A new drama revisits Peter Sutcliffe's reign of terror

Yorkshire’s deepest scar: A new drama revisiting Peter Sutcliffe’s reign of terror gives a new perspective by telling the victims’ stories not the killer’s

  • Writer George Kay saw the opportunity to give voice to Sutcliffe’s victims 
  • READ MORE: The Long Shadow trailer hears Yorkshire Ripper witnesses’ chilling descriptions – as writer reveals they changed name of ITV drama series out of respect for victims

Katherine Kelly was just a baby when Peter Sutcliffe was caught in 1981. But the Barnsley-born actress says that his legacy permeated her childhood, which is why she felt compelled to play one of his victims in new ITV series The Long Shadow.

‘I have no memory of Peter Sutcliffe, but when you’re from that area you grow up with the knowledge of those years,’ says the ex-Coronation Street actress, 43, who moved back to Barnsley from London after her 2020 separation from husband Ryan Clark. ‘There was nobody that wasn’t touched by that period.’

She says her new partner has explained to her the tremendous unease in Yorkshire at the time. 

‘He talks about how you went and met women from the bus. If a woman was ten minutes late there was panic. It left a scar on the landscape, and I grew up in full knowledge of it.’

The chance to tell the victims’ stories is why writer George Kay has returned to the serial killer’s reign of terror, which lasted from 1975 to 1980.  

Katherine Kelly as Sutcliffe’s second murder victim, Emily Jackson, a 42-year-old married mother-of-three who took on occasional sex work to try to keep her family afloat. She was murdered in January 1976

Sutcliffe, who died after contracting Covid in 2020, murdered 13 women and left seven more for dead. But he doesn’t appear until the final two episodes of the seven-part series.

‘We started by calling it The Yorkshire Ripper,’ says George. ‘We hadn’t learnt that that moniker people used to describe Peter Sutcliffe was disrespectful in many ways and especially to the victims’ families. That was one of our lessons. 

‘We’ve been working on this for four years; in that time we’ve heard lots of things.’

Former EastEnder Jill Halfpenny, who plays Doreen Hill – the mother of Sutcliffe’s final murder victim, student Jacqueline Hill, who was killed in November 1980, aged just 20 – agrees. 

‘Everyone’s question is, “Why are we telling this story again?”’ she says. ‘It’s because we’re telling it from a very different point of view, the point of view of the victims. The emphasis is so much on them.’

Jill, 48, says Doreen voices anger at those referring to ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’ after Sutcliffe has been caught. 

‘She says, “Why are you calling him The Ripper? That’s not his name. We know his name. Use his name because The Ripper is trying to make something so disgusting into something weirdly exciting. But it’s not. These people are real. These people went through this.”’

Katherine plays Sutcliffe’s second murder victim, Emily Jackson, a 42-year-old married mother-of-three who took on occasional sex work to stop her family sliding into destitution, and was murdered in January 1976. 

‘The enterprise in her was impressive,’ Katherine says. ‘She had three jobs. She would have aced The Apprentice. But there was terror of being evicted and not being able to feed the family.’

Line Of Duty’s Daniel Mays plays her husband Sydney. 

Daniel says his agent didn’t want him to take the role because it wasn’t a lead part, but he was attracted by the quality of the series and the cast. 

Playing real-life characters has haunted him in the past, such as when he portrayed the detective who nabbed serial killer Dennis Nilsen in 2020 drama Des. 

‘I had nightmares I was locked in an attic with Dennis Nilsen,’ says Daniel, 45. ‘I woke my wife up, screaming. It really got under my skin.’

He met Sydney and Emily’s son Neil, who was 17 when his mother was murdered and who identified her body because Sydney was overwhelmed by grief. 

‘Neil brought photographs of his mum. He just wanted to show them to me,’ says Daniel. ‘He was so generous and so open, it really helped fuel my performance.’

Jill says she was determined to get Doreen’s story right. ‘You didn’t want to give them any more pain. It felt like a huge responsibility.’

The Long Shadow also covers the racism and misogyny in the police which led to mistakes being made that delayed Sutcliffe’s capture. George Kay says this echoes similar accusations being made about police today. 

‘After Jacqueline was murdered, her fellow female students decided to do night protests, which spread across the country from Leeds to London,’ he says. ‘It was a national thing, a cry for something to change.

‘As I was writing this in 2021 there were protests for Sarah Everard in Clapham. We decided to use only placards that had wording used both in the Jacqueline Hill protest and this era to underline the lack of change.’

Ultimately, George’s aim is to remind us that these were unspeakable crimes that ended 13 lives and ruined the lives of countless others. And in that sense it stands as a tribute to the victims and their families.

  • The Long Shadow starts Monday at 9pm on ITV1.

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