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How we made Manhunt II: The Night Stalker - ‘These are stories that need to be told’
Martin Clunes returns as detective Colin Sutton, drafted in to help end a rapist’s 17-year reign of terror. The team behind the show explain how they turned real life into gripping drama.
True-crime detective drama Manhunt is returning to ITV for a second season, recounting a brand new case through the eyes of DCI Colin Sutton, played by Martin Clunes.
The first three-part series, broadcast in 2019, followed the investigation into the murder of French student Amélie Delagrange, and the hunt and subsequent arrest of serial killer Levi Bellfield.
Like the first season, Manhunt II: The Night Stalker adapts Sutton’s memoirs to tell the real-life story of the pursuit of a notorious burglar and rapist in South London whose crimes took place over a 17-year period and who Sutton, brought into the investigation at a late stage, was instrumental in apprehending.
Ahead of the broadcast of the four-part series from Monday, September 20, Clunes, Sutton, screenwriter Ed Whitmore and executive producer Philippa Braithwaite talked about the genesis of Manhunt II, the reaction to the first series and the challenges involved in turning real-life crime investigations into gripping TV drama.
A new story – with the same Manhunt DNA
Viewers of the original Manhunt, which followed the investigation, led by DCI Colin Sutton, into the murder of French student Amélie Delagrange, might have been surprised to see a second series appear on ITV’s production slate.
After all, Manhunt concluded with the arrest of serial killer Levi Bellfield, who was subsequently jailed for life for the murders of Delagrange and Marsha McDonnell and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy.
While writing the first series, however, writer Ed Whitmore learnt that Sutton, below, had been involved in another very serious case which would also lend itself to a TV drama.
“We devised the first Manhunt as a standalone three-part series, but as we were making it Ed became aware there was another very serious case that Colin was involved in that could potentially be dramatised,” says executive producer Philippa Braithwaite.
“We don’t look at it as a sequel, just another standalone case with Colin. If it was not factual, if it was a drama that we’d invented, we would have brought the same team back. But in reality Colin was brought in to oversee this case with a whole new team, and that meant we weren’t re-hashing anything we’d done before – this is completely standalone within the Manhunt genre.”
It has a different dynamic to the first case
The longevity of the case made it very different to the first Manhunt: while Bellfield was arrested three months after Delagrange’s death, the Night Stalker – real name Delroy Grant – had been at large for more than a decade when Sutton was drafted in to help solve the case.
“I was very enthused by the notion of a different dynamic at the heart of it,” says Whitmore.
“Because Colin was joining an existing case he was initially quite isolated, and that felt like a different energy.
“Also the case was relatively unknown given its enormous seriousness, compared with the case we covered in season 1. We were pleased to have the opportunity to tell this extraordinary story about how this awful man was caught after 17 years.”
Sutton’s late involvement helped Whitmore shape the narrative of the drama – as the detective is introduced to the long history of the Night Stalker’s brutal attacks, so too are the viewers.
“What really helped us was the idea that although the case had been going on 20 years, Colin came on relatively late in the day so that gave us structure - as he’s catching up with this enormous backlog of information, so are the audience alongside him,” Whitmore explains.
“It’s an interesting dynamic – the audience are really bonding with Colin; as he’s discovering how awful this case is and how many facets there are, we’re accumulating this information alongside Colin.”
Whitmore says the audience also buys into the banalities of real-life drama in a way they might not in a piece of fiction.
“In series 1 we had a couple of leads that led to nothing. In a fictional drama it would look like bad plotting but in real life some things just don’t pan out,” he says.
“I find that fascinating as a dramatist and one of the secret engines of a true story is that the audience will be engaged by those disappointments. Without one it wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal.
“The crime marketplace is crowded but Manhunt’s defining trait, its DNA, is it’s the most realistic police show on television. We had some nice responses from real-life police officers after season 1, one said we’d got all the details right, right down to the bored PC looking out of the window!”
Sutton’s involvement ensured authenticity
Manhunt II: The Night Stalker, like the first series, is based on DCI Colin Sutton’s own memoirs, and the former detective is involved in the production from the planning and writing stages right through to filming.
“To have Colin always available to answer any question about dialogue or production design – what does the police station look like, what particular photographs did you get of the suspect’s vehicle – is invaluable,” says Whitmore.
Martin Clunes, who plays Sutton in the drama, agrees.
“Colin is an amazing resource. We’ve called him from the set in the past to make sure we don’t say something or do something wrong,” says the actor.
“It’s a pleasure to play Colin. He’s the son of a copper and his son’s a copper, so there’s an investment in the act of coppering that runs through him like a stick of rock. He’s very good with people and it makes him good at relating. He has a total focus on the task in hand and has a way of looking at something long enough to see if it’s relevant.”
Clunes made his portrayal of Sutton as accurate as possible, so much so that the former detective admits to being unnerved at seeing himself portrayed on screen.
“It was strange the first time but I got over that,” Sutton says.
“Martin did it so well to get my mannerisms and things so right that my family said ‘He’s actually just a taller, thinner version of you’.
