High Spirits and Low Morale

The Gentle Touch: Tough, Mrs Rudge (1982)

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Kathleen St John as Mrs Rudge

This is a story not only about a forgotten story, but about a forgotten tragedy. It is a two-part tale. Bear with me.

In the ever-changing sea of crime series, one of the better remembered but lesser-valued is LWT’s The Gentle Touch (1980-84), which history will probably acknowledge merely for Jill Gascoinebeing the first British police drama to be headed by a woman, namely DI Maggie Forbes, played by the similarly underrated Jill Gascoine. The Gentle Touch was in fact a fine series, which, unlike most of its contemporaries, was more interested in victims than criminals, more interested in the causes and effects of crime than in its detection, a tragic pursuit well reflected in its melancholic closing theme music . In this respect it had more in common with the early episodes of Z Cars than with the recent move towards filmed, action-based series such as The Sweeney. Set at a fictional nick in Seven Dials, it impressively expressed many of the concerns of its day: youth crime, sexism and racism on the streets and in the police force, domestic violence and homophobia.

Predominately a studio-based drama, The Gentle Touch was necessarily blessed with sensitive writers, in particular PJ Hammond, whose skill at exploring vulnerable personalities at crisis point had already been well-demonstrated in series such as Thames’s Couples (1976) and LWT’s women-in-prison saga Within These Walls (1974), andJill Gascoine, Kevin O'Shea and William Marlowe would find its best expression in the emotional ghost stories of his series Sapphire and Steel (1979-82). Although The Gentle Touch was always watchable and frequently excellent, its finest hours are two scripts by Hammond, Damage, the tale of a neurotic single dad, abandoned by his wife and the victim of a hate campaign by his seemingly-respectable neighbours, and Solution, in which a young lesbian dying of leukaemia asks her lover to assist in her suicide, Kenneth Ware’s devastating Pressures, in which the usually impervious DCI Russell (William Marlowe) finds himself on the verge of a breakdown (an episode which echoes John Hopkins’ most tortured walks into the dark on Z Cars), and the episode I will be examining here, for reasons which will become apparent: Antony Couch’s shattering Tough, Mrs Rudge.

All television drama series quickly establish their tone, their vocabulary, their politics and their parameters. A challenge for drama producers is to keep the viewer surprised but never disorientated. But occasionally, a genre series throws up an episode that successfully takes us out of its established comfort zone. It can be an unsettling feeling, that sense that this week “the goodies just might not win”.

Tough, Mrs Rudge begins with a forlorn old lady trailing around a shop and being accused of stealing a pint of milk. One could be forgiven for thinking this is not going to be a crime story of any great significance.rudge2

But when, while being questioned by the police, Mrs Rudge is examined by a doctor, he discovers burn marks on her arms, caused by a lit cigarette being held against the skin for several seconds. She also appears to be suffering from malnutrition, and only has 22 pence in her purse. When asked if she has any family, she says “me son went to Australia just after the war. He used to write regular, every month”.

She refuses to remain in hospital, anxious to get back to her flat. Maggie offers her a lift which she reluctantly agrees to, but says: “just take me as far as the street. Nobody’s going no further than that”.

Jill Gascoine as Maggie Forbes in The Gentle TouchAfter an exasperating phone call to the social worker who covers the area, and who hasn’t seen Mrs Rudge for two years, Maggie wonders “how is it we can never look after the old women who get beaten but we’ve always got plenty of time, money and colour tellies for the ones who do the beating?”

Back in hospital some days later after collapsing and nearly being hit by a bus, Mrs Rudge falls into a coma. The doctors discover shocking new injuries: heavy bruising on her back suggests she was kicked several times. Maggie’s revulsion is beginning to cloud her judgment; when she returns to the hospital to be told the old lady has died, the revulsion turns to fury. Standing in the graffiti-covered wreckage of Mrs Rudge’s flat, Maggie is told by the social worker that the youngsters who presumably did this: “have to live in the society we make for them. They’re as much the victims as Mrs Rudge. You know what it’s like around here. ConcreteAnn Curthoys and Kevin O'Shea and tarmac and everyone on the make from top to bottom. They don’t give a damn about the young. When something like this happens, everyone turns on the kids. They didn’t ask to be brought up in this rat trap”. But as Maggie points out, “this is not about mischief or petty crime. This is sadism”.

