Last year ITV set the bar really high when it came to drama; The Widower, Prey and Cilla to name just three.
However this year, Mr Selfridge aside, has been fairly poor when it comes to drama. Endless period dramas never have drawn my interest and Mr Selfridge aside, ITV are yet to deliver a great non-period drama this year. The second series of Broadchurch should have been fantastic, instead it was mediocre at best.
But as we enter April, I have a feeling this is all about to change with the arrival of two brand new dramas, both by Michael Crompton; Code of a Killer and Safe House. I've seen both and they're both of a very high standard, real edge-of-your-seat gripping drama that ITV do so well.
The first of these dramas to air is Code of a Killer, based on the extraordinary true story of Alec Jeffreys’ discovery of DNA fingerprinting and its first use by Detective Chief Superintendent David Baker in catching a double murderer. Last night I was invited down to BAFTA to watch both 90-minute episodes.
At the start of the screening Peter Fincham, ITV's Director of Television, introduced the piece and pointed out that Sir Alec Jeffreys (as he's now known) and David Baker, were actually in the audience tonight. A real treat and a real honour, as mentioned in the Q&A afterwards it's often rockstars or politicians who are the subject of television dramas, not often ordinary people who have done extraordinary things, and Code of a Killer is absolutely a drama that does just that.
David Threlfall, is best known for playing Frank Gallagher in Shameless, but last year he proved himself as a fantastic actor when he played Tommy Cooper in ITV's Not Like That, Like This and he puts in yet another great performance in Code of a Killer. He plays DCS David Baker, who between 1983 and 1987 headed up the investigation into the brutal murders of two Leicestershire schoolgirls, Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth.
John Simm, who was excellent in Prey last year for ITV plays Dr Alec Jeffreys, a scientist at Leicester University who on the 10th September 1984 invented a remarkable technique to read each individual's unique DNA fingerprint.
When a local teenager admits to one of the murders but not the other, Baker asks Jeffreys to analyse the DNA evidence left at the crime scenes. Both men are shocked to discover that despite confessing, the teenager is innocent. This is when DCS Baker took the extraordinarily brave step to launch the world’s first ever DNA manhunt, testing over five thousand local men, in the hope of tracking down the killer.
Based on a true story, this is a fantastic story to tell as a drama and it was an absolute treat to be able to watch both episodes, back-to-back, on the large screen at BAFTA. After the screening there was a Q&A with writer Michael Crompton, executive producer Simon Heath and of course leading actors, David Threlfall and John Simm.
At the start of the Q&A it was revealed the reasons for retelling this true story came from director of Code of a Killer, James Strong a few years ago. James told Michael Crompton about the events that happened in the villages of Narborough, Littlethorpe and Enderby in 1983 and 1986 and had even made a documentary himself several years ago which he had always thought would work well as a drama... and he wasn't wrong.
The first episode opens with the usual disclaimer - "The following is based on a true story. Some characters and scenes have been created and names changed for the purposes of dramatisation." Set on the 21st November 1983, 15-year-old Lynda Mann is found by a footpath, raped and strangled to death.
A year on, after an exhaustive but fruitless search for the killer, Detective Chief Superintendent David Baker is forced to scale down the investigation, but it just so happens that just a few miles up the road at the University of Leicester, scientist Dr Alec Jeffreys has invented a remarkable technique to read DNA.
He is able to uncover the unique genetic fingerprint of every individual, something that despite decades of research across the globe, no one else was able to do. His discovery is first put to use in an immigration case, and the acceptance of Jeffreys’ findings in a court of law opens the door to DNA testing and he and his university laboratory are swamped by paternity and immigration cases.
Fast forward a couple of years to the summer of 1986, and 15-year-old Dawn Ashworth goes missing, just a hundred yards from where Lynda's body was discovered. Dawn’s body is found two days later, she has been strangled and hidden in undergrowth near a footpath shortcut. DCS Baker is back on the case, and is convinced that the same culprit has struck again.
The two of them meet after Baker reads about Jeffreys’ work in a local paper and approaches him at the university. He hopes the DNA test can prove the teenagers involvement in Lynda’s death, however Jeffreys is hesitant as the DNA sample from the murder scene is nearly three years old, and the technique was not intended or designed for criminal investigation. However, having only ever used this DNA test in paternity and immigration cases, Jeffrey's isn't sure about whether or not the findings would be accepted in a criminal court.
But Jeffreys is able to obtain a clear genetic fingerprint of the murderer from a sample and it proves that the teenager did not kill Lynda Mann… could the murders have been committed by two different men, or is he innocent? And that's where the drama really begins.
The second episode sees DNA fingerprinting and forensic DNA introduced to the world for the first time as the teenager is cleared of her murder meaning the murderer is still very much out there. So it's back to square one for Baker, and it's not long before he realises that the usual routes of enquiry just aren’t working. They need something else, and they need it to work before the killer strikes again. He believes science is his answer. If this new DNA fingerprinting can eliminate a killer, it can surely catch one.
Cue the world’s first DNA manhunt, testing the blood of every man in the area aged between 18 and 34, seeking a match with the killer's DNA. But the question remains, and of course I won't spoil it for you - Will they catch the killer?
Speaking about playing the parts of David Baker, Threlfall revealed that he did meet with Baker before filming, they went out for dinner, but remained cagey about what was said between them as he felt that should remain private. He also revealed that he had very strong opinions about the teenager who admits to the murder but is later found not guilty, but it's a view he's "not allowed to voice in public."
John Simm took a different approach, and did not meet with Alec ahead of filming as "the point was to tell the story, not to do an impression." And in fact when he first read the script, John talked about how he dove straight in and thought that what he was reading was fiction, until it started to dawn on him that it wasn't, and of course when he googled Alec Jeffrey's he found out he's one of the most famous scientists ever!
Code of a Killer is a really strong drama that grips you right from the very beginning and whilst you may be able to see the ending coming a mile off, the fact it's based on a true story means that isn't an issue. A true story I might add, that I had never heard of before but thanks to ITV, I now have. DNA is something that most of us take for granted and it's hard to imagine a world where police didn't use it to catch criminals... even if it was only founded fairly recently (late 1980s).
Yes 90 minutes is a long time to watch a drama, but believe me, it's worth it. In fact, in many ways it's a shame you're going to have to wait a week before seeing part two. I was fortunate enough to watch it on a big screen back-to-back, both episodes, and I really believe it enhanced my experience and understanding of the story. So much so, that I couldn't actually tell where one episode ended and the other started.
Code of a Killer tells such an interesting and compelling story in a way that I'm sure will grip viewers of all ages, helped by a fantastic script and of course brilliant performances from not only Simm and Threlfall, but also the great supporting cast, including; Anna Madeley, Andrew Tiernan, Robert Glenister, Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Copley and Lydia Rose Bewley.