Moors Murders: The Witness review – these heinous crimes have nothing more to teach us

This three-part documentary which hangs on ‘never before seen’ letters and an interview with Myra Hindley’s brother-in-law is a thinly veiled ratings-chaser with little value

Is it strange, or is it wrong, that I hadn’t thought of them in a while? Or is that, in fact, the way it should be? Should we let monsters endure in the memory or should we deny them as much space in our lives as we can?

There was no sign that any such questions had been asked before or during the making of Channel 4’s new three-part documentary Moors Murders: The Witness, which dragged the heinous crimes of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley before us once again. I looked for a reason for it – the marking of some terrible anniversary, perhaps, or the beginning of a new search of Saddleworth Moor for Keith Bennett’s body, which remains the only one of the couple’s five victims not yet found. There seems to be none.

The hook on which the programme hangs is some “never before seen” letters from Brady and Hindley to Janie Jones. She had been serving a sentence for vice charges in HMP Holloway in the 1970s when Hindley was there, and potentially saved the latter’s life when she was attacked by another inmate. They stayed in touch after Jones was released. Over the years, as further evidence about Hindley’s involvement in the crimes emerged and the stories told to Jones became inconsistent, Jones started writing to Brady to try to collate facts. “My psychology was – I’d do one serial killer against the other,” says Jones, with a degree of sang-froid that begins to chill one’s own blood.

It also features interview footage with David Smith (who died in 2012), Hindley’s brother-in-law and friend of Brady who witnessed the murder of Edward Evans and testified to it in court, helping to secure their convictions and life sentences. We hear the shocking story Smith told the court of Brady murdering 17-year-old Evans in front of him with an axe. Hindley had, it appears, deliberately brought Smith over to witness the killing so that Brady could have a hold over him. What they didn’t expect – a small but telling indication of their distance from normal morality – was that he would go home, tell his wife (Hindley’s sister, Maureen) what had happened and the next morning, when people were around and he felt safe, call the police and tell them everything.

This basic tale, bleak in summary and bleaker in the telling of it, is padded out by interviews with Jones, readings from the letters and analysis by a psychologist and a criminologist that is so trite and unilluminating you wonder how far down the list of potential contributors the producers had to go to find someone willing to give their two penn’orth and whether this should not, at some point, have given them pause for thought about the value of the programme they were putting together.

Because really, there is none. The letters only reinforce what we already know about the killers – that Brady (diagnosed as a psychopath in 1985 and an inhabitant of high-security Ashworth hospital until he died) was a mass of grandiose delusions, cruelties, manipulations and narcissism. Hindley refused to take any responsibility for her part in the murders no matter who she was talking to or how much she claimed to trust them, blaming Brady and his hold over her until the end. Smith was saying what he has already said, with purpose, in court half a century ago. It was as if somebody at Channel 4 had simply decided that enough time had passed to make it OK for us all to hear about it again.

There is an argument that says silence can be complicity. If we don’t keep the knowledge of what terrible things people can do alive in collective and cultural memory, we risk allowing them to happen again. The counter-argument is that there comes a point when we have learned all we can from individual horrors such as Brady and Hindley, the foul but extraordinary outliers. And that by concentrating our attention on these singular and singularly extreme monsters, we allow ourselves to ignore greater but less spectacular, obvious horrors – rampant child abuse in the home, perhaps, endemic violence against women by “ordinary” men, or a police force so corrupted by misogyny and racism that it is barely fit for purpose, to name but the first few that immediately occur to me.

To my mind, we have long stripped the Moors murders of anything valuable they can teach us. And that was never too much – you can safely say there has always been a consensus against child murder. Varying public attitudes towards male and female murderers are a known phenomenon and we move to arm ourselves against its unjust effects. To rake these murders up again at this point in history requires a strong justification to defend against charges of simple salaciousness, titillation or ratings-chasing. Perhaps this will emerge in the remaining two episodes. I hope so.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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