There are just two clues to the attackers: in her few moments of consciousness before she died, Mrs Rudge was captured on tape deliriously reliving her ordeal, saying “don’t come near me, Ginger. Take anything… but go away”. Also, a piece of green shoe leather is found in the flat, suggesting one of the gang was a girl.

Amanda York as Lorna BainesThe girl in question, Lorna Baines, is arrested while attempting to mug an old lady for her pension. Once in custody, she refuses to cooperate, and it becomes clear that it is not the police she is scared of, but someone else. When the realisation dawns on her that the reason she has not been asked to take part in an identification parade is because Mrs Rudge is dead, she reluctantly names her accomplices (all girls), and finally, fearfully, the leader, Ginger Dawson.

Up until now, Tough, Mrs Rudge has played out as a distressing, well-acted piece of crime drama which impresses with its sense of outrage and injustice, and alarms with its tough, end-of-its-tether attitudes, armed with a storyline that taps into real fears of its era about a seemingly lawless new wave of youngsters. Amanda York is particularly effective as the feral, hateful Lorna. But what follows in the episode’s final act is a scene that catapults us into another realm, less familiar and more frightening.

Whatever we might be expecting is confounded when Ginger finally appears; the sparse writing, the acute direction and the eerie performance of Lowri-Ann Richards make this single Lowri-Ann Richards as Gingerscene extraordinarily disturbing. Ginger silently rocks back and forth on a chair in the interview room, utterly disengaged, unmoved and unperturbed by her surroundings. Whatever we might have expected, she is not it. “You’ll have to talk when you get into court, and that’s where you’re going,” Russell tells her. “Judges regard silence as contempt. They don’t like it. They hate it”.

As he makes to leave, finally she speaks.

“Hey. And I hate them”.

If this is an attempt at establishing a plea of diminished responsibility, it’s unlikely to succeed, because she has been far too careful: a calculated campaign of terror to force an old lady to hand over her pension. “The fact that you behaved like something that crawled out from under a stone isn’t going to help”, says Maggie.

Silence.

Then we cut to a wide shot as Ginger, her foot resting on the table, sends it hurtling across the room.

Kevin O'Shea, Jill Gascoine and Lowri-Ann Richards

The officers look down at her, simply unable to comprehend what they are dealing with. As Maggie orders her to be taken back to the cells, Ginger speaks once more, playfully:Kevin O'Shea and Jill Gascoine

“Hey you. Tea. I wanna cup of tea. You gotta give it to me. I got rights”.

Maggie puts down her notepad, incredulous.

“Stand up,” she orders.

“Go and screw yourself,” comes the reply.

Maggie grabs her and pulls her to her feet. But as she looks into the girl’s eyes, she can find nothing, no humanity, no sense, no explanation. All she can do is storm Lowri-Ann Richards as Gingerout, insisting: “No tea. No nothing”. Ginger continues to rock back and forth on the chair, half smiling.

Maggie is then told that the medical report on Mrs Rudge’s death puts the cause of death as a heart-attack, but says the causes are “not determinable”. It would be impossible to prove conclusively that the death was murder and not the result of an existing heart condition.

It is an exceptionally bleak ending, and, in what looks like an intervention from someone other than the writer, it is only slightly weakened by a deus ex machina seconds before the end credits in which another elderly resident who was a victim of the gang comes forward, prepared to give evidence against Ginger.rudge11

The director of Tough Mrs Rudge was Nic Phillips. “What an amazing training multi-camera drama like this was for doing soap, which I do today, because it was predominantly dialogue, not action” he says. “The Gentle Touch was an issue-driven series, with a group of characters putting service before friends and family, and I can see how coming out of the craziness of the 1970s, that was how they wanted to steer it. There was a constant theme of police officers sacrificing their family life for their work.

