Home Fires

April 29, 2015 by  
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Home Fires 1

For fans of ITV drama, the announcement of Downton Abbey’s coming demise may have been disheartening news. Perhaps the arrival of Home Fires will help fill the hole in our hearts.

Set in picturesque Great Paxford in the Cheshire countryside, Home Fires follows a group of women as the storm clouds of World War II draw in, disrupting the lives of ordinary people up and down the country. You may think you know the story of the women of WWII, but think again. Whilst we all know the tales of the inspirational young women who rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in at the ammunitions factories, or else raced into the military hospitals to do their bit, there are many more that remain untold—primarily of those living in rural areas.

This is something Home Fires tries to address, by centering on the Great Paxford Women’s Institute (WI). This may not sound a particularly exciting prospect—aside from kinky photo shoots, the WI tends to conjure up images of stuffy town halls, copious amounts of tea and biscuits, knitting circles, cake baking and a lot of old old-age pensioners. Not very glamorous stuff. However, the story of the WI during WWII is actually pretty fascinating; aside from supporting the war effort in material ways, they also provided an essential site of community and support for British women during the nation’s darkest days—and not just for the elderly.

Home Fires is inspired by Julie Summers’ non-fiction book, Jam Busters, which tells the tale of the WI’s jam-making initiative. In ITV’s fictionalized account, acclaimed actress Samantha Bond plays the formidable Francis Barden, who spearheads the hedgerow-scouring movement. As Francis explains, the first casualties of WWI were merchant shippers; by encouraging Britain’s women to maximize homegrown resources and minimise reliance on importation, Frances hopes to save scores of lives. Though the WI members of Great Paxford hail from a relatively small region, the drama manages to include a diverse selection of women, from old to young, rich and poor, some happily married, others ready and willing for a wartime romance, offering something for every viewer. From farmer’s, doctor’s and butcher’s wives, school teachers and mothers, these are the women who have to carry on in the face of fear and uncertainty, both for the nation and for the fate of their loved ones as they’re shipped off to the front.

Feminists will love the more industrious women, often as involved in their husband’s profession as the men themselves, left to take on the work of two when their husband’s itchy feet carry them off to the trenches—such as farmer Steph Farrow, played by Downton Abbey’s Clare Calbraith, whose husband enlists in spite of his essential work exempting him from conscription. Despite the female-heavy cast, Home Fires has an array of equally talented male actors playing both the men who went to war and the ones who stayed behind. Expect to see a lot of comparisons to BBC One’s Call the Midwife­­—the writers grew notably irked at repeated attempts to liken the two in the post-screening Q&A, cautioning against reductive comparisons simply on the basis of a shared time period and the fact that they’re both women’s dramas.  And in any case, they rightly pointed out, you wouldn’t feel the need to call a male-centered show a “men’s drama”, so why lump them in the same bag?

As starring actress Fenella Woolgar puts it, this is a drama about introspective, normal people in an age of egotism and reality television. Living in today’s world of increasing isolation, individualism and loss of community feeling, Home Fires reminds us of the role of friendship and solidarity when dark times hit. Interestingly, the WI played a crucial role in the formation of the welfare estate post-war, through their reports on the health of city evacuees—surely this may serve as a poignant point of contemplation for viewers today, uncertain as the future is for our public services.

Politics doesn’t play a massive role in Home Fires, its true, but the spirit of community and collectivism that it dramatizes is political enough; the war taught our country many lessons that are worth reminding ourselves of.  Although at times feeling a little corny, the personal attachment the writers and cast feel to the material clearly shines through. It is certainly not without its dark points, in particular a disturbing—distressing, even—story of domestic abuse, overall Home Fires manages to strike the right balance of dark and light, both optimistic and destitute, which works together to create a genuinely heartwarming, impactful and compelling package. This is the world war, but certainly not as we’ve seen it before.

The first episode of Home Fires airs on ITV on 3rd May at 21.00.

The Babadook

April 25, 2015 by  
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Babadook 1

“See him in your room at night and you won’t sleep a wink”. I bury my head underneath the covers. For the first time in years I find safety in that childhood tactic. I shut my eyes tight for good measure.

