Stream of the Week: The Yorkshire Ripper FIles

It’s probably not that surprising that the Yorkshire Ripper should have come back into fashion of late. On the one hand, for those of us in our mid-forties and up, Peter Sutcliffe is the first serial killer that we can remember. The hunt to find him became a nationwide matter, dragged out for longer than it needed to be by – as we would later find out – the incompetence of the police. The unsettling photo-fit pictures, the poor quality film night-time shots of the red light districts of West Yorkshire after dark, the endless public appeals, all of which were barking up completely the wrong tree… these are Proustian cloudbursts for a generation growing up and learning about the evil of which men are capable for the first time. Haunting image after haunting image. Don’t have nightmares.

On the other, though, we’re more prurient than we’ve ever been before. The medium of podcasting got one of its biggest pushes into the mainstream spotlight thanks to true crime through Serial, and there now doesn’t seem to be a week that goes by without another documentary series going into the sort of forensic detail that most people wish the West Yorkshire Constabulary had in the mid to late 1970s in order to retell these stories. You want to know the thought processes of Ted Bundy to excruciating detail? Netflix have got you covered. In the future, every crime will have a ten part podcast written about it, interspersed with advertisements for web space platforms and shaving products.

This particular case, however, is worth retelling in the light of our current culture. The police mishandling of the case was astonishing in its misogyny and incompetence. The case’s main investigation room was given over to index cards which proved to be almost entirely ineffective as a system for storing information which already contained what should have been enough to lead the police straight to Peter Sutcliffe’s front door. Instead, it was subsumed into a bottomless pit of tiny, handwritten cards (the floor of the incident room even had to be reinforced to cope with the weight of all the paper.)

The constant appeals for new information led to acres and acres of bad information, meaning that the incident room became a barrier to catching him rather than the hub that it should have been. The police contrived to interview Sutcliffe nine times, whilst the case’s lead investigator became preoccupied with audio cassettes being sent in from an obvious hoaxer, ignoring those who pointed out the inconsistencies surrounding the tapes. And on top of this, the police were accused of victim-blaming, with protests against their advice for women to stay indoors at night, as well as employing a lazy stereotype of sex workers and then disregarding anything relating to the case that didn’t fit that cheap stereotype, and this lazily insulting culture spread all the way through to the trial, at which the attorney general at the time, Sir Michael Havers, said of the victims: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of the case is that some were not. The last six attacks were on totally respectable women.”

The BBC, of course, has access. The description of the treatment of the three young children of the first victim, Wilma McCann, is harrowing. They were in a children’s home before the end of the day after she was murdered, and the strength of her youngest son, who recalls the events no with as much glassy bemusement as he did at the time, is striking. But even this isn’t as shocking as the testimony of the women of the time. Tracy Browne was just fourteen when she survived an attack from Sutcliffe prior to the Wilma McCann murder that he later confessed to. She provided a description of him which led to a photo-fit of eerie similarity being produced. She knew from his accent that he was from Yorkshire, and not Wearside, as the police would later come to obsessively believe. Not only was she completely ignored, but Sutcliffe was never even charged with the attack on her. Small wonder that women don’t always come forward when they’re attacked. If anything, at that time it only made them likely to be attacked again, only in a different way. 

It’s likely that it’s because this particular series was made by a woman, filmmaker Liza Williams, that these voices are pushed to the front of the narrative. There are no dramatic splashes of blood across the screen or lavish descriptions of violence against women being relayed by a narrator who might be taking a little too much pleasure from reading it out in the first place. What comes through instead is a grimy picture of a culture in which not believing victims (or, in cases in which they’d been killed, blaming them), lazily stereotyping women, and a culture seemingly shaped by its hatred of women. A case study of a grimy world in which cruelty and misogyny were so deeply embedded as to feel hard-wired, The Yorkshire Ripper Files is skilfully assembled and a thousand miles removed from the tawdry rubbernecking that documentary series of this nature so often end up being.

The Yorkshire Ripper Files is available (in the UK) on BBC Iplayer.