“Jill was charming, and very good at what she did. She used those glittery eyes, and when her character was anxious her head would sink into her shoulders. I remember the producer, Michael Verney-Elliott, would sometimes just shout to her “Jill, no neck monster!” and she would change shape.

William Marlowe“William Marlowe was brilliant. A very focused actor; some actors , when they are on set, they just command. He was a charming, gentle man, but he delivered this very clipped, quite stylised performance”. Marlowe is indeed strikingly good as the demanding, seen-it-all copper with an intimidatingly-powerful moral centre. “Kenneth Ware, who wrote Pressures, wrote this curious dialogue, with phrases chopped off, things like ‘who am I to look a gift horse’, a slightly American feel to it perhaps, but it worked well. Bill then started writing episodes himself, under a pseudonym, Neil Rudyard, which were often slightly comic, and which were a breath of fresh-air for all of us in what was generally quite an intense series”. (Marlowe had in fact been spotted earlier in his career by Stanley Baker, who cast him in the wonderful Robbery (1968) and was determined to turn him into the next Michael Caine, but Marlowe was not interested in being that kind of star, and instead became a reliable television player, usually playing either a cop or a robber.

Turning to the character of Ginger, Phillips says that “when you’re shooting something like that interrogation scene, it’s best to keep things simple. A bare room, a table and chairs. Because most of all it’s about the acting, and those two girls were marvellous”.

“That job more or less kick-started my career”, remembers Lowri-Ann Richards. “Afterrudge17 drama school, I was in various New Romantic bands, and wore my own clothes and make-up for the part. My agent wasn’t someone who gave praise lightly but she did praise me for that performance. And ten years later I put the clip of that scene on a showreel, and off the back of it I got a Hollywood agent.

“It was probably Nic who suggested rocking on the chair and making that drumming sound. It gives that scene another dimension, an extra edge. But also, regarding the way I looked, I must have walked into the interview like that. I mean I’m not sure someone like Ginger would necessarily have looked like that, with eyeliner so quite delicate and precise”.

In fact, it is precisely her unexpected appearance and behaviour that make the character so intriguing. Rather than looking too exotic, it actually underlines the character’s acquisitiveness, her obvious desire to elevate herself from her surroundings. Her strange contentment after her arrest and her intimidating performance when being questioned suggest someone living her life as her own work of art.

“Now that is fascinating”, says Lowri-Ann. “Like the centre of a drama of her own making, creating her own world and her own legend? Perhaps that aspiration and other-worldliness is a bit like Sting’s character in Quadrophenia”.

Tim Roth in Made in BritainIt is, in fact, depressingly common for young criminals to react to feelings of inadequacy by imagining themselves as malevolent heroes of their own dramas. In my book A Dangerous Place, I mention how David Mulcahy, the “railway killer”, inspired by a warped interpretation of martial-arts ideology, saw himself as an “immortal warrior”, and felt “God-like” when committing murder. In the case of the “Red Riding Hood Murder”, 21-year-old David Smith committed the motiveless slaughter of a child; found in his bedroom were notes fantasising further offences and imagining himself as a master-criminal. And in fiction, the same year as Tough, Mrs Rudge, David Leland’s celebrated Made in Britain starred Tim Roth as Trevor, an intelligent, violent skinhead who, at 16 years old, has consigned himself to a life of incarceration and deprivation, but paradoxically insists that in his rejection of the world around him, “I’m a success. I’m a fucking star”.

“I wasn’t terribly politically aware at the time.” says Lowri-Ann, “In some ways it was a very ‘me me me’ world, the music scene, but there was a heaviness around at that time, queer-bashing, football violence, lots of stuff in the press about hooligans. There was a certain element of danger, but of course when you’re in a band, you’re in a gang yourself, you feel invincible, unlike the little Mrs Rudges of this world, who are all alone”.

So much for Tough, Mrs Rudge, an exceptional episode of a good series. Why should it be considered as anything more than that?

Because, to the surprise of both Nic and Lowri-Ann, it was a true story.

