Staring in the late 1980s the Ruth Rendell Mysteries became synonymous with ITV prime time drama and introduced us to the character of Detective Inspector Wexford played brilliantly by the late George Baker. The last of these Wexford stories was broadcast on our screens in late 2000 and since then no Rendell stories have made it to the small screen. Now almost twelve years later ITV1 are adapting Rendell’s 2004 work 13 Steps Down a psychological drama focusing on a man obsessed with mass murderer John Reginald Christie.
The lead character in 13 Steps Down is Mix Cellini (Luke Treadaway) the aforementioned Christie obsessive who spends most of his spare time collating articles about the man who lured women into his home before raping and murdering them. As a job Mix fixes exercise equipment however this simply seems to involve sleeping with bored housewives or getting a contract with a gym so he can continue with some mild stalking. Yes because as well as being a serial killer fan he is also entranced by the beauty of model Nerissa Nash (Elarica Gallacher) and luckily she lives opposite from one of the women who he is having an affair with. Mix isn’t the best stalker though as Nerissa is aware of exploits but explains to her father that she can’t do anything about him as he hasn’t done anything that could count as criminal behaviour.
As this is pretty generic stuff you already guess what is going to happen to the pretty young receptionist at the gym (Victoria Bewick) when he complements her on a film-star looks and asks her out for a drink. On the second date at his house she discovers his mountain of Nerissa Nash memorabilia and after claiming that she’s not as beautiful as she looks Mix refuses to sleep with her although for some reason she stays after putting her clothes on.
Mix’s story is counter-balanced by that of his landlady Miss Chawcer (Geraldine James) who informs him that she once visited Christie’s residence at 10 Rillington Place which was notoriously visited by young girls who wanted abortions. It seems though that Miss Chawcer wasn’t going for an abortion but rather accompanying a friend although her visit there was seen by her first love Dr Reeves who went off her shortly afterwards. She is later informed by her friend Olive (Gemma Jones) that Reeves is recently widowed so she then sets about on tracking him down however this quest is put on hold after she is diagnosed with pneumonia.
Reading a review of the novel of the same name the writer describes the characters as interesting rather than likeable but personally I don’t think their either. I never really bought Mix as a genuinely terrifying individual instead somebody who just bumbled along not really succeeding at being a stalker and only being a murderer by mistake. I don’t know how much of this criticism can be placed with Luke Treadaway although I found him quite a distant presence on the screen and I don’t think he did as good a job playing this complex character as others possibly could’ve done. The one scene after he has committed his first murder sees him smiling covered in blood however to me this seemed fairly clichéd and it was as I Treadaway had been watching his American Psycho DVD one too many times though I did think Cliff Richard’s ‘The Young Ones’ was a good tune to accompany this killing.
The more compelling story, and the one that frustratingly given less time, was that of Gwen Chawcer’s lost love and her link to the events at 10 Rillington Place. Geraldine James gives us a sort of Miss Havisham character who spends most of her time reading and doesn’t really have much to do with modern life. In fact you would imagine that she would be living in solitude if it wasn’t for the cups of tea she shared with her only friends Olive and Queenie. I think James is a fantastic actress and I connected with her character a lot more than I did with Treadaway. The worst performance of the whole piece though comes from Gallacher, best known for playing the girl who shot Jack Branning in Eastenders, who seems woefully miscast as a paranoid model struggling with even simple facial expressions.
I think the main issue with 13 Steps Down is the translation from page to screen as I imagine that it’s a lot easier to develop these characters over many chapters than it is in two 45 minute pieces of television. Though visually everything is done to make 13 Steps Down as atmospheric as possible I think that in adapting the story Adrian Hodges has left out a lot of character depth and we are left with is a central figure who is neither interesting or likeable. Though Geraldine James does add something to the piece she’s not nearly in it enough so ultimately I was disappointed and found that it wasn’t the best way to introduce Rendell’s works back to the screen after all these years.
Contributed by Matt Donnelly Follow Matt on Twitter