Don’t Have Nightmares: The Strangely Unsettling World of Crimewatch UK

by | Jun 22, 2019

It can easy to feel as though time is dilating, at times. Fashion and music seem to have ground to a standstill. The year 2000 is, in some respects, very much like the year 2019. Except it isn’t, of course. Broadband and mobile technology have combined to revolutionise the way we live. In 1999-2000, 19% of UK households had an internet connection. By 2018, that number was 89%. And reaching back to before that era can be a strange and even unsettling experience, even for those of us who can – increasingly distantly – remember it.

Crimewatch UK wasn’t the first interactive television programme broadcast in the UK (The Golden Shot – a programme which, and younger readers may not believe this, a member of the public connected by telephone to a blinfolded man with a crossbow, directing him to shoot at targets by imploring him to move up, down, left or right – springs immediately to mind as a predecessor dependent on public involvement) and neither was it even really the first UK television in which the police appealed to the public for help in solving crimes. That honour went to Police 5, a five minute show broadcast on ITV at various points in London, the Midlands, and the south of England between 1962 and 1992.

First broadcast on BBC1 in July 1984 and co-hosted by Nick Ross and Sue Cook, Crimewatch UK was something altogether more ambitious than Police 5. It had reconstructions of crimes (or, in the case of murder or sexual offences, usually the events leading up to a crime), interviews with mildly startled looking police officers, and banks of further officers sitting at banks of desks behind them answering phone calls and otherwise trying to make themselves look busy. There was a section called Aladdin’s Cave during which John Blyth (from the Antiques Roadshow) showed off various items being held by the police seeking reacquaintace with their owners. And there was the Incident Desk, presented by the genuine police officers Chief Inspector David Hatcher and Detective Constable Helen Phelps, in which a number of other crimes were rattled through in a shorter amount of time, and (a little later) a wanted list of faces snapped on CCTV.

The programme raised eyebrows in the BBC’s legal department, where lawyers became that reconstructions could end up coming to prejudice a trial. Furthermore, there were concerns on the part of the BBC that the police might not even be interested, and they were right. Only three police forces in the whole country were interested in appearing on the show to begin with, and Ross would later admit that the show didn’t receive a single call until twenty minutes into the first episode (although how many he was expecting within the first twenty minutes a good half of which were taken up with introductions and explanations of what viewers would be watching.) Soon after shows, amid stories of viewers finding the programme frightening on account of their realism, Ross started adding a closing couple of lines with the aim of reassuring viewers about the rarity of violent crime in the UK, rounding off with three words which have come to outlive the show itself: “don’t have nightmares.”

Aesthetically speaking, Crimewatch UK was an obvious product of its time, with a set featuring the colour beige in every available hue and graphics in a electric blue which was presumably meant to tie in with an entire flashing blue light ethos surrrounding the show, with a theme tune of officiously paradiddling snare drum and squelchy synths which call to mind the national anthem for a dictatorship for a government run by a military junta led by Ronnie Hazlehurst. Early episodes are full of disclaimers. The audience is told repeatedly throughout the first three or four episodes that these reconstructions involve real events, whilst police officer after police officer has to reassure the watching audience that lower levels of shadiness will be overlooked in the hunt for the criminal they’re looking for. Whether they always came good on that isn’t easy to ascertain.

The show’s other main innovation in its early days was the “videofit” artist’s impression of suspects, which basically consisted of taking a photofit picture and using rudimentary computer graphics software to remove lines and colorise the face and hair. These look primitive to modern eyes, but at the time this new technology was considered a potentially great leap forward in jolting the memory of potential witnesses to criminal cases. But the tone of the show is surprisingly modern. Sex workers are called “prostitutes” and one bisexual murder victim is presumed to have been off trying to hook up with other men behind his wife’s back without there being much apparent basis to do so, but there’s no racism, sexism or homophobia on display. Indeed, we might even surmise that featuring sex workers in their reconstruction without passing judgement upon them or portraying them as “tragic” (beyond being murder victims, that is – their lifestyle choices are, in and of themselves, barely mentioned), Crimewatch UK dealt with the subject with a level of tact and sensitivity which is surprising, for three decades ago.

The centre-pieces of each episode, however, are the reconstructions of crimes. The commitment to detail is granular. In some, people originally involved in the original story reprise their own roles. In one reconstruction from 1984, the father of a murder victim plays himself alongside an actor portraying his son. The only violence on display is the shouting and occasional gunshot that comes with an armed robbery, but the entire sequences are shot on film rather than videotape, and the resultant grainy footage has an unsettlingly grainy air, a feeling which is amplified by the subsequent videofit pictures and stilted interviews with police officers. The viewer should know that the BBC is never going to display anything graphic, but the skill editors leaves us believing that they might do at any point.

Furthermore, the world of 1984 is very different to the world of 2019. CCTV footage, when shown, is treated as something approaching a novelty and a lot of the narration of the reconstruction contains words like “supposition” and “speculation”, a reflection of a world that wasn’t surveilling its population twenty-four hours a day. The first few episodes also come shortly before the introduction of DNA testing in criminal matters in the UK. Indeed, the murders committed by Colin Pitchfork, the first person to be caught as a result of mass DNA screening, were featured in a Crimewatch UK reconstruction several months before he was caught. In this pre-DNA testing world of 1984, though, it is clear that both policing and criminality are very different. Criminals are leaving DNA – usually through blood and/or semen – all over the place, but the police don’t have any way of making use of this properly… yet.

The murder of co-host Jill Dando in 1999 – still unsolved and without even a known motive – thrust the show to the very centre of this country’s news headlines and was initially tangentially attributed to her involvement with it, though the theory that she was killed because she was the host of Crimewatch has been repeatedly dismissed by the police, though how seriously they should be taken is open to question, considering the state of the case made against the man charged and subsequently acquitted of the crime. Despite the understandable grief of everybody connected with the show, the events leading up to her shooting were reconstructed for the May 1999 edition of the show, just a month after it took place.

Crimewatch itself eventually found itself falling victim to changing times. Fragmenting viewing habits have impacted all areas of television broadcasting, but this programme was particularly susceptible to these changes. With a mass audience – and 14m people used to regularly tune in to watch it – concerns over the salacious nature of reconstructing serious crimes on the television could be outweighed by a defence of public service. With one in three televised appeals leading to an arrest and one in five to a conviction, the programme had earned itself a reputation, with its success stories including such high-profile cases as the kidnap of Stephanie Slater and murder of Julie Dart, the M25 rapist, the road-rage killing by Kenneth Noye, and the capture of two boys for the abduction and murder of James Bulger.

For this delicate equilibrium between entertainment and public service to be maintained, though, the show needed a mass audience. By 2017, audiences had fallen to just 3m and the last episode of the show was broadcast on the 20th March 2017, although various spin-off iterations of the show continue to this day. The past seldom reveals itself to us through the prestige broadcasts of any era. We’re always more likely to learn about the world from the programmes that aren’t necessarily seeking to stand out as works of art for future generations to enjoy. Crimewatch UK is broadly a thing of the past now. Call 01 811 8055 – a number that Crimewatch recycled from Saturday Swapshop, of course – nowadays and you’ll get a disconnected line, with a message advising that this telephone number is up for sale. The past, as watching these old episodes of Crimewatch UK confirms, is a different country. It just happened to be a grainy, creepy and unsettling one, at times.

Do you now want to watch almost every single episode of Crimewatch UK from its 1984 debut until middle of the following decade? Thought so, but it’s okay. This guy’s got you.