Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 13 December 2013
Why did she stay with him? It’s a question often asked when a woman is badly beaten or killed by a violent partner. Ethel Christie, wife of John Reginald Christie, whose crimes transfixed the country in the 1950s, appears to have known or at least suspected that her husband was a serial killer.
The couple lived at a rented flat at 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill, then a run-down area of west London. The address became so notorious that the street was eventually demolished. Christie abandoned Ethel for nine years early in the marriage, a detail highlighted in the BBC’s chilling new three-part drama series, Rillington Place.
The first episode began with Ethel, played by Samantha Morton, visiting her husband, an eerily convincing Tim Roth, in prison after finally managing to track him down. ‘Do you want a divorce?’ she asks nervously, immediately exposing her sense of powerlessness.
Of course Christie doesn’t because he is a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist who has already begun attacking women. His behaviour is escalating and he goes on to murder at least eight women and the baby daughter of one of his victims. Ethel is useful to him, providing cover and disarming potential victims who might be suspicious of a seedy man living on his own.
She is also undemanding, an essential trait for a man who appears to have been impotent, and able to have sex with women only when he felt in complete control. His modus operandi was to rape victims whom he’d first rendered unconscious, using gas or strangulation.
The Rillington Place murders were extraordinarily bleak, going unnoticed for years because Christie chose his victims as carefully as he chose his wife. Some worked as prostitutes, leading absolutely dreadful lives, and were unlikely to be missed.
Beryl Evans (played by Jodie Comer in the TV series) was a young mother who lived in the upstairs flat with her husband Timothy (Nico Mirallegro). He would now be described as having learning difficulties, and when Beryl became pregnant again she couldn’t face having a second child in such squalid surroundings.
Christie, who often pretended to have medical training, persuaded Evans he could perform a safe illegal abortion. He used the opportunity to strangle Beryl and blame the murder (and that of her daughter, Geraldine) on her confused and frightened husband. Evans was convicted of killing the baby and hanged in what turned out to be a notorious miscarriage of justice. He did not receive a posthumous pardon until 1966, while it took until 2003 to formally clear his name.
Christie went on to murder Ethel and his crimes were discovered only after he moved out of Rillington Place, when a new tenant discovered the corpses of three women behind a false wall. He was convicted of Ethel’s murder and hanged at Pentonville prison in 1953.
These events happened more than 60 years ago, yet they still fascinate. That’s because the themes resonate in the modern world, whether it’s Christie’s cunning manipulation of his wife or the desperate measures women are driven to when they can’t get legal terminations. The idea of Beryl entrusting her life to the creepy Christie is horrifying.
Yet in the US, Donald Trump’s election as President has emboldened opponents of abortion, with a new law passed in Ohio last week which would ban terminations after six weeks. At that point, many women don’t even realise they are pregnant.
The other issue raised by the Christie case is what we now call coercive control. There are similarities between Christie’s treatment of his wife in the TV series and the fictional relationship between Helen and Rob Titchener in The Archers, Radio 4’s long-running soap.
Listeners asked exactly a similar question – why doesn’t she leave him? – as Helen succumbed to Rob’s bewildering combination of charm and menace, a pattern similar to Christie’s behaviour in Rillington Place.
Superficially, the relationships could hardly be more different, especially as wartime London is so beautifully recreated in the TV series. But abusive men haven’t changed much and Christie doesn’t need modern technology – mobile phones and so on – to bring Ethel under total control. A miscarriage shortly after their reconciliation may have left her uninterested in sex, making her the ideal wife for a man chiefly interested in hurting women.
The drama shows Christie undermining her self-esteem, offering little presents at one moment and suggesting she has mental problems the next. He is calculating, praising his victims while they’re still alive so Ethel sees them as rivals, not targets of male violence.
Did she realise that her own life was in danger? It seems likely that she did, especially as a scene in the film shows Christie strangling her until she blacks out. In the 1950s, however, few people understood the dynamics of abusive relationships.
Now we know that some men deliberately set out to demoralise their partners until they have no will of their own. But even in our more enlightened times, coercive control only became a criminal offence at the very end of last year. It’s true that we are better equipped to recognise signs of abuse these days, but the poignancy of Rillington Place is rooted in how easily women can understand Ethel’s situation – one that, even now, never seems like too distant a possibility.