Friday, November 24, 2023

Steeltown Murders, on Acorn TV

In 1973, the local Port Talbot cops not so respectfully declined offers of help from the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard), out of Welsh nationalism and turf consciousness. As a result, the “Saturday Night Strangler” murders remained unsolved in 2002, when DNA developments prompted a re-opening of the case. In addition to advances in science, DCI Paul Bethel is also determined to avoid all the mistakes he witnessed as a very junior member of the original investigation in the four-part Steeltown Murders, written by Ed Whitmore and directed by Marc Evans, which premieres Monday on Acorn TV.

Back in 1973, when everyone was cranking Mott the Hoople, Port Talbot was reeling from the murders of Geraldine Hughes and Pauline Floyd, two teens who were brutally murdered, after accepting a ride home from the unknown suspect. At the time, Bethel wanted to explore similarities to the previous murder of Sandra Newton, but the pompous inspector in charge of the task force, refuses to consider any linkage. Three decades later, DNA vindicates Bethel, but it cannot identify the killer, because the DNA database is still so limited.

Recruiting DC Phil “Bach” Rees, his former colleagues from the 1973 investigation, Bethel reinvestigates the three murders, starting by swabbing all the former potential suspects who give their consent. However, they are only allocated resources for a mere 500 swabs. Bethel hopes one will be enough when his longtime prime suspect agrees to be tested—but he won’t be that lucky.

The first three episodes flash backwards and forwards, showing how mistakes from the past continue to torment everyone involved in the present of 2002. It is mostly competent but conventional stuff. However, the fourth episode really shows why Whitmore and Evans were so interested in this story.

Bethel is down to two suspects. One happens to be dead and requiring exhumation, a fraught process that will require approvals all the way up the chain to the Home Secretary (a mixed equivalent of the Attorney General and DHS Secretary in the U.S.). This turns into some crackling drama, requiring Bechel to navigate the sensitivities of the families of the victims and the accused. Meanwhile, DC Geraint Bale, the junior member of Bechel’s three-man team, chases down DNA for their other, suspiciously uncooperative suspect.

Philip Glenister is terrific as the older and hopefully wiser Bethel. He looks like he was born to play a rumpled everyman and he knocks it out the park. In fact, he makes an impressively consistent and cohesive tag-team with Scott Arthur, as the young, sidelined DC Bechel. Steffan Rhodri is just as deeply haunted as the older (and very definitely wiser) DC Rees, who struggles to temper the hard-charging Bechel. This is not a glamorous looking ensemble, but they pack a lot of emotional punch, like Keith Allen, who has a devastating scene as the step-father of one victim, explaining what it was like to live under a cloud of suspicion for three decades.

You really have to go all the way with
Steeltown Murders, but it is worth it. The concluding episode might be one of the best directed single hours of television all year, featuring some incredible work from the cast. (The first three episodes could have been edited into two, but then it might not have been as packageable for broadcast and streaming.) Regardless, it definitely all comes together. Recommended for fans of British true crime dramas, Steeltown Murders starts streaming Monday (11/27) on Acorn.