This is all the fault of The Babadook. I’m now haunted by a pencil sketch of a razor fingered monster, but also by the fevered story of a mother battling this demon (or her own, or both).

Director Jennifer Kent offers us very little comfort in this claustrophobic chiller. From the off, it is clear that this is a broken family – grief, mental illness, financial troubles and alienation plague mother and son long before the appearance of any monster.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow worn down by both grief and her live-wire son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Davis gives a masterful performance as a long-suffering mother; perfecting the forced composure of someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Similarly, Wiseman is brilliant as the odd kid. He is a screaming, antisocial and impossibly irritating child. Perfect bait for the paranormal.

Then one night he finds a new bedtime story on his bookshelf: Mister Babadook. After they read the sinister story, with its disturbing illustrations and foreboding ending, Amelia comforts her son who is wailing in terror. It’s only a story after all.

Except, it seems that “you can’t get rid of the Babadook”. From this point Amelia unravels. She becomes possessed by a demon – whether it’s the Babadook or the ghost that’s always been haunting her grief-stricken psyche is up for debate.

The Babadook works not by bombarding us with bogeymen and things that go bump in the night. Instead, it taps into a different piece of childhood fear: the idea of a mother turned monster; of security lost. The unease is compounded by a colour palette that washes out any cheer from this corner of South Australia. Even the ending brings little comfort. The lines between the real and imagined are just too entwined.

And that is what makes Kent’s horror so powerful. Our adult rationality fights with childhood anxiety and we’re left exactly where The Babadook wants us: not knowing the difference between story and truth.  

Out now on DVD and Blu-Ray.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

April 23, 2015 by  
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The Hobbit - The Battle of the Five Armies 1

The concluding part of The Hobbit culminates in action, drama, and a tying-up of events in order to link them to The Lord of the Rings, in what also appears to be Peter Jackson’s final film set in Middle-Earth.

Continuing from The Desolation of Smaug, this film begins with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves lead by increasingly mentally unstable Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) having taken control of the Lonely Mountain and all the treasure that is in it. However, they also woke up the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the process who is now destroying nearby Laketown. Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) however successfully escapes from imprisonment and using a metal arrow manages to slay Smaug. This results in him becoming leader of the town.

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) meanwhile is rescued from the clutches of the Necromancer by old allies including Saruman (Christopher Lee), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Kate Blanchett) and Radagast (Sylvester McCoy). Gandalf tries to make his way back to Bilbo and the others, but war is about to occur.

Thorin becomes increasingly obsessed with regaining the treasured Arkenstone, unaware that Bilbo has already found it and does not want to hand it over less it make him even more insane. Bilbo therefore slips out, meets Gandalf and gives him the Arkenstone as a bargaining tool. Elves from Mirkwood lead by Thranduil (Lee Pace) and the men of Laketown demand that Thorin should give them part of the treasure that they own him and for additional aid. Even with the Arkenstone Thorin refuses. Things finally fall into place when a dwarf army lead by Thorin’s cousin Dain (Billy Connolly) arrive, only for another two armies of orcs also to attack. Thus the Battle of the Five Armies commences…

Much of what can be said about this movie has already been said about the other five Middle-Earth films made by Jackson. The acting is brilliant, what is depicted is thrilling, and the effects are top-notch. One personal highlight is a duel between Thorin and the head of the orc army Azog (Manu Bennett).

There are some questions about the faithfulness of the adaptation, like some characters appearing in events that they do not appear, and some characters that were invented just for the film (see Tauriel played by Evangeline Lilly), but no adaptation is going to please everyone.

The main factor of this film however is that at last both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings now finally been completed. The entire story has been told on screen. In terms of screen adaptations of literature, this is one of the key landmarks. As a Tolkien fan, my reaction is mixed. While it is great to see this remarkable epic tale being told, there is also that acknowledgement that this is the end. It is unlikely that Jackson or anyone else will come and adapt any other titles make by Tolkien such as The Silmarillion, which tells the story Middle-Earth’s creation and early history.

The Battle of the Five Armies is a good film, but overall the feeling you get is sadness at knowing that this is the end.

