is upend their lives and rip off the scabs that have helped them to carry on?”

Cast in muted browns, greys and yellows, the series’ locations speak of life as an ongoing struggle for those who live in the endless rows of semi-detached houses, whose existence is forever shadowed by polluting smokestacks and abandoned steel factories, and who have little to look forward to aside from a place in the local church cemetery alongside a motorway.

Made before Steeltown Murders, both The Pembrokeshire Murders and Manhunt are very much companion pieces to it. Evans directed them all. Manhunt and The Pembrokeshire Murders are based on memoirs written by the chief detectives involved, respectively Colin Sutton (diaries) and Steve Wilkins (a book, co-authored with Jonathan Hill, a TV journalist on the case). Steeltown Murders and Manhunt are written by Whitmore, whose previous work includes the miniseries Arthur & George (2015, BritBox) and Rillington Place (2016, Stan), and who came aboard the Steeltown Murders project on Evans’ initiative after their collaboration on Manhunt.

They all deal with horrible crimes and are unsettling for a variety of reasons, but none is designed to shock or be the slightest bit exploitative in its depiction of crime and its aftermaths. They also immerse us in the taxing realities that are an everyday part of the investigators’ job. All feature brooding, ominous, unrelentingly unmelodic scores that create an air of unease even when there’s no immediate reason for it. And, taken together, they also constitute an enlightening examination of the strengths and weaknesses of investigative procedures between the 1970s and 2010.

Set in south-west London, Manhunt is part of ITV’s still-expanding library of series about notorious British murder cases, the other dozen or so entries including See No Evil: The Moors Murders (2006, BritBox), White House Farm, Des (both 2020, both on Stan) and The Pembrokeshire Murders.

The four-episode first season deals with the murder of a young French woman on Twickenham Green in 2004, and introduces the Barnes-based Sutton (Martin Clunes), who has just been appointed the DCI in charge of the case.

In the three-part second season (also known as Manhunt: The Night Stalker), his success in solving the earlier case finds him assigned as an adviser – “a fresh set of eyes” – on the floundering investigation of a series of nocturnal rapes, sexual assaults and burglaries inflicted on elderly victims living alone in south-east London between 1992 and 2009.

In both cases, his approach to the crimes is exhaustive, based on his belief that “limited data is bad data”. He’s prepared to push the budget as far as he possibly can to get the job done. He’s demanding of his colleagues, insisting they be less reliant on DNA evidence and “more nimble-footed” in their methods.

Overseeing the arduous examination of CCTV footage and the extensive surveillance operations are the chief tools of his trade, an approach that brings him into conflict with both his fellow investigators and his wife (Claudie Blakley), who works as a psychological analyst for the Surrey police team and often sees things differently from her husband.

The newly appointed, tightly wound DCS Steve Wilkins (Luke Evans) deals with a cold case on the south-west coast of Wales in The Pembrokeshire Murders.

However, his modus operandi is constantly informed by his empathy for the victims: in season one, he recognises the vulnerability shared by the murdered girl and his own daughter (Anna Burnett); in season two, he appreciates that the victims could just as easily have been either of his ageing parents (Jack Shepherd and Kika Markham).

Like Steeltown Murders, The Pembrokeshire Murders is made by Severn Screen. The three-episode series, written by Nick Stevens, deals with the reopening of a cold case on the south-west coast of Wales. The opening establishes newly appointed, tightly wound Detective Chief Superintendent Steve Wilkins (Luke Evans) as a man who would like life to be as neatly arranged as his wardrobe.

It’s an inclination that pushes him, with the help of DNA testing, to identify connections between a double murder 17 years earlier and a series of burglaries. Jailed for them at the time, John Cooper (a superb Keith Allen) is now up for parole, and Wilkins and his team have to build a case before that happens or the money runs out. Cooper refuses to give a DNA sample, so Wilkins sets out “to make things happen”.

Director Evans calls the series “a how-done-it from the police point of view”, a description that’s equally applicable to both Steeltown Murders and Manhunt. However the three series are characterised, they all bring a rare level of authenticity to their police-at-work dramas and are totally engrossing. And there’s not a pretty pasture, a comforting cuppa or a scrumptious scone in sight.

Steeltown Murders is on Binge; The Pembrokeshire Murders is on Britbox, and Manhunt is on Britbox (season 1) and 7Plus (season 2).

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