Gareth Smith reviews a headline January drama from ITV; The Pembrokeshire Murders, starring Luke Evans, tells the true story of a winding police investigation with some unlikely twists and turns.
I’m not sure what it is about January that screams ‘grisly murders’, but TV schedulers are obviously hearing it loud and clear. Almost exactly one year after the broadcast of White House Farm, and alongside The Serpent on the BBC, the arrival of The Pembrokeshire Murders suggests that revisiting violent and bloody crimes is now something of a new year tradition.
The three-part drama focuses on the events that led Inspector Steve Wilkins (Luke Evans) to believe that John William Cooper (Keith Allen) was responsible for a string of unsolved crimes in the titular county. Text at the beginning of the first episode dutifully informs us that this is a dramatisation and that details have been changed to protect anonymity, which is perhaps intended to assuage any viewer guilt about consuming a real-life tragedy as a form of entertainment. Despite these assurances, true crime dramas inevitably produce a different effect than their fictional counterparts. The sensationalism and melodrama which feel perfectly natural in Luther or Unforgotten often seem disrespectful when applied to recent events and the stories of real people. Luckily, The Pembrokeshire Murders treats its narrative of senseless and sadistic murders with measured solemnity rather than morbid voyeurism.
This commitment to understatement, however, does mean that the drama sometimes lacks energy and intensity, a tendency particularly evident in the characters. Anyone who saw Stephen Graham’s execrable attempt at a Welsh accent in White House Farm will breathe a huge sigh of relief to see that all of the principal roles are played by actual Welsh actors – which, for reasons unknown, is still a novelty in mainstream drama. Alongside Evans, it is heartening to see familiar faces like Alexandra Riley, Caroline Berry and Steven Meo fleshing out the cast. The performances are uniformly strong, but the characters themselves primarily serve the plot. Wilkins is presented as a competent and diligent investigator, but not a charismatic one. The storyline of his strained relationship with his teenage son could be taken from the script of any number of similar dramas. Similarly, a shot of him opening a microwavable ready meal to signify his loneliness is lifted directly from the crime drama cliches hall of fame.
As is usually the case, those playing the worst characters get the better material. Keith Allen is remarkably unremarkable as Cooper, exuding a mundanity that makes the knowledge of his sadistic crimes all the more chilling. As the remaining episodes play out, it seems that the cat-and-mouse game between the two men will dominate the drama. The tension which usually drives the action in a murder case – the identity of the killer – is here replaced with an alternative source of jeopardy, as Wilkins tries to prevent Cooper leaving prison before he can pin the murders on him.
The first episode still has plenty to recommend it, including effective utilisation of the striking local landscape, but it also highlights the difficulties inherent to the true crime genre. Turning tragedy into a spectacle can be tasteless but sticking too rigidly to the facts removes a lot of the elements that make detective dramas so gripping in the first place. Based on the first episode, it is difficult to know to know whether The Pembrokeshire Murders has got the balance quite right.
The Pembrokeshire Murders is available to watch on ITV and ITVhub.