Rillington Place details the murders of John Reginald Christie, played by Timothy Roth in this miniseries. The 2016 BBC drama, which has just been released on Netflix, is based on true events and accounts for the eight people Christie murdered while he lived at 10 Rillington Place between 1937 and 1953. The three episodes focus on one individual: Ethel (Christie’s wife), Tim (Christie’s upstairs neighbour), and Christie himself.
Who was John Reginald Halliday Christie?
Christie, nicknamed Reg in Craig Viveiros’ miniseries, was imprisoned for both minor and major offences over the course of nine years: stealing postal orders in 1921, two counts of larceny in 1924, and for assaulting a prostitute in 1929.
While imprisoned, Reg remained married to the meek and forgiving Ethel, played by Samantha Morton. During this time Ethel had no idea of Reg’s whereabouts, and regularly wrote to the police to ask if he had been found dead.
The opening scene shows the two reunited in a prison visiting room. Reg is shamefaced, and tells Ethel that he borrowed a friend’s car that turned out to be stolen. It is shocking to a modern audience, but perhaps expected of a woman living in the early 20th century, that Ethel is anxious Reg will not want to stay married to her. Reg reassures her that divorce is the last thing he wants, and the pair move into 10 Rillington Place.
The idea of separating is disregarded almost before it is brought up. Here the audience begins to wonder if Ethel knows the real Reg.
Morton plays a subdued, hushed wife. She is everything the audience expects from a mousy, mild, lower class women in the 1930s/40s. She is so eager to ignore the horrors that happen in her own home that she forgets Reg’s outbursts, and even covers for him.
Reg is emboldened by Ethel’s silence.
As the three part series goes on Reg becomes increasingly violent. Roth portrays the murderer as a quietly charming elderly man whose age is written all over him: he walks slowly, staggeringly, and with quiet concentration. Later, in the court room, Reg delights in listing his physical ailments before the jury.
‘I’ve been suffering from fibrositis, interitus… last year I had a nervous breakdown.’
This depiction of Reg has triggered controversy from those who knew him at the time of the murders.
Roth’s depiction of Reg makes his murders seem all the more sinister. When the newly wed couple Tim (Nico Mirallegro) and Beryl (Jodie Comer) move into the upstairs apartment, Reg takes the opportunity to ingratiate himself to the newcomers. Playing the role of the semi-parental, concerned couple, Ethel and Reg put money on the electricity meter for their neighbours, and look after their new born Geraldine.
Tim and Beryl’s story arc is not for the faint-hearted.
There is little respite for the women in Reg’s life, or the women in 1930s/40s London at all, it seems. Reg prays on the difficulties that lower class women face: the need to earn quick money, the need to cure ailments without paying for doctor’s fees, and the need for an abortion.
Embodying the kindly older man, Reg invites Muriel Eady (Sarah Quintrell) to 10 Rillington Place, assuring her that he has a remedy to cure her bronchitis. At his home, he instructs her to breathe in a mixture from a tube and pumps carbon monoxide into Eady, gassing her to death.
Rillington Place is a gritty, often times depressing, account of early 20th century London society which places trust in the elderly, feeble Reg. It is only when the trusting girls enter his home that they discover his deviant nature.
At an hour a piece, each episode realistically depicts Ethel, and Tim, and even Reg. They are so jam packed that the episodes are like mini movies, and when they came to an end I felt for the characters, because they are 3D and fully formed, rather than the overabundant 2D characters in most TV dramas.