The Man Who Saved the World

April 23, 2015 by  
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The Man Who Saved the World 1

Nuclear disarmament is a hot topic right now. Although Peter Anthony’s new docufiction film, The Man Who Saved the World won’t be released in UK cinemas until after the election, the timing is still very relevant for British politics. Managing to combine the solemnness of the subject matter with an at times playful and very human approach, Anthony has created a powerful, provocative and emotive exposition into the politics of the Cold War era, and the ongoing threat of nuclear catastrophe.

Stanislav Petrov, for a brief moment in 1983, held the fate of the world in the palm of his hand.  In present day Russia, Petrov is an irritable, drunken old man living a solitary existence in an ironically post-apocalyptic looking Moscow estate. As we follow Petrov on his first journey to the US—which includes an honouring at the United Nations and meeting figures such as Matt Damon, Robert De Niro and Kevin Costner—we begin to get an idea of the debt the world owes him. Flashbacks recreate the fateful night in 1983 when everything went wrong. Petrov was the senior officer on duty at Serpukhov-15, the command centre for the Soviet Air Defence’s nuclear warning system when an incoming US missile was detected—and then another, and another. With five incoming missiles ultimately detected and confirmed and sirens piercing through the station, all of the officers looked in terror to Petrov; the ultimate decision of whether to retaliate before it was too late fell squarely on his shoulders. Protocol told him to strike back, but his heart told him to give the benefit of the doubt. Ultimately the film shows us how one man, during the peak of international tensions, used his humanity and compassion and saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

A biblical quote at the beginning sets the tone for the rest of the film; “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul” (Mark 8:36, King James Bible). Through the lens of the tensions between the two superpowers, The Man Who Saved the World examines the fundamental issues of political and diplomatic relations, power versus love and liberty and the poisonous influence of hate upon our shared humanity. The intertwining of Petrov’s personal life—his relationship with his cancer-stricken wife in the 1980s, his estrangement from his mother and dissatisfaction with the world—against the political backdrop emphasises the individual people that make up any nation, and the respect of human life of every nationality that should underpin all international relations. Petrov consistently and insistently rejects the praise that is rained upon him, telling the UN that he is not a hero, but a regular person who happened to be “at the right place at the right time”. The burden is too big for Petrov to bear, for, the message reads, choosing not to press a button and killing hundreds of millions of people should not be something we treat as a heroic act, but rather treat it as motivation towards the only heroic act available to us—that of nuclear disarmament.

The overwhelming message of The Man Who Saved the World is that the threat is ongoing; as long as both sides keep their nuclear arsenals, Petrov argues, we will never be far from nuclear war, and its only a matter of time until a city like New York has a bomb dropped on it. One of the most striking events in Petrov’s travels across America is a guarded tour of a defunct cold-war era missile silo. Despite demonstrating some strange appreciation and awe for the aesthetics—“it looks like a beautiful woman with a tight waist”—and power of the thing, Petrov quickly becomes enraged by the uninhibited enthusiasm the guide clearly has for nuclear weapons, and his insistence that they were designed to be used only in retaliation. As Petrov angrily points out, the other side thought that too—its time to forget the past, and for both sides to stop seeing the ‘other’ as the enemy.

Here we do run into a bit of trouble though, for Anthony at times relies heavily on imagery of the Middle Eastern conflict and 9/11 for emotional impact, labouring the point of ‘what would happen if the weapons fall into the wrong hands’—ignoring the destabilising impact the US and Russia had in these areas. The semantic implication is the demonisation of another group of people, which uncomfortably jars with the overall message of peace. At one point, Petrov bonds with some gun toting Americans at a shooting range by hitting his target—a cut out of Osama Bin Laden. Perhaps the Russians are not the enemy anymore, but Anthony is ultimately doing no one any favours by simply switching one bogeyman for another.

The Man Who Saved the World will be in UK cinemas on the 15th May.

Ballot Monkeys

April 21, 2015 by  
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Ballot Monkeys 1

If any of the writers of Newzoids are paying attention, THIS is how you write a topical comedy show.

