I don’t write much about TV round here, and certainly never anything approaching a review, for obvious reasons; a bit too close to home, and not very collegial. But having lamented the decline in quality of TV drama in a letter to the paper the other week, it would seem churlish not to hang out the bunting when something excellent and important is made.
‘Five Daughters’ set itself the extremely delicate task of dramatizing the events leading up to, and including, the murder of five women in Ipswich in December 2006. You remember, the prostitute murders- because of course, that’s how the story was told to us at the time. Indeed, when some reports dropped the p word, in favour of calling the women ‘sex workers’, columnists such as Richard Littlejohn fulminated against namby-pamby liberals and political correctness gone mad. These women were prosititutes, he insisted, and should be referred to as such. Have a look on YouTube for Stewart Lee’s magnificent response to that article; I won’t spoil it for you, but if ever I write a line even half as good as ‘One wonders what lengths Richard Littlejohn will go to in his quest for the accurate naming of dead women’ I’ll be a happy man.
Anyway, you probably, like me, remember vague details. There was the blonde on the train, caught on CCTV. There was the dark haired one, the youngest, who lived at home. One of them was pregnant. One had an unusual first name. And they were all drug addicts, of course.
The huge achievement of ‘Five Daughters’ is to take these half-remembered half-truths and gently to question and correct them, while at the same time showing us where the women came from, what made them tick, how they ended up standing on dark streets in the freezing cold in the knowledge that a killer was on the loose. To separate them from each other, and the one tragic fact they have in common. A note about the dramatization of the kerb-crawling scenes- they are unflinchingly unglamorous. Never mind Billie Piper swanning around in beautiful dockside penthouses, we’re all used to a certain shabby chic being applied even to images of street prostitution. The halo of sensual streetlighting, the sexily dressed girl in the impossibly high heels leaning into the car, a seductive smile playing on her lips… ‘Five Daughters’ shows us shivering, frightened women in parkas and fleeces, on quiet, empty, soulless streets, steeling themselves as the headlights creep towards them then muttering the word ‘business’ through the open window. It brings home the fact that, even when there isn’t a serial killer behind the wheel, the best possible outcome- the best- is that the sex will be quick and the man, kind.
But, in talking about that aspect of the series, I’ve fallen into the same trap as the media did at the time of the murders. This isn’t a drama about prositution, it’s a drama about desperation. The desperation that leads the women to the streets; the desperation of their families, both to communicate and to protect; the desperation of their friends when calls go unanswered for first hours and then days; the desperation of the police and outreach workers to fight the killers, both human and chemical. I watched the first two episodes constantly on the verge of tears (I’m being very previous publishing this today- the third episode is on this evening and may be terrible rubbish for all I know. I somehow doubt it though.).
The film-making and the screenwriting are excellent, then; but the quality of the acting is mindblowing. A glance at the cast list raised hopes- Sarah Lancashire, Juliet Aubrey, Anton Lesser, Martin Compston, Ian Hart, Jaime Winstone, Natalie Press, Eva Birthistle, Sean Harris. But scene after scene crowds into my memory, insisting on a mention. Lancashire helplessly demanding that she be allowed to collect her absent daughter’s methadone prescription, then begging, then accepting exhausted defeat. Press, as Paula Clennell, heartbreaking in her brave, guilty disappointment when her mother cancels a planned visit on a flimsy pretext. Aubrey, unbearably stoic, almost matter of fact, as she prepares to view the body of her murdered daughter, and then breaking down, her face collapsing in on itself. Aubrey also played her part in one of the most remarkable scenes I’ve seen on TV for years. We had seen Anneli Alderton (Aubrey was playing her mother, Maire) on the verge of making a new life for herself. Released from prison after serving a sentence for drug offences, she had a plan to become a mobile hairdresser. Maire and son Tom noted with relief that there was no sign of ‘blonde Anneli’. Then Anneli’s best friend Gemma disappeared, sending her into a spiral of fear, guilt, and self loathing. In the scene I refer to above, she turned up at Maire’s house out of the blue and gave her the kind of needy hug a child gives to a parent she knows she is about to hurt. Disappearing into the bathroom, she returned to her mother’s kitchen with hair dyed an aggressive, steely blonde, scraped back in challenge. Her eye make up was a declaration of war and, chillingly, she had reverted from her normal lower-middle class accent into a heightened, combative rude-girl backchat. Aubrey and Winstone were just phenomenal in this scene, the mother trying to assert her authority over a child she knows she has somehow lost, and the daughter using bravado and aggression as a mask for terror. Winstone gave a masterclass in playing the subtext, and Aubrey’s resigned but devastated expression as she emerged from behind a cupboard door to see the front door open and her daughter gone will stay with me for a long time. The wonderful, encouraging thing about all these outstanding performances is that they were achieved with restraint, with a kind of direct truthfulness borne of underplaying. After twenty-five years of exposure to the high-decibel histrionics of EastEnders and the like, it was a welcome illustration of the power of acting rather than the self-indulgence of ACTING.
The first two episodes will be available on iplayer, to viewers in the UK, and the third airs on BBC1 at 9pm tonight. Unsurprisingly, I urge you to watch, not just for its excellence but for what it has achieved. Steven Wright and the tabloids between them turned these five human beings into dead prostitutes. This dignified, honest, honourable, annihilating drama turns them back again.