Catching Britain’s Killers: The Crimes That Changed Us, episode 1 review: the day it stopped being easy to get away with murder

Michael Hogan
Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys developed techniques for DNA fingerprinting - BBC

It’s easy to forget this now in our hi-tech age but solving murder cases – especially the sexually motivated killings of young women by strangers – was nigh-on impossible in the early Eighties. Police relied on appeals for eyewitnesses, house-to-house enquiries and fingertip searches for physical evidence. They painstakingly filed the results on index cards and worked overtime in smoke-shrouded, coffee-stained incident rooms. Mainly they prayed for a miracle. 

Not any more. Catching Britain’s Killers: The Crimes That Changed Us (BBC Two), the first part of a formidably researched, sensitively told three-part series, followed the murder investigations that had game-changing consequences. It began by going back to 1983 and then 1986, when the Leicestershire villages of Narborough and Enderby were shaken by the deaths of two local teenagers.

Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth were raped and strangled in almost identical circumstances. After taking thousands of statements, police were no closer to finding “The Schoolgirl Killer” and the community was living in fear of a serial murderer striking again.

Enter Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, whose experiments on a new DNA identity test happened to be taking place just five miles away at Leicester University. Jeffreys’s groundbreaking collaboration with lead investigator DCS David Baker wouldn’t just catch killer Colin Pitchfork – it would create the entire field of forensic DNA profiling and lead to the building of the world’s first DNA database. 

This revolutionary investigative tool would crack crimes that had hitherto been impossible to solve. DNA is now used in 90 per cent of all murder investigations and has caught millions of perpetrators worldwide. The story was the subject of a decent ITV drama – Code of a Killer, starring John Simm and David Threlfall – four years ago. This documentary version managed to be even more absorbing and affecting. 

DCS David Baker Credit: BBC

I’ve mentioned before how I strongly believe there’s far too much true crime on TV nowadays. Murder, especially of young women, is too often used as a gratuitous and ghoulish schedule-filler, with little thought for the victims or their loved ones. However, this film was far classier than most, focusing on police procedures rather than crime sensationalism, and placing the case firmly in its historical and scientific context. We even heard how the last tsar of Russia played a part when the technique was put to a very public test by extracting Romanov DNA from decades-old bones found in a mass grave. 

Fittingly, the final word went to the mothers. “We call this Lynda’s legacy,” said Mann’s mother Kath Eastwood. “Nobody will ever forget her.” As Barbara Ashworth added: ”Now when I hear of a case where DNA has solved the crime, I look up to the heavens and say, ‘There you are, Dawn – we’ve caught another one.’”