Memories of a Serial Killer And Other Childhood Things

December 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

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‘I saw Mrs Manuel at Mass again this morning’, I overheard my mother say. ‘Poor woman, she’s got a lot to bear because of that son of hers’. I pictured Mrs Manuel as one of the stooping old ladies regularly seen at the Chapel (which is what we called our Catholic church, as distinct from the Kirk); surely to be the mother of a serial killer you had to be really old. In Plain Sight, the three-part drama series on ITV, shows her as middle-aged, half doubting the son about to stand trial for a sexual attack on a young woman who has gone to the police in defiance of his murderous threats. The series is based on Peter Manuel’s crimes and one detective’s fight to bring him to justice.

At the point when episode one begins I must have been eight, so I’m not well placed to compare it with reality. What I remember are later reports of the murders in the Daily Record, with blurred photos of the victims, young women in their late teens. I don’t recall any discussion of them at home, not in front of me. The remark about Mrs Manuel at Mass gave me my first realisation that a murderer had been in our midst.

Until now, I didn’t know the extent of those crimes, and whatever foggy awareness I had of Manuel’s fate, execution by hanging in July 1958, has been forgotten. I knew he’d been found guilty.

Never before have I seen a place and time I grew up in become TV drama, or any other kind of fiction. I spent seven years of my childhood in Uddingston, a Lanarkshire town on the rim of greater Glasgow. The Radio Times description of this setting as ‘quiet suburbia’ might well apply to the present, but not then. There were run-down cottages, well maintained ‘villas’ and some council houses. I lived in Muiredge Street, a double row of solidly built sandstone tenements where each flat had the luxury of an inside loo, but no bathroom. It was a great improvement on the housing miseries we had moved from, and further from the city centre, but it was still largely working class. Some of my schoolmates were the children of miners (the colliery is long gone, as is Muiredge Street, razed to be replaced with a council estate), and some would have had parents working in the Tunnock’s factory where caramel wafers were made, the teacakes being a later addition. Some had pianos, and some were impoverished, unable to get to school in bad weather for want of proper shoes. Suburbia lay in the posh enclave of Kyle Park, on the far side of the railway tracks, near the wooded banks of the Clyde, and to us a world as remote as Paris or London, one, I’ve been told, now favoured by well-paid Glasgow footballers.

Quiet, though, it certainly was. The emptiness made it that way: not a lot of people and hardly any cars, even on Main Street. We children played in the middle of the road. It felt safe. Watching Douglas Henshall (he’s the detective, Muncie) leaving Uddingston police station I wondered whether it was the same building (it looked the same) my dad visited to report that our dog was missing (returned by a policeman two or three days later) or that I went to, aged 12, hoping to find a little leather purse I’d lost, containing fourpence (they’d found that too). Hardly crimewave territory, at odds with In Plain Sight’s recourse to the contemporary cliche of ace detective hindered by myopic superior’s instructions – not to waste scarce resources on obsession with a suspect, a suspect yet to commit a murder that Muncie aims to prevent.

Henshall is what made this series promising. He starred in Peter Mullen’s surreal black comedy, Orphans (1999) and was perfectly judged as Jimmy Perez, the complicated and tremulously conscientious detective in Shetland, our home-grown example of Nordic Noir. Shetland was much praised for its treatment of a rape, the rape itself not shown, with the emphasis instead on the reverberating trauma of the victim, and how she and her colleagues deal with it. Mary, who survives Manuel’s attack at the start of In Plain Sight, also impresses as a characterful female victim whose courage we see as well as her fear. But the script sells her short at Manuel’s trial, which ends as he embarks on conducting his own defence. Manipulative as he is, it’s still puzzling that this Borstal boy managed to convince the jury she was lying.

It seems more likely they believed a decent young woman wouldn’t have been out at a dance on her own. Along with religious sectarianism and alcoholism, an old and powerful strain of misogyny still blighted Scotland in the 50s and 60s, lying at the heart of those psychopathic murders, although Manuel went on to kill men too. There are only hints of it in the drama.

I hope the next two episodes won’t disappoint. In any case, I have my own reasons for continuing to watch.

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