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Ronan Point

It happened in Nottingham, in 1978, on a notorious estate named Hyson Green (and renamed Hill Green in Tough, Mrs Rudge). While conceived and sold as a utopia to replace slum housing, its local Tesco opened by Crossroads star Noele Gordon, Hyson Green was a brutal (and Brutalist) example of the reality of the new housing estates of post-war Britain. With a population of 101,000, it was the most populous and problematic police district in the city.

The two most famous high-rise estates in Britain were probably London’s Trelllick Tower and Ronan Point. The latter opened in 1968; two months later a gas explosion caused one entire corner to collapse. High-rise living, on paper, was thought to be the solution to Britain’s housing problem, but corrupt deals between local councils and building companies, as well as sociological pitfalls (some of which were unforeseen, some of which were preventable) made places like Trellick shrines to crime by the end of the 70s, the press reporting stories of women being assaulted in the lifts and, on one of the numerous occasions when the lifts weren’t working, an elderly resident dying after returning with his shopping and suffering a heart-attack climbing the stairs on Christmas Eve.

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Hyson Green

“It took a hundred years for what our ancestors built to turn into slums, and it’s taken just ten years for Hyson Green to turn into a modern slum,” were the words of a BBC news report. In the middle of the chaos there, at 22, Valley Walk, lived a 70-year-old widow, Linda Bilson: the real Mrs Rudge.

Her ordeal began with a group of children, either by their trickery or her trust, acquiring rudge9a key to her flat. “They seemed like nice kids and I trusted them,” she later said. It was the beginning of nine months of persecution. At first they offered to run errands for her, but never returned with the cash or the goods. When she started to refuse them entry, they kicked her door in. As well as robbing her repeatedly of her pension, they also tortured her and vandalised her flat.

Just before Christmas 1977, she collected a double-helping of pension to see her through the holiday period, £54.28, which they stole from her, squabbling over the share-out in the process. Local bobbies visited her at Nottingham Evening Post 1978Christmas and gave her wine and mince pies. But a few months later, the violence reached such extreme levels that local MP William Whitlock became involved in the case. Nine youngsters appeared in the juvenile court, the press reporting that they had kicked the old lady in the knees and on her back, twisted her arms and fingers and cut her hair. One of them had even urinated on her.

The council offered Mrs Bilson accommodation in an old peoples’ home, but she refused to move. The youngest boy’s solicitor argued in court that he lived “in overcrowded conditions with nowhere to escape. He mixed with restless and bored children and he is easily led”. But the chairman responded that “thousands are living in the same conditions you are. Your parents have tried their best to ensure you have a Hyson Greengood home. You are a cunning individual”. The boy who was charged with indecent assault (a charge that was subsequently dropped), when asked why he had slapped Mrs Bilson and ripped the stuffing from her settee, said he “enjoyed seeing her become annoyed”.

Most of the boys were given short stays at detention centres; one girl was placed in the care of the local authority and the others received fines.

Linda Bilson was epileptic, and at this point was suffering up to six attacks in a day. Two months later, a neighbour, who hadn’t seen her for two days, entered her flat and found the heating full on, the windows closed and Linda, fully-dressed and wearing an overcoat, lying on the floor. She was dead. The coroner returned a verdict of natural causes.

In 1981, rioting adding to the depressing list of crimes at Hyson Green, which also included prostitution and drug taking. Four years later, the council admitted defeat, and pulled the entire estate down. Today it is the site of a vast Asda supermarket. Recently, a National Lottery grant sponsored a local history project remembering Hyson Green and capturing residents’ memories. When they were published, there was not one single mention of Linda Bilson.

To the right-wing press, the case of Linda Bilson was a story of indiscipline, lawlessness and depravity. To the liberals, it was sickening proof of the worst extremes of what can happen when vulnerable people are packed together in inhospitable spaces, and they,

Linda Bilson of Hyson Green
Linda Bilson, in the wreckage of her home.

and their children, are abandoned by the state. In Tough, Mrs Rudge, the diagnosis of “moral imbecility” is mooted; Sgt Phillips, who represents the new breed of idealistic, degree-educated fast-track policeman, is asked for his reaction to the term, and even he can now only interpret it as “vicious little bastards”.

