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BBC Four re-opens the Harold Shipman files

No crime or criminal exists in a vacuum and this critical re-examination of these terrible events will endeavour to reveal the systematic failings and cultural attitudes that allowed Shipman to go undetected for so long at such terrible human cost.Abigail Priddle
Date: 12.08.2019     Last updated: 12.08.2019 at 10.07
In January 2000, GP Harold Shipman was convicted of murdering 15 of his patients. The number of victims included at the trial, however, didn’t reflect the real extent of his crimes.

An inquiry launched after the trial concluded that in all probability, Shipman had murdered around 260 of his patients, with his crimes stretching back two decades. Following on from BBC Four’s Yorkshire Ripper Files - which aired in March this year, Wall to Wall are making a new ‘box-set’ history series: The Harold Shipman Files: A Very British Crime Story.

In the series film-maker Chris Wilson, himself from the North-West, will re-examine the case of the family doctor thought to be Britain’s most prolific serial killer.

Finally apprehended after a clumsily attempted fraud in 1998, Shipman had been killing his patients since the 1970s. Wherever he practised, there were victims: in Hyde, Greater Manchester, and in Todmorden, West Yorkshire before that; in total, Shipman is believed to have taken the lives of around 260 men and women. The series will set out to explore how he got away with his crimes for so long, murdering so many people, in plain sight, for more than twenty years.

Chris Wilson will meet friends and relatives of Shipman’s victims, some of whom will be speaking for the first time.

He’ll also speak to police officers who investigated the case, as well as lawyers and doctors who were involved in the inquiry to reveal a more complex picture than has been told before. Far from all being elderly and ill, as is often reported, many of Shipman’s victims were in fine health and some were middle-aged. Re-investigating the case, the series will reveal the context and social attitudes of late 20th century Britain, exploring whether deference to doctors' authority and attitudes to the elderly meant that a murderous GP remained at large for so long.

Cassian Harrison, Channel Editor, BBC Four, says: “BBC Four has made its name as a home of documentaries of unique depth and insight. After the success of The Yorkshire Ripper Files, I know that this multi-part investigation of Harold Shipman will bring a similarly singular BBC Four take, exploring not just Shipman himself but also the society and context which allowed him to become Britain’s most prolific serial killer.”

Abigail Priddle, Commissioning Editor, says: “As The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story so powerfully showed, no crime or criminal exists in a vacuum and this critical re-examination of these terrible events will endeavour to reveal the systematic failings and cultural attitudes that allowed Shipman to go undetected for so long at such terrible human cost.”

Chris Wilson, Filmmaker, says: “There have been many films about Harold Shipman. Most attempt to take us 'inside-the-mind' of a serial killer. But none have fully explored the historical, cultural and social context that enabled a medical professional to take the lives of hundreds of trusting patients over more than two decades. It’s a chilling story about power, authority and an astonishing betrayal of trust - one that, for me, remains as pertinent today as it was twenty years ago.”

Given our ageing population and the fact that many of us may later rely on medical professionals and care givers, Wilson will seek to understand what can be learned from the case of Harold Shipman so that nothing like this could ever happen again.

The Harold Shipman Files: A Very British Crime Story (w/t) a 3x60’ for BBC Four, will be made by Wall to Wall (a Warner Bros Television Production UK Ltd company). The Executive Producer is Nancy Bornat. It was commissioned by Cassian Harrison, Channel Editor, BBC Four and Tom McDonald, Head of Commissioning, Natural History and Specialist Factual. The Commissioning Editor is Abigail Priddle.

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