Forensics: The Real CSI review – the antidote to tawdry true crime

In the real-world CSI, there’s plenty of blood and some harrowing stories – but because life doesn’t wrap up neatly in 45-minute chunks, there’s no telling you’ll get the bad guy

The great problem with programmes like Forensics: The Real CSI (BBC Two), which deliberately evoke CSI: Miami/New York/somewhere equally glamorous and free of gun control, is that real life just doesn’t have a big enough budget. It’s a bit drab, you know? A bit meh. The lighting isn’t great, the surfaces aren’t shiny enough and almost no one gets to deliver gnomic one-liners as he stands over a carefully arranged corpse and puts on his shades.

Art, in other words, has ruined us for life. Nearly 30 years ago, in his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (before they turned it into Homicide: Life on the Street, the best police series ever made, even though it appears for some reason to have been largely written out of televisual history), David Simon noted police concerns that juries were becoming less willing to convict criminals because the evidence rarely seemed as plentiful or clear-cut as they were used to seeing on screen. Now, even documentaries seem lacking.

It is not that there was anything wrong with this tracing of two cases being investigated by Newcastle police and some of the 26 forensic specialists the Northumbrian force has at its disposal. It was a conscientious look at “the harvest” – the painstaking gathering of evidence in the immediate aftermath of an apparent crime – after two incidents on opposite sides of the city. One, a gun fired through the patio windows of a potential witness in an upcoming court case; the other, a bloodstained young man found dead in an equally bloodstained flat by the father who called round because his son had seemed worried last time they had met.

Samples of the shattered window glass are taken. The wadding and lead pellets from a shotgun cartridge are recovered. Unused cartridges are found outside and fast-tracked to the lab, where forensic examiner Sally Agnew gently swabs their outsides – hard enough to take off the most recent layer of DNA, assumed to be the shooter’s, not so hard that she gets the DNA of everyone else who has ever handled them too – while officers continue house-to-house inquiries, hoping for leads and a suspect whose double helices will match Agnew’s results and damn him.

Across town, Kathryn Bolam is the crime scene manager at the bloodied flat. The body, in its once-white T-shirt, is face down and half-hidden under a desk. Did he try to hide from an assailant, crawl there in his death throes, or was he pushed there? There are gouts and spatter in every room and a red-stained knife on the desk. His father waits outside, oddly calm. “It was worse after I found him,” he remembers. “I had just clicked into ‘get the police, get the ambulance’ … Days after, it came through that he was dead … You always expect to go after your children.”

Perimeters checked, noted and photographed, it is time to turn the body over. “Oh,” says Bolam softly. “It’s his neck. Deep. Deep.”

The body is taken to the morgue and forensic pathologist Nigel Cooper finds no defensive marks on the hands, and a number of tentative superficial wounds on the throat before the fatal cut. The blood in every room came from the man staggering around as he died. It is not murder but suicide.

So that is the how. His father can only guess at the why. “He lived by himself … he had dogs, but they can’t answer you back. It was loneliness must have driven him to it.”

Back at the shooting scene, progress has been made. A witness has provided a name, and a suspect eventually hands himself in. He admits nothing, but a mouth-swab determines that his DNA “is well-represented” in the mixed profile they got off all three cartridges. When they take his clothes for examination, a shard of glass falls out of his shoe. The CPS agrees he can be charged while the shard is examined. A forensic reporting officer takes us through the process of chipping away at it and a comparator fragment in the hope that their refractive indices will match. But because life does not have to wrap itself up neatly in 45-minutes-plus-ad-breaks – they do not. The case is holed beneath the waterline. The police have to settle for charging their suspect with illegal possession of a shotgun cartridge, which nets him a two-month sentence.

I fear we will live to see the day when a new police force is born, sponsored by a streaming service (deeper-pocketed than the BBC), with the express job of providing juicier endings for documentaries. Until then, for us, as for the good people of CSI: IRL, the frustrations of the job, the grief of the people left behind and a lot of patience must be the order of the day.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
I Love You, Now Die review – twisting truth behind a true-crime shocker
This two-parter about a teenager who sent thousands of texts to her boyfriend suggesting ways he could take his life starts out simple and horrific. Then the surprises start coming

Lucy Mangan

06, Oct, 2019 @9:15 PM

Article image
The Confession review – you’ll study every gesture in this true-crime documentary
Keith Hall confessed his wife’s murder to an officer wearing a wire – and was found innocent. This programme will leave you scrutinising his every second on screen to make your mind up about him

Jack Seale

25, Nov, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Kids on the Edge review – an antidote to the hysteria around gender identity
The first of Peter Beard’s three-part series looking at children’s mental health visits an NHS identity development clinic and steadily dismantles inaccurate fears around what is clearly a complex process

Rebecca Nicholson

17, Nov, 2016 @7:20 AM

Article image
The Detectives: Murder on the Streets review – the detective documentary as Manc noir
A fascinating look into the realities of a murder investigation. Plus, from Nollywood pastiche to Black History UK garage style, new sketch show Famalam

Sam Wollaston

21, Sep, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
The Contraceptive Pill: How Safe Is It? review – a welcome antidote to the scare stories
There was a lot of science to get through, but Dr Zoe Williams explained it all in a manner that looked effortless

Lucy Mangan

21, Nov, 2018 @10:00 PM

Article image
Damilola: The Boy Next Door review – the powerful truth behind the headlines
Broadcaster Yinka Bokinni brings old friends together to remember their childhood friend Damilola Taylor, killed 20 years ago, and the community that he touched

Ellen E Jones

28, Oct, 2020 @10:00 PM

Article image
Conviction: Murder at the Station review – a gripping search for truth
Did Roger Kearney really kill his lover in 2008, or is he serving a life sentence on little direct evidence? This BBC two-parter allows the viewer to judge both sides of the argument

Tim Dowling

22, Sep, 2016 @6:20 AM

Article image
Accused of Murdering Our Son: The Steven Clark Story review – a bizarre yet gripping mystery
ITV’s one-off follows an elderly couple accused of killing their son 28 years ago, but their own behaviour proves more intriguing than the evidence around the case

Ellen E Jones

22, Apr, 2021 @9:00 PM

Article image
The Murder of Rhys Jones: Police Tapes review – a forensic examination of the efforts to catch a boy’s killer
It took eight months of painstaking work by Merseyside police to break the omerta surrounding the shooting of 11-year-old Rhys and get justice for his grieving parents, as this documentary recalls

Lucy Mangan

21, Jun, 2018 @9:00 PM

Article image
An Hour to Catch a Killer With Trevor McDonald review – you're less of a viewer, more part of the investigation
The extraordinary access given by the police in the immediate aftermath of the death of Alice Ruggles makes this documentary rivetting – but also heartbreaking

Sam Wollaston

13, Oct, 2017 @4:59 AM