Whichever side of the issue one comes down on, it is impossible not to apportion some blame to those who got rich off the poor when designing cheap, shoddy, inhumane estates. Both Tough, Mrs Rudge and the case of Linda Bilson are forgotten stories today, but both deserve to be remembered, one as a tragedy, and one as a vivid example of how, through genre television, a writer can share with millions of people something that on this occasion he clearly couldn’t ignore, but equally he couldn’t understand.

My thanks to Nic Phillips and Lowri-Ann Richards for sharing their memories.

 

 

Impish Hillmans

The eccentric tale of a car that just keeps coming back to haunt you.

Pinkie Johnstone, about to get a shock from the television set.
Terence Rigby and Pinkie Johnstone, about to get a shock from the television set.

“I remember this thing I saw on telly once about a couple that had this old car they didn’t want, and they kept trying to get rid of it. They dump it somewhere and then it starts being seen in different places until eventually…”

My brother recollected this strange story to me once, many, many years ago, as strange a Tales of Unease: The Old Banger (1970)story as anything allowed on television in those less-accountable days of old, when producers could commission on a hunch. Quite by chance, sometime later I found out what it was: The Old Banger, an episode of a 1970 anthology series, Tales of Unease. And despite only being shown once, and only in selected ITV regions, the little oddity clearly left an echo in its wake; in the years since then I’ve noticed quite a few queries on message boards, all asking for help identifying a similarly hazy memory of this quirky tale.

The seven plays in the Tales of Unease series were produced by London Weekend Television, an ITV regional station that, after a difficult birth, went on to become a powerhouse of popular drama, with successes including Budgie, Upstairs, Downstairs and Bouquet of Barbed Wire. Those of us who grew up in the South East will remember the announcer telling us every Friday at 5.15pm that it was now time to hand over to LWT’s South Bank headquarters, Kent House, a building that still stands proudly amid the London skyline, looking down on Waterloo Bridge and overseeing some of those it will be entertaining, those commuters parading out of town to the shires for their well-earned weekends.

Tales of Unease: The Old Banger (1970)The series was the first producer credit for Paul Knight, who had begun his television career in the post room at ATV, become an Assistant Floor Manager on the anthology series Love Story, and as one of Head of Scripted Series Stella Richman’s “boys” at Associated Rediffusion, become Associate Producer on another anthology series, Half-Hour Story. He stayed loyal to the anthology series, rounding off an impressive career that included the ornate The Adventures of Black Beauty and the mighty Robin of Sherwood with the excellent Murder in Mind (BBC, 2001-03), a surprise return of the thriller anthology, and one which should have also been its rebirth.

The Old Banger was written by actor Richardson Morgan, who also has a cough and a spit in the opening moments. The drama was his only writing credit. It was directed by Quentin Lawrence, who at the same time was doing a grand job of what would prove to be a much better-remembered LWT series, the merry Catweazle (1970). The Old Banger starred the lugubrious Terence Rigby, an actor who always played very much his own game, and the delightful Pinkie Johnstone (former flatmate of Judi Dench), who the same year gave birth to future RSC director Rachel Kavanaugh.  Watching it now (and I wonder if anyone else has ever watched it in the last 46 years), it is easy to see why, like its titular menace, it has dogged the memories of some of those who saw it. It’s quietly strange and original. Its tone is elusive. In reflection, it’s both amusing and eerie. Tales of Unease: The Old Banger (1970)

John and Susan Partridge are nice people, with a modest house in a west London suburb and a penchant for pigeon racing. But their clapped out Hillman is draining them of money, on this occasion having to be towed home and landing them with a bill for £5 –  more than the car itself is worth, in John’s opinion. They decide to buy a scooter instead, but when they find that sending the old banger to a scrapyard will cost them another £10, John decides instead to dump it on the other side of the city, removing the number-plates so that it can’t be traced back to him. Susan is all for the idea, but when their mechanical friend Eric (Neil McCarthy, expertly playing another of his gentle giants) finds out what they’ve done, he’s appalled, especially since “it had a perfectly good speedo on it”. He decides to retrieve it, but when he gets to the Peckham street it was left in, he finds it has gone, and turns out now to be parked in Camberwell.

