Should 'The Fall' show such graphic depictions of the murder of women?
Michael Deacon defends the brutal violence shown in BBC Two's psychosexual thriller.
Every year, around 85,000 women are raped. Another 400,000 are sexually assaulted. Every three days, on average, a woman is killed by her current or former boyfriend or husband.
These are not worldwide totals. Nor are they figures for some Third World or Middle Eastern cesspit. They’re figures for England and Wales.
I mention this by way of defending The Fall, BBC Two’s drama about a sexual predator who gets his kicks from strangling women.
“Why Does the BBC Think Violence Against Women is Sexy?” the Mail’s TV critic demanded to know after series one, describing The Fall as “the most repulsive drama ever broadcast on British TV” because of its “graphic depictions of sexual murder”.
In the same article it deplored “a brutal portrayal of rape” in The Politician’s Husband, another BBC Two drama, and the way “women were garrotted, carved open, sexually mutilated” in Ripper Street on BBC One. The Mail wasn’t alone in wondering why so many TV dramas feature the rape and murder of women. In the past year the question has also been asked by the Radio Times, the New Statesman, Helen Mirren.
But surely the answer is straightforward. TV dramas are full of raped and murdered women because our society is full of raped and murdered women. Anyone who doesn’t like watching the same old predictable plotlines on TV should avoid the news, with its endless succession of stories about men butchering women.
By criticising The Fall and its kind, we’re focusing on the wrong problem. If TV drama abounds with terrorised women, that doesn’t mean it’s hackneyed or cheap. It means it’s true to life. And if it’s graphically disturbing – well, so it should be.
There’s no way to make palatable the truth about what men do to women. Eighty-five thousand rapes a year. Four hundred thousand sexual assaults. A murder every three days.
Series two of The Fall began on Thursday with Paul Spector, the serial strangler, still at large.
Played by Jamie Dornan, a former model, Spector is flawlessly handsome. This fact is unsettling, and also the reason why Dornan’s casting is so inspired. His muscular allure upturns the assumption that sexual predators act as they do because they’re unattractive; that they attack women because women won’t give them a second glance.
Dornan’s looks deepen the mystery of his character’s psyche. Unthinkingly we expect murderers and perverts to be ugly. Why would someone who looks like him behave like that?
Also, Spector’s glamour makes him seem all the more threatening. It’s a bit like the casting of Cillian Murphy as the gangster Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders. Murphy should be far too good-looking to play a thug; yet his beauty actually intensifies his character’s air of menace. His prettiness is sinister.
Spector’s appearance isn’t the only thing that messes with our expectations of what a misogynist murderer should be like. He’s also good with children. Chillingly good. In this episode he sent his young daughter a winsome letter “by pixie post”, adding in postscript that “the pixies prefer the letters they deliver to be kept a secret”.
He’s just as good with other people’s children, even those he’s never met. As we saw at the episode’s climax, Spector’s gift for putting children at their ease comes in handy when he’s breaking into their homes in the night to have a nice little chat with their mothers.
The Fall is intensely stressful to watch. Partly this is because it’s so quiet. There are many silences and much staring. The vibrating of a mobile phone with its ringer off makes you jump. God knows how long each script is, but with neat enough handwriting you could probably squeeze all the dialogue on to three sides of A4.
Such speech as there is tends to come from Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), the detective who’s on Spector’s trail. Tough though she seems on the outside, her voice is invariably tired and worn, presumably more from stress than from speaking.
Anyway, it’s a brilliant drama, however horrible, although what’s really horrible is that it reminds you how horrible the world is. A woman murdered by a man every three days. Two a week. Almost mundane, really, isn’t it?