Eleanor Steafel: 'Can Netflix documentary finally shed light on Madeleine's disappearance?'
Missing girl's parents refused to take part in latest true-crime documentary to hit the screen, writes Eleanor Steafel
The trailer for Netflix's new series The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann begins with an aerial shot of a pristine beach. Azure waves lap the shore as a lone figure, a tiny speck in a red swimming costume, walks across the sand. Cut to black.
"The world's most famous missing child case," the words appear out of the darkness as an eerie soundtrack begins to play. "A mystery in search of answers." And then that photo - the one stamped on the memories of everyone who can recall this case as if it were yesterday - of the little girl in the red velvet dress with the blonde bob, her big eyes (one blue and one green with a brown mark on the iris) staring out through the camera, willing you to find her.
Twelve years on from the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and it is now possible to have a grown-up conversation with someone who doesn't remember the months of newspaper headlines about the little middle-class girl from Leicestershire, who disappeared from her room in a Portuguese holiday resort while her baby brother and sister lay sleeping and her parents ate dinner with friends.
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It was the story which had people the world over hanging off every cough and spit. The Daily Telegraph's reporter in Praia da Luz was the last British journalist to leave the Algarve after five months straight covering the story, but there was a press presence in the resort for well over a year after her disappearance.
It was a missing child case that preyed on our deepest fears about the terrifying notion that families could be targeted by paedophiles and child traffickers while on holiday.
For Netflix, the true-crime genre has become a bit of a winning formula, attracting huge global audiences. Take a big unsolved case, one with plenty of old news reports to rehash and former witnesses to dredge up. "Re-examine" every old lead, acquire various "fresh" lines of inquiry and air a couple of wild, never-heard-before claims. With a production budget to make it look like a HBO drama, viewers are then taken on a journey of ever-increasing pace and urgency so, at every twist and turn, it feels as if you might be about to finally reveal the truth. Making a Murderer, The Ted Bundy Tapes, the Amanda Knox documentary - this is a well-worn path; the ultimate binge watching for the Netflix generation, who are digesting these stories of human misery with insatiable glee.
The sheer drama of the case of Madeleine McCann will undoubtedly make for gripping watching, especially for Gen Zers, who may be coming at every outlandish theory ever made about what happened for the first time.
From the very beginning, this case has been dogged with controversy and the eight-part series which dropped on Netflix on Friday has itself been shrouded in secrecy. Rumblings within the industry suggest the series was at one point almost cancelled altogether over a lack of new material. The creators and collaborators didn't take part in the usual rounds of interviews and press to promote the show. Interviews with director Chris Smith (who, incidentally, was behind the brilliant Fyre, Netflix's most recent success story) never happened. A brief announcement last Thursday revealed the documentary would drop the following morning.
Meanwhile, Kate and Gerry McCann and their extended web of friends and family had, it emerged, refused point blank to be involved in a series which did nothing but rehash every painful theory about what had happened to their little girl all those years ago.
The McCanns are said to be deeply concerned that the show draws heavily on testimonies from former suspects and key players from the Portuguese police, including the man who has been their tormentor over the past few years, Goncalo Amaral.
In 2007, the Portuguese police named them as formal suspects and this ex-detective has long been considered by the McCanns as a "thorn in our sides" and was unsuccessfully taken to court for accusing them of covering up their daughter's accidental death.
"They didn't ask for this documentary to be done," says Clarence Mitchell, the couple's long-time spokesman. "They, their family and friends, myself included, were all approached by Pulse Films, who were making it, to take part, but they felt that there was no tangible investigative benefit in the search for Madeleine.
"Indeed, one of the principal concerns is that it could potentially hinder it. So they declined to engage with it, and asked all their immediate circle and family and friends not to do that as well."
It is "distressing", Mitchell says, for the McCanns to see old allegations being aired again. "But Kate and Gerry have through bitter experience over the years come to realise how certain elements of the media will approach the situation. They will only engage if they feel it's of benefit to the search for their daughter."
Of the many distressing theories which have emerged over the past 12 years is the idea that Madeleine was taken by child traffickers. According to one report, experts in the documentary believe she was abducted to order by a child-trafficking gang (as a middle-class British girl, she would be more financially valuable) and taken to another foreign country. It isn't a new theory, by any means. At the time, it was one of the few theories which provided the McCanns with a glimmer of hope that Madeleine might yet be found alive. But experts say the notion she was trafficked is far-fetched.
Andrew Munday, unit commander for the UK's Modern Slavery Unit, says "nothing" about how child trafficking operates fits the disappearance of Madeleine.
"It's almost unique for a white British national child to be snatched in such a way for the purpose of trafficking," he tells me. "I can't think of a single case where the child is kidnapped in such a way."
DCI Colin Sutton, the detective who caught Levi Bellfield and solved more than 30 murders over the course of his career at Scotland Yard, says this series is a "missed opportunity".
"An organisation with good resources had the opportunity to start with a clean sheet of paper and go through the investigation from the very beginning and point out the discrepancies and point out the potential leads or lines of inquiry that could have been followed, should have been followed or weren't followed," he said.
"Because of the notoriety of the case it is one where there is a reluctance [on the part of the media and the police, he says] to grasp the nettle and do a proper job of looking at the evidence and analysing and so forth."
DCI Sutton believes that while theories about child trafficking and targeted abduction might make for spine-tingling drama, they are always among the least likely hypotheses with these cases. "I understand that the notion that there are these predatory groups who are stealing children is something that is attractive in terms of selling newspapers and TV programmes, but I'm not sure in the real world how common an occurrence that is," he said.
The documentary claims Madeleine could still be alive. It points to the case of Jaycee Dugard, who was abducted aged nine in California and found 18 years later, and Carlina White, who was snatched as a baby from a New York hospital in 1987 and later learned the truth at 23.
Jim Gamble, a top child protection policeman who took part in the first UK police investigation into the disappearance, has told the documentary that with advances in technology, he believes the truth will come out.
"I absolutely believe that in my lifetime we will find out what has happened to Madeleine," he says. "There's huge hope to be had with the advances in technology. Year on year, DNA is getting better. Year on year other techniques, including facial recognition, are getting better. As we use technology to revisit and review that which we captured in the past, there's every likelihood that something we already know will slip into position."
Meanwhile, Julian Peribanez, a Spanish private investigator once hired by the McCanns, tells the documentary he infiltrated a paedophile ring sharing obscene videos and passed their details to police. Twenty-three people were questioned and 13 arrested, and a former head of cyber-crime told the documentary: "Some of these investigations may lead to these minors being found and rescued from their captors.
"There is always something left to do until you find her," he says.
Until we know the truth, there will always be more documentaries to make, more books to write. Dredging up old leads and allegations like this would, the McCanns's spokesman says, be distressing "for anybody".
"But it's far worse for a family in their situation, where they're still hoping that their daughter will be found alive one day."