Neil McCarthy as EricThen it inexplicably moves again, this time to Pimlico. When Eric attempts to immobilise it, he ends up in hospital after getting trapped under the bonnet.

After visiting him in hospital, the Partridges relax to watch News at Ten, only to see the car in the background of a report. Susan recognises the location as being quite close by. When the pair plot the points of the vehicle’s mysterious journey on a map, they realise that it is on a direct course straight back to their house.Tales of Unease: The Old Banger (1970)

Susan goes upstairs to bed, and screams when she sees from the window that the rusting menace is now parked outside the house.

John decides to sit up all night watching it, but inevitably dozes off. In the morning the couple are delighted to see that the car has gone, and, in celebratory mood, Susan zooms off on the scooter. Alone, John walks into his living room, only to find…

Tales of Unease: The Old Banger (1970)

It’s a stupendously bonkers shot. Susan returns home to find him dismantling the old banger piece by piece, but of course, the vengeful vehicle has the last laugh, trapping them both inside it and killing them.

Laced with a jolly brass and woodwind score that cheerfully fanfares each of the tale’s twists, The Old Banger is adorably droll. Blending comedy, the supernatural and ultimately, death, isn’t the easiest of tasks. Television tended to present its horror with a straight-face in those days; today it prefers to deliver it with a knowing wink. In that sense, this is somewhat ahead of its time, and feels like a more subtle ancestor of Inside No.9, more gentle and less grotesque.Pinkie Johnstone and Terence Rigby

Interestingly, along with many small roles on television, Richardson Morgan worked a number of times with Keith Johnstone, a pioneer of improvisational theatre. In his book, Impro, Johnstone recalls Morgan and mime artist Ben Benison playing a scene in which Morgan is an employee being fired by his boss because his cancer is affecting his performance at work. Johnson described it as “about the cruelest scene I’ve ever seen and the audience were hysterical with laughter. I’ve never heard people laugh more. The actors seemed to be dragging all the audience’s greatest fears into the open, laying out all their insecurities, and the actors absolutely knew what they were doing, and just how slowly to turn the screw”.

Pinkie JohnstoneThe Old Banger is, admittedly, quite a few streets away from that sort of work, but it does suggest that Richardson Morgan’s only television credit could have been just the first breath of an interesting and original voice, one that would have gently explored the couplings of those uneasy bedfellows, comedy and tragedy, in an idiosyncratic way.

But it wasn’t to be. I did attempt to contact Morgan to ask him his memories of his sole half-hour as a television writer. I never heard back. Perhaps, unlike many of those who have seen it, to him The Old Banger is long forgotten.

 

 

A Dreadful And Despairing History

A little-known telling of an oft-told tale.

Few, if any, remember a late-night series of half-hour plays under the cumbersome umbrella title TV TimesConceptions of Murder, broadcast at various points throughout 1970 in several ITV regions, with no fanfare and to little reaction. They were the brainchild of that gentlemanly, imaginative but inconsistent writer, the late Clive Exton. Each of the six episodes took a real-life murder case and tried “to recreate the minds and motives of the killers”. The first episode, The Dreams Of Tim Evans, dealt with the infamous Christie/ Evans case, and is significant because not only was it the first piece of screen drama in Britain based on the matter, (in the theatre, Howard Brenton’s distressing Fringe hit Christie In Love had debuted at the Oval House in 1969, the same year that a drama appeared on German television about the case) but because a year later, Exton expanded his script into the screenplay for the revered movie 10, Rillington Place, which starred Richard Attenborough and John Hurt as Christie and Evans respectively.

