Not Just Tolerated, but Loved: Andrew Billen on the Awkward Truths of Shipman, a Docudrama That Disappoints. (Television)
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
Just as Dr Harold Shipman traded on his folksy bedside manner, so ITV's dramatisation of how he murdered 15 going-on 200 patients got by on the folksiness of its setting. Although set in the late 1990s, Shipman (9 July, 9pm, ITV1) looked like a cosy period drama, a cross between All Creatures Great and Small and Miss Marple Investigates. If only the murders had indeed happened a century ago, we might have actually enjoyed it. As it was, who did not sympathise with the outrage of the relatives of those he killed? ITV was making a drama out of tragedy even before its extent had been determined.
To rehabilitate his commission, several options were available to Michael Eaton, the writer. One might have been to concentrate on the police investigation. This would have had the virtue of concentrating the mind on procedural flaws and the lessons to be drawn from them. It would also have shoved the murders off-screen. A really clever script might even have avoided showing Shipman's face at all.
A more ambitious approach would have been to assess Shipman's motives and make a biopic that stretched back to his childhood, the early death of his mother from cancer, and his later drug addiction and censure by the General Medical Council. The film could have ended with him about to take his first life.
One can, however, see the problems with either alternative. The investigators were slow off the mark but there was one, not terribly interesting, excuse for the slowness: the sheer unlikelihood of what was going on. Once the investigation started, it was relatively quick, for the equally boring reason that you did not need to be a Sherlock Holmes to work out what was happening. The only interesting forensic breakthrough came when it was discovered that Shipman had altered the dates of his computer records, a deduction that it apparently took a porcine computer geek no longer to arrive at than it took him to eat a pepperoni pizza.
Attempting a detailed portrait of Shipman would have been equally likely to fail, as the man was inscrutably dull. The film showed his facade of avuncular authority cracking only twice: first when, under interrogation, he forgot how many nines there were in "999" and second when, bang to rights, he broke down and wept as he clutched his solicitor's legs. The one other insight was the state of his home, which seemed to be the sort of place that made you want to wipe your feet as you leave.
So Eaton took the most plodding approach of all and came in to the story the moment just before suspicions were raised, but while some of the murders were still about to happen. With one fleeting flashback, the story proceeded soberly, via a series of deaths, until Shipman was jailed. …