Ballot Monkeys is set on the campaign bus for the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, Labour and UKIP (Green’s once again get overlooked), with prospective MPs and campaign workers trying their best at getting their message to the public.

On the Tory bus, campaigner Martin Frost (Hugh Dennis) is getting sick and tired of people liking Boris Johnson; Lib Dem Kevin Sturridge (Ben Miller) is just fed up of everyone taking the credit for everything the Lib Dems have done and getting no coverage except for reversing their view on tuition fees; the Labour bus has problems with their campaign posters, ranging from Ed Miliband decisively stabbing his brother David in the back and portraying David Cameron as a Page 3 Girl; and on UKIP’s battle bus, campaigner Gerry Stagg (Andy Nyman) keeps having to stop candidate Kate Stadnen (Sarah Hadland) from making all sorts of racist cock-ups, such as suggesting Nigel Farage should slay a dragon with a Muslim’s face on it.

Created by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, who have considerable experience in writing sitcoms to a tight deadline with their work on Drop the Dead Donkey, this series certainly made me laugh more than Newzoids did. Despite the fact they are writing to much tighter deadlines than their ITV rivals, Hamilton and Jenkin are able to make a much funnier show. Much of the humour that I personally found best was visual, such as Labour’s poster ideas, or Miller’s character trying to keep calm by looking at a photo of Michael Gove.

There were some nice moments too outside of the visual, such as in the Labour party bus when it was brought up that Chilcot was being delayed and MP candidate Jack Pardew (Trevor Cooper) suggested it would not be released until Tony Blair got Alzheimer’s.

Probably my favourite character in the show was Nyman’s UKIP man trying to keep everything under control, a seemingly impossible task when it seems that just about everyone in the party apart from himself or Farage is a bigot. I hate UKIP personally, but you can’t help but feel sorry for the character.

Of all the satirical comedies that have cropped up during the election so far, this has been the best by far.

Orange is the New Black – Season 3

April 21, 2015 by  
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Orange is the New Black 1

Netflix have started to drip-drip trailers and sneak peeks of the new season of Orange is the New Black to whet the appetites of sad-sack, loser fans currently trying to stave off withdrawal symptoms by speed-reading Piper Kerman’s memoirs and taking quizzes on Buzzfeed to find out what inmate they are. (Miss Claudette, if you’re interested, and I’m pissed off about it given that the only thing I have in common with that character is the inability to pull off a convincing Haitian accent).

The big news is that Alex is back in orange and seeking comfort from her former paramour, the sickeningly self-centred Piper, clearly unaware that it’s all her fault that she’s here. “It’s so nice to see you two back together,” croons Lorna. Really, Morello? By this point, you must be the only one who thinks so. And so the scene is set for the continuation of the Piper and Alex psychodrama and all of the betrayal, counter-betrayal, sulking and passive aggression you can shake a stick at. The laws of physics dictate that dysfunction of such epic proportions will inevitably draw in satellites, and so, enter Ruby Rose to complete the love triangle, filling in the vacancy left by dearly departed Larry, bourgeois turd extraordinaire.

Also MIA, is the fantastic Rosa, last seen dispatching Vee before speeding her way to freedom, leaving a trail of traumatised nuns in her wake. Following that particular incident, Vee is also absent but her shadow looms large. Season three sees Poussey and Suzanne still at loggerheads. Poussey is convinced that Vee is dead, circumstances she doesn’t find unfavourable. Suzanne, on the other hand, longs for the return of her arch-manipulator maternal substitute and has managed to convince herself that it will happen against all the odds. (This is a sentiment Nicky fans will sympathise with – Litchfield’s finest is ominously thin on the ground in the previews). How the group will manage to rebuild itself in a post-Vee universe is clearly going to be a running thread throughout the season, which means lots of lovely screen time for Taystee and the gang.

Vee’s absence leaves two vacancies. The first is for prison top dog, a place slid into by default by a triumphant Red. The second is for season psycho. With Pennysatucky reformed both spiritually and dentally, the smart money for the job is new girl, Lolly, previously featured befriending Piper on Con Air before getting beaten in the yard of the Chicago Metropolitan Detention Facility while Piper gazed uselessly on. I see sweet, prolonged and mouth-wateringly cray-cray revenge on the horizon. Bring it on.