The Dreams Of Tim Evans has never been repeated, and never before, to my knowledge, has it been written about. I was intrigued to track it down in the light of the BBC’s recent misfire, Rillington Place, an unnecessary and implausible regurgitation of the 1971 film. Sadly, The Dreams Of Tim Evans is equally disappointing, though it is an interesting historical artifact. Fascinatingly, its executive producer was Peter Wildeblood, who, in the same year the Rillington Place case hit the headlines, was involved in the Montagu-Rivers case, suffering shameful indignities at the hands of the British establishment and later becoming a prominent campaigner for law and prison reform.

In truth, we will never know what passed between John Reginald Halliday Christie and Timothy John Evans in June 1949, in the hours following the murder of Mrs Evans. Both men were liars and fantasists. And both men took all that they knew to the gallows.

IMG_8207The dreadful history of the dreadful, despairing last house on the left, 10 Rillington Place, has probably inspired more words than any other piece of historical true crime except the Jack the Ripper murders. Even by the time Ludovic Kennedy’s major book on the case appeared in 1962, two other books had been written on the subject, The Man On Your Conscience, by Truth editor Michael Eddowes (the book that sparked Kennedy’s interest in the case) and Rupert Furneaux’s The Two Stranglers Of Rillington Place, which took the now unfashionable view that both men were killers, and that the fears of a miscarriage of justice in the case of Evans were ill-founded.

The facts that are not disputed are as follows. Christie, a middle-aged under-achiever with

Hugh Burden as Christie
Hugh Burden as Christie

delusions of grandeur, occupied the basement flat at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, with his wife, Ethel. In his early life Christie had a number of convictions for violence and theft, but in the Second World War was able to enroll as a War Reserve Constable. While alone in the house one afternoon in 1943, he murdered a woman for sexual gratification, and buried her in the back garden. He killed another the following year, lured there by  false claims that he had some medical training and could treat her for catarrh.

Six years passed, apparently without incident, until in 1949 Tim and Beryl Evans moved into the top floor flat with their baby daughter, Geraldine. Evans was a van driver, with a low IQ (he was not illiterate, as has been claimed, since he was able to read road signs) and was partial to making up stories about himself. The marriage was turbulent, especially due to Beryl’s poor money management, and a number of violent arguments kept neighbours awake and led to police visits.

Don Hawkins as Timothy Evans
Don Hawkins as Evans

Beryl became pregnant a second time, and sometime after this, Evans left London and stayed with relatives in Merthyr Tydfil. One afternoon he walked into the local police station and said “I want to give myself up. I’ve disposed of my wife”. He went on to tell them he had arrived home one evening to find her dead, having taken something to try and abort her child, and in panic he had put her body down the drain outside the house. The police checked and found the drain was empty. Evans then said “I only said that to protect a man called Christie. Now I’ll tell you the truth”.

He then made a long, detailed statement saying that Christie had offered to perform an abortion on Beryl thanks to his medical knowledge, but when Evans had arrived home, was told she had died, that for their own sakes they should dispose of her body and say nothing, and that the baby could be looked after for the present by a childless couple Christie knew who lived locally. A superficial search of the house revealed some newspaper clippings in Evans’ flat about a murder case, and in the wash-house, the strangled bodies of both Beryl and baby Geraldine.

Evans was brought back to London, and when he was told of the discovery of both bodies, simply replied “yes”. He then signed a short statement saying that he had killed his wife and child.Children playing in Rillington Place

By the time the case reached the Old Bailey, he was denying this last statement, insisting his second statement was true and that Christie was to blame. Despite Christie’s previous criminal record, he made a better impression on the jury than Evans, and Evans was found guilty of the murder of his daughter, and sentenced to death. In the period before his execution he made no attempt to appeal, and reportedly was cheerful and showed no remorse.

What was not known at the trial was that Christie had already strangled two women and would go on to strangle four more, his wife and three prostitutes that he lured back to Rillington Place. The killings took place over a four month period at the start of 1953, after which, penniless and with the ground floor of the house now a tomb, he left. He wandered around London in a daze until he was caught. He confessed to every crime except that of the baby, but gave vague, untrustworthy accounts. He was hanged after a short trial.