“The strangest thing for me was that things that were everyday to me in my job are now of so much interest to other people. That has more of a ‘wow factor’ for me than the fact that I’ve got this brilliant, well-loved actor playing me on screen.
“The hardest thing was talking with Ed when we were looking at scripts and getting used to talking about myself in the third person. We went from ‘I’ to ‘Colin/Martin’ and now it’s just ‘Colin’.
“I just feel honoured and privileged to have had the opportunity to tell the stories I wanted to tell because they deserve telling. The people I had the privilege of leading in that team deserve to have what they did recognised and recorded.”
It’s a reflection on the quality of Whitmore’s screenwriting that Colin felt the same emotions while watching his experiences unfold on-screen as he had the first time round.
“I found it emotional in the same places where it was emotional when it happened for real, which is probably testament to the script and to the acting.
“You have to have a thick skin to do the job that I did for so long but very occasionally something do pierce that and do stay with you. But these are stories that need to be told.”
The one detail they didn’t get right…
One memorable feature of Clunes’ portrayal of Sutton which the ex-copper felt was not correct was his dress sense, although the actor has a witness who suggests otherwise.
“I was in a petrol station on the M3,” Clunes recalls, “and a man came running up to me and said he’d served with Colin at Surrey. He said: ‘You were just like him in that bloody cardigan!’.”
Sutton protests: “I never wore a cardigan under a jacket since I left school! But I turned up wearing one when we did the screening for the first one which went down well with the wardrobe man if no-one else!”
Fortunately, the feedback Sutton received from other former colleagues was far more gratifying.
“Old colleagues took the mickey as I expected - I’d have been really disappointed if they hadn’t – but the thing that really buoyed me were the messages that I got from police officers who I didn’t know, right from the rank of Chief Constable down to PC, saying ‘Well done, it told it as it is, it showed what we do, it’s authentic’.
“That to me was the manifestation of all the things we wanted to achieve. To have that approbation from erstwhile colleagues was wonderful for me.”
There was a responsibility to the victims
As well as having a duty to the police to portray their operations accurately, Braithwaite and Whitmore also had a responsibility to the Night Stalker’s victims and their families to handle the story sensitively. This had been the case with the original Manhunt, although the advanced age and sheer number of the victims of the second case made tracing them a much harder task.
“Our responsibility is to the victims and their families, and to the police,” says Braithwaite.
“One of the challenges for this one, more than the first manhunt, is that the victims are elderly and it happened a long time ago. A lot of the victims didn’t even come forward, we’re only portraying the ones we know.
“A lot of the victims have died but we’ve traced all the victims and their families that we can – as well as police officers involved in the case - and we’ve had to be incredibly sensitive.”
Whitmore reminds us that while Delroy Grant wasn’t a murderer, his horrific crimes had a lasting effect on his victims and their families.
“It’s very distressing. You read a victim account and at some point you have to put it down. Justice was done but there was so many lives of these elderly victims ended in the most awful circumstances. He wasn’t a murderer but he hastened their ends, and they died before he was caught.
“A defining trait of Manhunt is that it doesn’t have much melodrama, it isn’t a thriller with a capital T. We knew the focus was on the police work but you can’t forget about the victims. We had to strike a balance between being respectful and tasteful, and being honest.”
Sutton points out that while the case had a lower profile than Bellfield’s crimes, an issue at its core – how we treat our elderly - has come into stark focus over the last 18 months.
“It is a much less-known series of crimes for a lot of reasons which we explore in the drama. It’s come at a really good time – there’s a theme there of how do we as a society – police social services – treat our elderly. That’s come into sharp focus with the virus and we’ve been able to explore that and ask some questions.”
Martin Clunes enjoys playing it straight
Viewers used to seeing Clunes as the title character in ITV’s heart-warming Doc Martin might be surprised to see him in a ‘serious’ role, but the actor enjoys the challenge and can see parallels between detective Colin Sutton and the long-running Cornish GP.
“It was very much an ensemble piece, I just got to play Colin, but I enjoyed exploring a different kind of character,” he said.
“I joined to be someone else and to have something to pin it on beyond invention, instead of a fictitious character, is my thing.
“I’ve never shied away from heavy dramas but I’ve peppered the Doc Martins with drama over the years and I hope to continue doing that. I think with Manhunt we want to see a smart man fix things, which is a lot like Doc Martin.”
Writer Whitmore acknowledges the difference between “mild mannered” Colin and the ruthless detective who will stop at nothing to get his man.
“I enjoy Colin’s mix of affable and mild mannered, but when it comes to the crucial move that other detectives might baulk at, he’s fearless, and that really comes across in this new season,” he says.
“Conventional means have failed to capture this uncatchable adversary. To catch someone extraordinary you have to do something extraordinary and roll the dice, and Colin has the nerve of steel to do that.
"He takes a leap in the dark to catch him and does something very different. It’s exciting for me that series 2 really does go to the heart of Colin as a detective.”
Manhunt II: The Night Stalker begins at 9pm on Monday September 20 for four nights.
Watch the first series of Manhunt on BritBox.