The C Word

April 16, 2015 by  
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The C Word

I would be lying to you if I said I did not cry while watching this movie. The C Word based on the true-life events of Lisa Lynch is not just another cancer movie. Yes, it may be a movie that deals with cancer but the bigger picture here is the portrayal of the beauty of life.

In this BBC One special, Sheridan Smith plays Lisa Lynch who as a young newly married 28 year old receives the news that she has breast cancer. Upon finding that out, Lisa decides to begin a blog to document her struggles and triumphs with “the Bullshit” aka cancer.

The blog becomes a place for her emotions but also for her family and friends to keep up with how she’s doing. As time progresses, she builds a community around her blog and eventually even gets to write her own book and beat cancer.

Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worst when her cancer comes back full force and this time it’s terminal. As the movie progressed, I could feel the audience going through the ups and downs Lisa was facing. There were clear sounds of just out right sobbing and it was difficult to not root for a woman who was fighting so hard.

I must say that this is one of the best portrayals of cancer I have seen adapted on screen. Director Tim Kirkby does an amazing job at working out the difficult scenes and writer Nicole Taylor does justice to the book with her script.

The main message of this movie was not about death but rather about life. It showed the audience the importance of finding joy about every day and to also see that cancer is a true struggle and in no ways should be romanticized. It also brings awareness about checking for signs of cancer and to really open up a conversation about death.

I would highly recommend this film to everyone because cancer is a scary thing and the more we understand it, the less of a fear it becomes.

The C Word is to air on BBC One later this April.

Newzoids

April 15, 2015 by  
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Newzoids 1

Newzoids is a satirical impressionist show which features puppets, broadcast on ITV this week. It is a completely original idea – provided you ignore Spitting Image, which was a satirical impressionist show which features puppets, broadcast on ITV in the 1980s and 1990s.

Amongst the sketches and characters in Newzoids they include David Cameron (in full Bullingdon Club gear) being carried in a sedan chair by Eric Pickles and a seemingly grey George Osborne to a drive-thru; Mel and Sue being hired to break bad news; Kim Jong-un presenting his own take on The One Show called The Un Show (so they can do that pun too many times); Nigel Farage as a dodgy pub comic; and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge having to deal with the horror that Prince George is common.

There was nothing that really made me laugh in the opening episode. The closest was when the Duchess of Cambridge was outraged at being called “nouveau riche”, and a parody of “500 Miles” performed by Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. There were some issues with one or two of the impressions themselves. I suspect that it was Simon Greenall doing Vladimir Putin; because the voice he used was very similar to the one he does for Aleksandr Orlov in the Compare the Market/Meerkat ads. There are also technical issues. One sketch features Cameron and Nick Clegg fighting on The Jeremy Kyle Show, but the problem there is that because the puppet fingers are fixed and cannot be moved, the puppets cannot clinch their fists and punch properly, like the ones on Spitting Image could. Plus the mouths seem to be CGI-ed on and don’t look as good as if they were just operated mechanically.

The big problem with this show however, is that no matter how good this show can be, it will always be judged against Spitting Image, and Spitting Image was such an iconic programme it’s hard to come up with an impression show that can be as good. It’s like someone today trying to make a sitcom set in a hotel, and trying to be as good as Fawlty Towers. The only other impression show which has been as successful in terms of longevity is BBC Radio 4’s Dead Ringers, which does not need to worry about such technical aspects, it just needs good voices. While a TV impressions show could be brilliant, Newzoids lacks originality (compare grey George Osborne to grey John Major for example).

Having said this however, it could be worse. During the adverts between Newzoids and The Delivery Man (another new ITV comedy, which was a lot more enjoyable), I was reminded there were worse puppets out there – I for one certainly have no Dolmio day.

Coalition

April 13, 2015 by  
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Coalition 1

The night is dark and full of terrors, an austere winter is coming and when you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you end up softly weeping in an IT suite. There is no middle ground.