Christie and EvansLudovic Kennedy’s crusading book, the 1971 film and the BBC’s Rillington Place have all taken the view that two stranglers both living in the same house is too much of a coincidence. Exton’s script here does the same. But while 10 Rillington Place works brilliantly as a mood piece, horribly evoking a tumbledown London of the post-war era and sustaining a mood of evil and futility in every scene (the film was shot in the actual street, and sparingly used a devil-driven, prickly score by John Dankworth), it was made as a rebuff to calls for a reinstatement of the death penalty, and, like the book it sprang from, is selective in its presentation of the facts.

The Dreams Of Tim Evans, sadly, suffers  when compared to the film into which it grew.  It is essentially a longer version of the central scene in the film in which Evans arrives home to find his wife dead, and Christie manages to persuade him to enter into a conspiracy of silence for both their sakes. That quiet, forgotten actor, Hugh Burden, is, alarmingly, probably the closest to Christie physically of any actor who has played him, and clearly imitates various facial expressions of the killer learned from photographs. Unfortunately, he maintains his native soft Welsh accent for the part rather than attempting Christie’s whispering Yorkshire tones. Like Attenborough’s, his Christie is prissy and puritanical (“there’s no need to use language, lad”), and quietly manipulative.

Christie and EvansDon Hawkins’ performance as Evans, however, seems unable to make up its mind what it is. He appears to barely react to his wife’s death, and is such a low-key presence in the play that one certainly struggles to imagine this Evans being capable of having violent altercations with his wife.

Despite the studio setting and the unsubtle colour of 1970s videotape, which does inevitably prettify the recreation of the house, there are some neat moments. When Christie reappears at the beginning of the second half of the play, he lurks in the back of the frame while Evans, in the foreground, is veiled behind a grimy curtain; at this point, Evans , without knowing it, holds all the power. He could go to the police and Christie would be charged with Beryl’s murder. But his mind is a fog, to himself, to us and to Christie. Later, the roles are reversed, as Evans stands lost and helpless in the background, asking Christie, now the one shrouded by that dark curtain, what he is to do.

Christie and EvansThe play’s title, and its core, come from a sequence in which Evans indulges himself in fantasy, telling Christie that he intends to move to a house in Hampstead, one of those “with gardens you can sit in”. But whereas John Hurt’s Evans was defiant, a hopelessly self-deluded windbag trying and failing to suggest he was better than those around him, and aggressively touchy when challenged, this Evans is almost lifeless. It doesn’t ring true. Nor does the play (or the film’s) off-screen insistence that Christie would go on to murder the baby. Why would he do this rather than simply abandon her? Why do something that he would then have to explain away to Evans, or, if Evans found out, would undoubtedly destroy any loyalty Evans might have for Christie?

One powerful piece of evidence that has recently been revealed is that when Evans was in the cells at Notting Hill police station, having been charged with murder, PC Leonard Trevallion asked him why he had killed his baby. Evans replied: “because without its mother it kept crying all the time and I couldn’t stand it”. (Trevallion gave a final interview detailing his eventful life and career to the Imperial War Museum; his reminiscences can be heard here.)High Burden as Christie

That Christie murdered Mrs Evans seems highly likely. Evans’s detailed description of Christie professing medical knowledge is damning evidence simply because it tallies with what we know were the methods Christie used to attract other victims. However, attributing the murder of Geraldine to Christie too strikes me as something that has been done for no other reason than convenience when trying to argue a miscarriage of justice, since it was actually Geraldine’s murder that Evans was convicted of.

The Dreams Of Tim Evans is a disappointingly mild piece of drama about a devastating situation. It fails to do justice to its subject, and while we will probably never hear the last word on the Christie case, this attempt at the story is unlikely ever to be heard again.

In respectable 1950s Britain, people perhaps were much more prepared to be reassured that a man hanged in their name had indeed been guilty of murder. Today, however, we live in an iconoclastic age, a  time of suspicion, distrust, cynicism and conspiracy theories, and are eager to embrace any suggestion that shadowy, uncaring authorities behave corruptly, callously and at the expense of their subjects. I’ve always believed that the truth lies somewhere in between, in this case and in many others.