The Guardian

‘It’s the most responsibility I’ve ever felt’

ITV’s star-packed new drama The Long Shadow takes a radical approach to the murders that rocked Yorkshire in the 70s – they put Peter Sutcliffe’s victims in the spotlight. Its creators talk to Mark Lawson about crippling nerves, avoiding stereotypes – and

The Long Shadow starts on 25 September at 9pm on ITV1 and ITVX

In the 70s, the newspapers nicknamed Peter Sutcliffe the “Yorkshire Ripper”. It was a term that became synonymous with the serial killer’s murder of 13 women – and attempted murders of seven more – in the north of England from 1975 to 80. So notorious did it become that it stuck in the public imagination in a way that the names of many of those who lost their lives at Sutcliffe’s hands did not, and it is almost unheard of for there to be a discussion of these awful crimes that does not mention it.

ITV drama The Long Shadow is changing that. Despite giving seven episodes to the long police investigation into Sutcliffe’s crimes, it strikingly never uses the term once, instead putting the victims at its heart.

“Talking to their families and others closely connected with the case, it became clear how immensely triggering they find the term,” says producer Willow Grylls. “Also, logically, the newspaper nickname arose when the killer was unknown. The families said: ‘Now we know he was Peter Sutcliffe, use that name.’”

Sutcliffe only appears in the series as a minor character. “I wanted the arrest of the killer to be almost anticlimactic because he’s such an unmemorable guy,” says screenwriter George Kay (who wrote the Netflix hit Lupin and Hijack for Apple TV+). Even the investigating detectives are not always the focus. “There’s a classic scene in crime dramas,” says Kay. “I’ve written some of them myself, in which the police interview a witness or suspect or relative and when the cops leave the room the camera goes with them. This time I was interested in what happened if the camera stayed.”

The stories of the women Sutcliffe killed are explored in deep detail in order, as Grylls puts it, “to get beyond the mugshots of the victims, which is how they are most often represented”.

The second victim was Emily Jackson, a 42-year-old woman who encountered Sutcliffe, a prolific solicitor of women, when she turned to sex work to support her husband, Sydney, a struggling roofer, and their children. These extraordinary scenes – in which an unhappily married couple agree a horrific deal – seem likely to be replayed at awards ceremonies, so agonisingly memorable are the performances of Katherine Kelly and Daniel Mays.

“It’s unimaginable that a family could get to a point of economic desperation where the only option is for a woman to sell her body,” says Mays. “But that is what happened. It isn’t just about a crumbling marriage; there are so many colours to it.”

“I don’t even like to use the term ‘my character’,” says Kelly, “as she was a real mother, wife, friend. It’s the most responsibility I’ve ever felt in my career.”

Kelly grew up in South Yorkshire and remembers the lengthy effect of the killings. “I was a baby when Sutcliffe was caught but it’s unusual for someone older than me there not to have a memory of this. It all went dark in the area for a very long time. There weren’t mobile phones so someone would say: ‘She’s getting off the bus at 11 o’clock, go and escort her home.’”

To prepare for the role, Mays met the Jacksons’ son, Neil: “We sat in a hotel in Leeds and he was so brave and open and generous.” Was he wary of asking a son about his mother’s murder, and the sex work she’d had to undertake?

“I was incredibly nervous because you are having to broach incredibly

uncomfortable subjects. But from someone with a close connection to the events – although the children had no idea then their mother was soliciting – I think you get something no book or documentary could give you. I just wanted to look into his eyes and get closer to the story.”

Neil was able to confirm the truth of a scene in which his dad can’t bear to identify Emily’s body at the morgue so his young son steps in. Mays also learned that the Jacksons had lost their first child: “That wasn’t in the original script but Katherine and I asked for it to go in because it explained the deep connection between them – there’s grief but there’s also love.”

Some key dramatic moments have almost no dialogue, painful calculations conveyed via eyes and body language. So much between the Jacksons is unsaid or unsayable.

“I’m pleased you noticed that,” says Kay. “When you know you’ve got good actors, you can dare not to write some of the lines because they can do it in a look. Sometimes I show the director what the lines would have been and say can we get this across silently?”

In a repeated visual motif, Emily folds a £5 note into a purse or tin. This simple gesture conveys the complex and ultimately tragic sexual transaction that has taken place; only one of the encounters is dramatised.

“We thought it was very important to show once what these women had to put themselves through to earn the money,” says Kay. “But we didn’t want to keep showing it, so we hoped the viewer would picture the scene in the van every time you see a £5 note.”

Because the series covers five years and 20 crimes, its narrative sees different actors playing the lead investigator. “To do the victims justice, I wanted to mark all the crimes,” says Kay.

“And there was not one detective that led the case all through so it demands to be an ensemble piece.” Even celebrated actors appear in only some episodes, with Toby Jones, playing

DCS Dennis Hoban, having to hand over the investigation to David Morrissey (who stars as

DCS George Oldfield). Very few actors are in all seven parts.

Mays has form in making short roles memorable. Despite appearing in only one episode of Line of Duty, his character is one of the most remembered from the six seasons and won a Bafta nomination. “You can sometimes make an enormous impact with what seems a small role,” says

Mays. “And The Long Shadow does that across seven episodes – someone comes in for a couple of scenes but has a huge resonance.”

“Attitudes are changing,” adds Kay. “There are actors who have led ITV series – Jill Halfpenny, Stephen Tompkinson – and they just do a scene or a few here.”

A measure of the starriness of the cast was the difficulty of arranging interviews for this piece. Mays was speaking between shooting scenes of Magpie Murders, while Kelly took time out from another ITV series – Mr Bates vs The Post Office, about the Post Office workers falsely accused of fraud due to faulty software.

She laughs: “If anyone had followed my 20-year career – why would they? I don’t know – but it has always been for me about the role not the size of it. Someone said to me the other day: ‘I didn’t think this would be enough for you.’ But you just want to be in the best stuff and work with the best people.”

US TV companies don’t always make that easy – often demanding multi-year deals, as Mays explains: “I have a lot of younger actor friends who are under pressure to sign these seven-year contracts.

It’s fine if it turns out to be Breaking Bad, but not if it doesn’t. The trick is, between us, to have a really good lawyer who can get you out of those sort of deals if you need to. I think you become a better actor by doing as many roles as possible.”

The Long Shadow begins with a montage of early-80s themes – led by recession and the safety of the streets – that seem worryingly current. Kay deliberately stressed these echoes: “The cost of living crisis was beginning as we were making this and the parallels with today were very vivid. I don’t think you should make a piece of period TV unless it’s also about today. In episode six, there’s a Reclaim the Night march and, as I was writing it, there was the tragic murder of Sarah Everard [by a police officer], which restarted the Reclaim the Night marches that began during the hunt for Sutcliffe. I made a decision to include only posters and banners that appeared both at the Sarah Everard march and the original ones so it felt like a completed circuit.”

“The nature of what went wrong in that police investigation and what has gone wrong in others more recently are different,” says Grylls, “but there are clear parallels in loss of confidence in the police.”

“The men who led the Sutcliffe investigation were the last generation who fought in the war,” says Kay. “They were obsessed with hierarchy and had a strong streak of inflexibility – both professionally and emotionally. I see this as a generation of men who could never change their minds, and of women who could never change their men.”

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