First published in The Times, Tuesday August 25 2015
There is no denying the enduring appetite for true crime narratives. At its best, the genre rises above mere pulp, offering the same detailed portrayal of restoring order out of chaos as its fictional counterpart, but with the added inbuilt frisson that the events described actually happened.
This performance lecture, created and performed by Dr Harry Brünjes and Dr Andrew Johns, weaves together two of the most notorious criminal cases of the 20th century. John Bodkin Adams and Harold Shipman were trusted GPs who were each tried on multiple counts of murdering patients. Shipman, found guilty in 2000, was suspected of being one of the most prolific serial killers in British history and later hanged himself in prison. Adams, however, was acquitted some 40 years earlier, though a huge shadow hung over his later life and medical career.
Brünjes and Johns each have a connection to these infamous figures: the former was a junior doctor at Eastbourne Hospital where Adams died; Johns, a forensic psychiatrist, gave evidence at the Shipman trial. They take turns to tell their respective stories, illustrating them with slides and drawing parallels between the two physicians’ formative years, their chequered careers, subsequent trials and their aftermaths.
The good doctors clearly know these stories intimately and are eminently qualified to provide insight into the type of twisted logic that justifies ministering to the sick on the one hand while needlessly terminating lives on the other. Yet, while the subject matter is sensational, the presentation is oddly trivial; Brünjes and Johns are seemingly uninterested in delving into the deeper implications of these cases, including exploring how and at what point real-life tragedy comes to be served as entertainment. Audiences may be titillated by these real horrors but they’re unlikely to be enlightened.