‘There is never closure’: Philip Glenister on the BBC’s new real-life crime drama Steeltown Murders
Around ten years ago, on telly, the word ‘police officer’ was synonymous with Gene Hunt. Played with a snarl by Philip Glenister, Hunt – who managed a London police force in the 70s and 80s – was all about the gung-ho approach, beating up criminals, breaking and entering and jumping to conclusions.
It’s the police role of a lifetime, so you might be forgiven for thinking Glenister would never want to play another. However, for Steeltown Murders, he made an exception.
“I haven’t played a policeman since Gene Hunt in Ashes to Ashes,” he says. “I am so aligned with that role, so it’s really - not to use the word exciting, but - I wanted to play another policeman, and this was totally the opposite to Gene Hunt in many respects.”
The role in question is the real-life figure of DCI Paul Bethell, who along with two colleagues, was instrumental in solving a decades-old cold murder case in the Port Talbot area. In the 1970s, two girls, Geraldine Hughes and Pauline Floyd, left a nightclub in Swansea.
Some time later, they were discovered, dead, in Port Talbot – and the police never found the killer.
In the 2000s, that all changed when cutting-edge technology came along. Working with thirty-year-old DNA samples and advanced (for the time) new techniques that allowed police to extract potential evidence from the victims’ clothing, Bethell and his squad finally managed to crack the case and find the culprit.
It’s an incredible true story, and it’s now been made into a brand-new BBC series: Steeltown Murders.
“It’s a true crime story with a bit of a twist because we are straddling two time periods,” producer Hannah Thomas says.
“Hopefully what we have done is fresh and original yet sensitive to the subject matter where we have juxtaposed the two periods. We look at the policing in the seventies and the noughties. The kind of analogue versus the digital and how advancing in policing really enabled the police in 2002 to finally find the perpetrator.”
Based as it is in Wales, many of the cast and crew are Welsh, including Steffan Rhodri, who plays police officer Phil ‘Bach’ Rees .
“I was a bit young to really remember it, but my school was about a mile from the woods where two of the murders happened. I just had a sense of adults talking about it, it was something I was sort of aware of,” he says.
“I certainly think these horrific crimes changed the whole atmosphere of an area. Temporarily it caused a lot of fear but in the long term as well, in terms of how much freedom young people had.”
Filmed across two time periods, the show’s crew have opted to show the same characters as played by two different people. According to director Marc Evans, this was trickier than it looked.
“Double periods means double cast, and that was probably the bigger challenge . It’s about finding characters in their 20s who then become characters in their mid-50s,” he says. “It’s about trying to find the essence of that person rather than a lookalike or ‘dead ringer’.”
The other challenge was depicting the time periods during which the show was filmed – in particular the Noughties.
“To a certain extent the period that’s harder to depict in a funny sort of way is the 2000s, because it’s so close to us,” he says. “The 70s was very enjoyable to recreate because it’s something that’s got a style of its own. With the 70s the challenge was not making it too ‘70s-tastic’, so certain things were banned like Chopper bikes and all those signifiers of the decade, but equally you wanted for people to ‘smell’ the period.”
“In the Noughties, the technology has changed but the world hasn’t changed as much as you’d think. Cars have changed, typewriters have become computers, the fax machine isn’t there – it’s a world that is a little bit different but we’re familiar with.”
To make the show, many of the actors also had access to their real-life counterparts – indeed, Glenister himself met the real-life Paul Bethell before filming began.
“It’s really nice actually because he is so laid back,” he says.
“I don’t get too bogged down with ‘what are your mannerisms like’ and all that. I am not so much interested in that, rather his thoughts on how he worked on the case. He told me something which I thought was really interesting; he said he didn’t like using the word closure, because in a case like this there is never closure, especially for the family.”
With the show about to come out, the cast and crew are keen to stress that this is not just your typical crime show: it has been made with a keen eye to the real-life victims, and the police who helped bring the killer to justice.
Scott Arthur, who plays the young Bethell, calls the show “one of the most important Welsh stories of the last 100 years”.
“I think it’s important for us as men to realise that these things happen, and they happen sadly quite often. I really hope there is an understanding of what women go through, and the fear that they have to go through.”
“I’d say it’s an important story to tell in terms of showing a long-term respect for victims of crime,” Rees adds.
”Unlike some stories it gives respect to those victims and honours them. But it also does something which is not always fashionable, which is honouring good, old fashioned policing and crime solving through diligence and open-mindedness. I think that’s important.”
Steeltown Murders starts on BBC One from May 15