In Denial of Murder ★★½

This 2004 BBC production was a dramatisation of the murder of 32-year-old married legal secretary Wendy Sewell of Bakewell, and the subsequent conviction and imprisonment of Stephen Downing in 1974. Downing was a 17-year-old council worker with, it is claimed, what may now be referred to as learning disabilities, who initially confessed to the murder and sexual assault of Sewell but subsequently pleaded not guilty at his trail. He served 27 years in prison, where - because of his protestations of innocence - he was labelled by the authorities to be 'in denial of murder' and therefore illegible for parole because he refused to admit to the crime he was imprisoned for.

His case was brought to the attention of Don Hale, a local reporter on the Matlock Mercury in the 1990s, who delved deep into Sewell's murder - which had come to be known as 'the Bakewell tart murder' on account of the victim's sexual promiscuity - and launched a campaign claiming Downing's conviction was unsafe on account of a series of discrepancies made by the police leading up to his confession such as refusal to caution Downing or offer him the right to consult a solicitor, and that his case was therefore a huge miscarriage of justice. Hale's determined efforts - captured in his book Town Without Pity - were so successful that the Downing case was referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 1997, which led to an appeal and Downing subsequently being freed in 2001, with his conviction being overturned the following year. He received a total of £750,000 in compensation, and he signed an exclusive deal to tell his story...with The Mail on Sunday, rather than Don Hale, the man who secured his freedom.

Writer Neil McKay and executive producer Mark Redhead had previously been responsible for the ITV true-crime drama This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper, broadcast in 2000. That production was quite a strong piece of work, which makes the rather average In Denial of Murder something of a disappointment. It's not primarily McKay and Redhead's fault, the true-life case behind this film is completely different to that of the serial murders of Peter Sutcliffe, and not as clear-cut. Indeed, despite Hale's efforts and Downing's conviction being quashed, the subsequent reinvestigation undertaken by Derbyshire police which brought some 22 other suspects suggested by Hale under scrutiny, concluded in 2003 with Downing remaining the prime suspect of Sewell's murder. The official line is that whilst they admit that the conviction may have been unsound, it doesn't necessarily mean the original investigation pointed to the wrong man. Around the same time, Downing's girlfriend - a psychic who had originally helped Hale with the campaign - alleged that he confessed to her that he had indeed murdered Sewell. Downing refused to aid the police with the reinvestigation, and given the laws of double jeopardy cannot be tried for a crime twice.

The film aims to tell two stories side-by-side, Hale's campaign from the mid '90s to the early '00s, and Sewell's life up until her violent death. These two crucial roles are performed by Stephen Tompkinson and Caroline Catz, some years after their starring together in All Quiet on the Preston Front, and some years before they were to star in DCI Banks. Ultimately, I do think the victim gets dealt an unfair hand here; it's not about Catz's performance, which is fine (though admittedly never feels alive thanks to a somewhat lifeless script which resolutely fails to get a handle on this strand of the narrative) it's more to do with the repeated slurs in the 'present day' strand concerning Sewell's nature along the lines of the 'Bakewell tart' which the murder has unfairly become known by ("she was a tart", "she was the original Martini girl - anytime, any place, anywhere" Tompkinson's Hale bitterly and cruelly spits throughout the drama, things the real Hale claims he never said, lending a deeply misogynistic air to the proceedings) and it is therefore an unsympathetic light she is presented in overall. The most interesting thing is perhaps Jason Watkins' portrayal of Downing, which invests in the inconclusive nature of the reality and is fittingly enigmatic and elusive in accordance with the mystery and frustrations still surrounding this case. Ultimately, I think this is an example of a dramatisation coming out just a little too hot on the heels of the actual events. If made today or in the near future, maybe it would be able to tell a different story with the suitable distance put between the incidents.

In Denial of Murder is available to watch on YouTube.