Great Crimes and Trials of the 20th Century (TV)
R2 - United Kingdom - Network
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (16th May 2011).
The Show

Great Crimes and Trials of the Twentieth Century (Nugus/Martin Productions, 1992-5)


Produced between 1992 and 1996, and originally broadcast on BBC2, Great Crimes and Trials of the Twentieth Century (Nugus/Martin Productions, 1992-5) lasted for three series. This release contains the episodes from the programme’s third series, broadcast between April and June of 1996.


Representations of true crimes have a long cultural heritage, finding their earliest expression in ‘early street literature (ballads and broadsides), collections like the Newgate Calendar, nineteenth-century Penny Dreadfuls and the popular tabloids of today’ (Cameron, quoted in Rowe, 1992: 97). Examining the Australian series Hard Copy, David Rowe has suggested that ‘tabloid’ television programmes that focus on (and arguably exploit) true crimes deliver a ‘discourse of crime, punishment and victimhood’ and ‘represent certain acts of “deviance” with relish, while at the same time moralistically asserting the need for particular (usually patriarchal) forms of order’ (ibid.: 103, 99). Elsewhere, Nick Ross (long-time presenter of the BBC’s Crimewatch UK, 1984-present) has sought to differentiate ‘public interest’ shows such as Crimewatch – which invite viewers to help solve crimes – from exploitative ‘true crime’ television, asserting that ‘Crimewatch and its sister programmes are in the public interest. True Crimes by contrast, for all its skilful use of television arts, could only be of interest to the public’ (Ross, quoted in Biressi & Nunn, 2005: 119). However, as Biressi and Nunn note, even ‘public interest’ crime programmes are ‘a “show”, an entertainment whose success is reflected in viewing figures of up to twelve million […] [and] dependent on the very crimes that it seeks to solve for its success’; Biressi and Nunn quote Nick Ross and Crimewatch co-presenter Sue Cook’s declaration that ‘with all this investment in time and effort, not to say the BBC’s resources, we pray that the crimes are not solved before we go on air’ (quoted in ibid.)

Solely making use of archive footage, stills and interviews, Great Crimes and Trials… was produced in an era when ‘true crime’ television was dominated by dramatised reconstructions. The genre became popular in the 1980s; Deborah Jermyn notes that in the US, such shows were labelled ‘reality-based entertainment’ (2009: 240). Contemporaneous British programmes included Michael Winner’s True Crimes (LWT, 1991-4) and the Edward Woodward-hosted series In Suspicious Circumstances (Granada, 1991-6). These programmes contained dramatised reconstructions of crimes, containing an authority that ‘rested on their [the programmes’] commitment to the infallibility of the law’: the programmes focused on cases that had been solved and detailed the punishment meted out to the perpetrator (Biressi & Nunn, op cit.: 118). Gradually, since the late-1990s, the genre has become dominated by ‘new reality genres of crime and emergency services’ that ‘rely […] on amateur, CCTV or police footage to present a montage of criminality and emergency services drama’ (ibid.: 120). For Biressi and Nunn, these new programmes have created ‘a new spectacle of criminality’ that highlights ‘the preoccupation with crime and pursuit as display’ (ibid.). This new breed of programmes focused less on the punishment dished out to the criminals and more on the spectacle of the crime itself.


However, true crime programming has often attracted criticism: Deborah Jermyn notes that the programmes have been claimed to contribute ‘to rising fears about crime’ and adds that in the wake of criticisms that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, ‘some of the shows were quietly withdrawn’ (op cit.: 240). In particular, Michael Winner’s True Crimes was at the centre of a debate about such shows’ ‘effects on fear, and their questionable taste’, leading to the programme’s cancellation in 1994 (ibid.). The series was accused by Michael Grade, the then-chief executive of Channel 4, of ‘blurring the boundaries between real life and entertainment and sensationalizing terrifying crimes’ (ibid.: 241).

