All About Gillian

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Gillian Anderson’s sadistic thriller The Fall feeds our taste for slaughter on TV (2013)

BBC Two’s new thriller The Fall, starring Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan, is the latest to tap into our cold obsession with murder on TV, says Matthew Sweet.

Gillian Anderson’s sadistic thriller The Fall feeds our taste for slaughter on TVBBC Two’s new thriller The Fall, starring Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan, is the latest to tap into our cold obsession with murder on TV, says Matthew Sweet.

In an ordinary sitting room in Northern Ireland, a little girl is putting on a show. She’s applied a lick of someone else’s make-up. She’s remembered all the moves. She’s giving it everything. Her mum is smiling her encouragement. Her dad, though, is distracted, in that way that dads often are. Most parents know how it feels to half-watch a child while the bigger part of your brain chugs through some problem from work. But Paul Spector’s downward glance towards the Belfast Chronicle tells us that his preoccupations are different. This man is thinking about the woman whom he has just bound, gagged and killed – and is making plans to add another victim to his list.

Allan Cubitt’s new drama The Fall looks, at first glance, like a Jekyll and Hyde story. Its protagonist (played by Jamie Dornan) is a bereavement counsellor, husband and father who, under cover of darkness, rolls on his balaclava, picks up his murderer’s toolkit – torch, duck tape, plastic ties – and slips from the family home to commit acts of murderous sexual violence.

His creator – whose form includes Prime Suspect 2, The Runaway and Murphy’s Law – does not, however, want his audience to feel comfortably distant from the killer on the screen. “To me he’s not psychotic,” he says. “I think we’re on a continuum with him. My fantasies are – thank God – not like his, but I understand what it’s like to have a fantasy life. I’m a writer. And I’m also a man.”

Those who spin stories about male violence against women don’t always like to discuss their motives. Three years ago I interviewed the director Michael Winterbottom about his eye-wateringly brutal film The Killer Inside Me, and suggested to him that the most articulate works about sadism – Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) or Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) – were made by those who weren’t afraid to acknowledge their own sadistic impulses. He rejected the idea. Rather crossly, as I recall.

When I ask Cubitt about the relationship between his script and his own fantasy life, he draws an understandably slow breath, knowing, I think, that whatever he says will sit uncomfortably on the page. “That’s probably quite an awkward question to answer,” he admits. “I’m glad to say I’m not given to violence, but I’ve been obsessed by people. The closest I would have come to insane behaviour is being in the grip of some romantic love that’s gone badly wrong. My most jealous moments have probably been my most insane moments – when I’ve not been able to stop myself throwing things at windows or trying to kick down doors…”

Passion like this, however, is too hot an emotion for the killer that Cubitt has conjured into life. Paul Spector doesn’t throw things at windows: he lurks outside them, peering in. He doesn’t kick down doors: he slides, catlike, through the one with the dodgy lock. His obsessions are invisible to those around him. Outwardly, he is cool, unengaged.

Significantly, The Fall doesn’t offer this emotional detachment as an exotic phenomenon. It’s exhibited by some of the clients we meet in Spector’s office, and it’s also the defining characteristic of the police officer leading the investigation into his crimes, DCI Stella Gibson – played with glassy determination by Gillian Anderson. A memorable scene from the first episode sees Gibson hunkered over her computer, late at night. In her hand she’s cradling a huge red wine. Her jaw works at a mouthful of food. On the screen is a photograph of a bruised corpse.

Cubitt has talked to detectives about the emotional distance they must maintain in order to survive the daily transit from the crime scene and the mortuary to the family home. Officers working on cases of multiple murder have confessed to him that they sometimes find themselves willing the killer to strike again, in order to gain evidence that might secure a conviction.

Perhaps, Cubitt suggests, murderers and detectives share some psychological common ground – a territory that is hardly alien to members of his own profession. “As a writer you have something of that quality, too,” he says. “People will certainly wonder about me spending so much time thinking about this material, but I clearly find it interesting.”

As do the audience. More than ever before, murder is the engine of prime-time television drama. Most viewers – many of whom would consider themselves to be nice people – like to spend the hour before the news watching Scott, Bailey, Morse or Lund picking the bones from some atrocity.

On ITV3, the Sargasso Sea of slaughter, deceased actors (Jeremy Brett, John Thaw, Mark McManus) endlessly investigate killings in country houses, quadrangles and tenements. Go back a little further than this playlist – to the police dramas of the Sixties and Seventies – and it’s clear that viewers of Z-Cars, Dixon of Dock Green and Juliet Bravo derived their satisfactions from a broader range of criminal activity.

When we watch television murder, we don’t do it as Mr Hyde. We are not gripped by a burning impulse that urges us, against our better nature, to pick up the remote and surf for scenes of strangling and mutilation. It may be the coolest decision of our day. The Fall has an uncomfortable suggestion to make – that glaciated look in the eye of the killer and the detective. It may also be legible in the eye of the beholder, in ordinary sitting rooms all over the country.

The Fall starts on Monday 13 May on BBC Two at 9pm

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