May 2010. The British public has gone to the polls and returned an indecisive election result. Neither of the main parties have achieved enough seats to form a majority government. The burdensome role of kingmaker falls onto the shoulders of an idealistic and handsome prince by the name of Nick Clegg. The leader of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown, very Scottish and moody with it, has lost the love of the people and yet hopes to cling to power by forming an allegiance with the Liberal Democrats, their ancient allies. However, the chinless champion of the Conservatives, David Cameron, the force of destiny weighing heavily on his heart, has different plans.

How Clegg treads through these treacherous waters will determine the fate of a nation, not to mention electoral reform, which he can’t stop blubbering on about every forty seconds.

For a contemporary drama Coalition is distinctly lacking in cynicism. None of these politicians apparently have egos; all they want is the greatest good for the country they love so dearly. This gets very tiresome, very quickly. Thank God then for Peter Mandelson (an uncannily accurate portrayal by Mark Gatiss) who slithers around Westminster oozing a snail-trail of chicanery and slime behind him who lights up the screen with a blaze of sinister trickiness. At one point, he looms onto stage in a puff of dry ice and someone refers to him as the Prince of Darkness. I’m not joking.

But if Mandelson is ridiculous, Paddy Ashdown, played by Donald Sumpter, is genuinely surreal. The elder statesman spends the entire run time observing the action with saddened, war-weary eyes like Banquo’s ghost at the feast. Even when Clegg’s in his private office trying to get on with making phone calls, Ashdown is there. Reproachful. Creepy. Presumably uninvited.

At one point, I realised that people moved passed Ashdown as if he didn’t exist and he was only ever shown speaking in direct conversation with Clegg himself. I started to wonder if perhaps if Ashdown was a figment of Clegg’s imagination. Perhaps Ashdown symbolised Clegg’s conflicted conscience? Or perhaps he was a manifestation of an impending psychotic break? After all, Clegg does spend an inordinate amount of time staring out of windows at nothing, muttering to himself about ‘real change’ without ever defining what that might entail like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

But as it turns out, Ashdown wasn’t a symbolic figure of the darker side of Cleggmania. He’s just a man who the Liberal Democrats all apparently respect. And so it is left to Ashdown to settle the nerves of the mutinous Lib Dem troops and seal the fate of the country by encouraging them to sign up for the coalition agreement with a rip-roaring speech which actually ends; “Fuck it, let’s do it.”

“Huzzah! Huzzah!” The Liberal Democrat MPs chant, and march cheerfully to their doom.

In a nutshell, Coalition is awkward, cloying and sometimes outright disorientating. It’s not even interesting enough to warrant the one and a quarter hour run time. But in fairness, with the material Graham had to work with, he can’t exactly be blamed for any of that.

Coalition is currently available on My4.

Code of a Killer

April 2, 2015 by  
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The new ITV series is based upon a crime committed in 1984 concerning two dead girls and a mysterious killer who became the first person to be caught using DNA evidence.

Detective David Barker (David Threlfall) has been working the murder of Lynda Mann for over a year when a killer with a similar MO strikes again. During this time Alec Jefferys (John Simm), a scientist, has been working tirelessly to figure out how to use each person’s DNA as an individual marker of their identity.

After many months, Jefferys is successful, and it is at this point that that Barker first stumbles upon his scientific findings. Barker, desperate to break his case asks Jefferys for his help. How this ends is up for viewers to find out in this two part series.

The beginning is a bit slow at first, with both plots being very separate and you’re not quiet sure how they’ll intersect. At first I thought Jefferys might be the killer until I realised that he was actually helping the case.

As the minutes ticked by, I found myself more and more captivated by the story. I was curious as to who the real killer was and the questionable actions of the suspect they had arrested. I wanted to know more about Jefferys and his findings and how the killer had managed to kill more than once without mishap.

Directed by James Strong and written by Michael Compton, the series has been adapted and approved by the family of the true crime. The mother spoke to Mirror, stating, I’ve read the script and although it brings back all those awful memories, I really believe it will do something positive and help keep this evil monster locked away for life.”

I believe that this series will give knowledge to people who may not be familiar with the case and/or the scientific discovery that started a crime solving revolution. It is well worth the watch.


Code of a Killer is on ITV1 at 9pm on April 6th

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