Similar claims could probably be made of Great Crimes and Trials…. Some of the episodes dealing with more recent crimes (at least in relation to the production of the series) – such as those focusing on Leonard Lake (and his conspirator Charles Ng), ‘railway killer’ John Duffy, and Henry Lee Lucas – tend towards the ghoulish. Other episodes paint their subjects with much broader strokes: several episodes focus on acts of political terror, genocide and war crimes (the Khmer Rouge, the massacre of American soldiers at Malmedy by their German captors). In almost all cases, the half hour format of the programme constrains the subject: in each episode, the programme makes an attempt to establish some form of context for the crimes it discusses (for example, by providing a brief discussion of social trends in the 1920s, in the case of the episode focusing on Leopold and Loeb) before discussing the crimes that are its focus. This means that the episodes largely lack depth: most of the episodes provide a narrative account of the crimes rather than an analysis of them, with the effect that the episodes sometimes seem like a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of criminal acts. The inclusion of episodes focusing on specific ‘crimes of the person’ and episodes detailing large-scale atrocities means that the series sometimes seems more than a little unfocused.


The episodes focusing on specific crimes are the strongest: the episodes focusing on Donald Merrett and the Brighton ‘trunk murders’ of 1934 are particularly interesting, largely because these crimes have been sidelined from the public consciousness.


Disc One:
‘The Assassination of Robert Kennedy’ (26:07)
‘Leopold & Loeb: Kills for Thrills’ (26:07)
‘Defeo & Benson: Inheritance Killers’ (26:08)
‘Mark Chapman and the Killing of John Lennon’ (26:05)
‘Heidnik & Dahmer: Killers for Company’ (26:07)
‘Ma Barker and Other Public Enemies’ (26:07)

Disc Two:
‘Pol Pot and the Killing Fields of Cambodia’ (26:07)
‘The Zodiac Killers and Other Unsolved Serial Murders’ (26:07)
‘Judge Joe Peel and the Chillingworth Murders’ (26:07)
‘Leonard Lake: The Calaveras County Serial Killings’ (26:07)
‘Sacco and Vanzetti: Anarchy and Murder’ (26:07)
‘Henry Lee Lucas: The Highway Stalker’ (26:07)
‘Gaston Dominici and the Drummond Murders’ (26:07)

Disc Three:
‘Donald Merrett: The Murderous Buccaneer’ (26:07)
‘John Bookin Adams and Other Famous Doctors’ (26:07)
‘John Duffy: The Railway Killer’ (26:07)
‘The Malmedy Massacre and Other Nazi War Crimes’ (26:07)
‘Lord Haw-Haw: The Treason of William Joyce’ (26:07)
‘Sir Harry Oakes: The Bahamas Murder Mystery’ (26:07)

Disc Four:
‘The Trunk Murders’ (26:06)
‘Graham Young: The Compulsive Poisoner’ (26:07)
‘Donald Hume and the Setty Case’ (26:07)
‘Brown & Kennedy and Other Police Killers’ (26:07)
‘Roy Fontaine: The Deadly Butler’ (26:07)
‘The Siege of Sidney Street’ (26:07)
‘Buck Ruxton: The Ravine Bodies Mystery’ (26:07)


Presumably edited on videotape, and betraying the soft, hazy visual characteristics of that format, each episode of Great Crimes and Trials… mixes a variety of different types of archive footage, from vintage film (from newsreels, etc) to more modern videotape-shot news footage, still images and interviews.

The episodes are presented in their original broadcast screen ratio of 1.33:1.



The series is accompanied by a two-channel stereo track, which is functional. Powell’s narration is always clear, but sadly there are no subtitles.




Lent gravitas by Robert Powell’s narration, unlike many of its contemporaries Great Crimes and Trials… could hardly be said to sensationalise the events on which it focuses. However, it could be accused of a lack of focus, and as noted above the brief length of each episode means that none of the subjects are covered in any depth. Nevertheless, as a narrative account of crimes in the Twentieth Century – some of which have been largely forgotten – the series exerts a strong, albeit sometimes ghoulish, fascination.

Biressi, Anita & Nunn, Heather, 2005: Reality TV: Realism and Revelation. Manchester: Wallflower Press

Jermyn, Deborah, 2009: ‘Making Sense of a Female Malady: Fear of Crime, Hysteria, and Women Watching Crimewatch UK’. In: Humphries, Drew (ed), 2009: Women, Violence and the Media: Readings in Feminist Criminology. Northeastern University Press: 240-68

Rowe, David, 1992: ‘Hard Copy, Soft Porn’. In: Cunningham, Stuart et al, 1994: Contemporary Australian Television. University of New South Wales

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