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Shipman (2002)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Shipman (2002)
Yorkshire Television for ITV, tx. 9/7/2002
100 mins, colour
DirectorRoger Bamford
Production CompanyYorkshire Television
 Chameleon Television
ProducerNick Finnis
ScriptMichael Eaton

Cast: Dr Harold Shipman (James Bolam); DI Stan Egerton (James Hazeldine); Alan Massey (Alan Rothwell); Len Fellows (Tony Melody); Angela Woodruff (Elizabeth Bennett)

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Doctor Harold Shipman's serial murder of his patients and the investigation which finally exposed him.

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Despite the popularity of true-life reconstructions, the dramatisation of actual events and real people is often controversial. Even diligent research and intensive legal scrutiny cannot prevent accusations of fictionalisation or the manipulation of facts for dramatic effect. When those real events are particularly sensitive, criticism can even be phrased in ethical terms, as the makers of Shipman discovered.

Press complaints began as early as the commissioning of Shipman (working titles Prescription for Murder and Harold Shipman: Doctor Death). Although writer Michael Eaton had worked on Shoot to Kill (ITV, 1990), the press unfavourably invoked its production company's previous drama about the Dunblane massacre. Further complaints were made during the filming of exhumation scenes and, ultimately, by the victims' families, who were upset by the timing of Shipman's transmission, which pre-empted a report into the deaths of Shipman patients in previous decades. Also, its sympathy towards one failed investigation sits uneasily with the families' official complaint against the police.

Responding to debates on "the 'manipulative' devices of 'fiction'" in an article in The Guardian, Eaton defended dramatisation as a way of addressing this tragedy and wider issues of trust. As Eaton pointed out, Shipman focuses on the investigation rather than Shipman. Detective Inspector Stan Egerton becomes the story's centre; Egerton was consulted by Eaton and actor James Hazeldine, whose portrayal of Egerton is one of Shipman's highlights. In promotional interviews, Hazeldine attested to the script's accuracy (for instance, the police interrogation scenes were taken verbatim from transcripts) and argued that dramatisation revealed more than horrifying statistics and news reports. Sadly, Egerton died before broadcast (although he saw a rough cut), while Hazeldine died within months of transmission.

James Bolam's central performance switches between the avuncular charm which led Shipman's patients to trust and admire him and detached menace. However, subtlety is undermined by visual clich├ęs, for example lingering close-ups on Shipman's shadowy face as he prepares fatal injections. Shipman is least convincing when it attempts to get into its protagonist's mind, a motivation implied when a policeman investigating Shipman's computer says "I'm inside him". Although Eaton challenged the media's psychoanalysis of Shipman's motives, he created scenes in which Egerton and a priest debate explanations.

Further reports concluded by January 2005 that Shipman's victims may have numbered 250, although a final figure will never be known. Shipman never confessed, and killed himself in prison in January 2004.

Dave Rolinson

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Video Clips
1. Ivy (4:20)
2. Nothing to hide (3:18)
3. Verdict (5:11)
Bolam, James (1938-)
Drama Documentary