A beachside getaway might seem like just the ticket for busy families. But as crime novelist Agatha Christie famously noted, there is evil under the sun.

CBS Justice’s (DStv 170) new 10-episode season of Coastal Killers takes us inside crimes committed in the UK’s beachside resort towns. One of the series’ experts who’ll be commenting on the cases, Nell Darby, shares a little bit about the famous cases they’ll be profiling this season. She also explores our fascination with why people kill – and how we talk about the perpetrators and victims, in courts, in the media, and between ourselves.

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Inside Coastal Killers with Nell

What made you say yes to working on Coastal Killers?

I knew the production company behind the series, and knew that they take the time to research the cases well – and they care about the stories and the people involved in them. So I was keen to work with them. Also, both my parents are from seaside towns (my mother is from Wales and my father from the south coast of England) and looking into the dark side of the communities of the type that my family is from really appealed to me.

How did you work with the Coastal Killers researchers?

The researchers will come up with the basic details of, and timeline for, each case, and find archive documents for me to look at. But as I don’t know what I might be asked about in each case, I also do my own research. With the George Smith case (episode 2, The Brides In The Bath), for example, I did quite a bit of research into the victims’ lives and backgrounds. What I love about working on this series is how interested the production team is in the research, and how collaborative it is – I might have the director message me to tell me he has found something new, or ask me if I could find anything about an issue or an individual that he had come across.

What was one of the most intriguing discussions you had with the production team this season?

I enjoyed discussing the Seaside Lady Macbeth (episode 6, the George Stoner love triangle case with Alma Rattenbury) issue with the production team. I had previously written about the Alma Rattenbury case and wanted to ensure that the team was aware that depictions of Alma in the press very much reflected attitudes of the time towards how a woman was supposed to behave. The press coverage of her was so biased and misogynistic, and it was important to acknowledge this implicitly, and not to take the coverage at face value.

You’ve talked about the need for empathy when talking about true crime. What has the Coastal Killers team done to explore that?

Above all, the team always researches the victims’ lives and seeks to understand them. They are not anonymous or after-thoughts: a lot of effort goes into trying to make them more three-dimensional than that. The team also looks at what others involved in the cases think – they talk to the investigative teams involved in tracking the killers, for example. In the case of Murder On The Rocks (episode 5, the Robert Dickson case), the man who discovered the body of lighthouse keeper Hugh Clark has both talked and written about his experience. It’s clear that it has had a huge impact on his subsequent life. It sounds like a little thing, but even looking at a photograph of a victim from when they were still alive, where possible, reminds you that they were real, and you need to always remember that when you’re making a programme. It is complex, because you want to make a series that people want to watch, but the team is certainly aware of its responsibilities as well.

How was your shoot impacted by COVID?

We filmed the series over the course of 2020, beginning pre-COVID. Some parts of the filming were delayed due to the spring lockdown we had in Britain, but most of the filming is done in Wales and travel restrictions at that time meant that I was unable to travel there from my home in England. However, we were able to finish over the summer when restrictions eased – temporarily, as it turns out.

Crime in its time

Which killer this season do you see the most differently to how they were seen in their time?

Oh, definitely Alma Rattenbury (episode 6). I think modern audiences would be far more sympathetic toward her than the press and public of the time, in the 1930s. She was a creative woman and a romantic, but she was born in the wrong time. She ended up feeling stifled in a marriage to an older man who wanted to settle down into cosy domesticity, when she wanted a more varied and exciting life. She then started a relationship with a younger man (George Stoner), but the excitement she sought ended up ruining her life.

How we talk about crime reflects and reinforces the values of our time. How have you highlighted this in a couple of Coastal Killers episodes this season?

We look at historical cases with a modern eye, and this is clear when you look, for example, at the Massacre at the Red Gable Hotel (episode 4) and consider issues relating to how men deal with either rejection by a woman, or the ending of a high-flying career. In the latter case, how do they cope with a loss of status and identity? I think it’s important to place these cases into their wider social context. The Newall Brothers case (episode 3), for example, sums up, for me, the avariciousness of the 1980s – Wall Street, yuppies and the desire to get money by whatever means.

Where I think we really reflect the values of our time, though, is in how we look at female victims. In Coastal Killers, we are keen to show these women not just as “victims” but as real people, who had their own varied and interesting or complex lives. We want people to think of them, not just of their killers.

How have you seen murder motives shifting as social values have changed? 

Sadly, some motives remain consistent over time. A “crime of passion” was commonly detailed in the past. This still exists, and is still even described this way sometimes in the press. Sex, jealousy, anger, control, money… all remain commonly given motives in murders. However, gang crime now seems to target ever younger individuals, and the prevalence in Britain of teenage knife crime, largely in urban centres, reflects this.

Which original investigators from this season’s cases impressed you?

I wouldn’t like to single out a single individual or team, as I think most detectives work hard to track down the culprits in murder cases like these. Obviously, detectives in the past have been constrained by things outside their control, such as more primitive investigative techniques, whereas in more modern times, they have been aided by developments in forensics. But if you look at the Newell brothers case (episode 3 Getting Away With Murder), some dogged detective work eventually saw the brothers face the courts after looking like they were going to get away with their crimes for some time.

My life of crime

What do you think attracts women in particular to true crime and forensics shows?

It’s interesting that women, in particular younger women, are so drawn to true crime. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. There’s an interest in human psychology and a desire to understand the individuals who commit crimes. An interesting story is attractive, the same way that we like an interesting book, a TV show with a fascinating story, regardless of the subject matter. And at some level, a desire to scare ourselves, because by learning about these cases we appreciate our own lives better and gain some sort of security. Most women I know are curious about the world around us – we want to learn more about it, and the people in it, whether good or bad.

What’s the closest you’ve come to murder, personally – and how did this influence your feelings on crime and crime shows?

Luckily, I’ve never come too close to murder myself. However, when I was young, three girls were killed by the serial killer Robert Black. 1 in particular I remember – the murder of Sarah Harper, in 1986. Sarah was around my age, and 1 of my family’s surnames is Harper, so her case stuck in my head. I clearly remember her abduction – she had just gone to her local corner shop 1 evening to get her mum a loaf of bread – and the coverage of her case on television, which included a press conference with her mother. I think this is when I first became interested in crime. Although reading about Sarah made me scared, I was drawn to it, too, and sought out newspaper articles about her.

Which motive for murder do you find the most difficult to come to grips with?

Men who kill wives who have sought a divorce or left their husbands. That desire for control and the refusal to let these women have a life away from their controlling husbands is hard to understand, and I feel for the women who have displayed such strength as to leave their marriages, only to be killed for doing so.

What recent True Crime show or podcast would you wholeheartedly recommend?

It’s a bit different, but The Vanished (thevanishedpodcast.com) is a podcast that explores cases involving people who have gone missing in the United States. It’s very detailed and researches the cases really well, talking to family members and refusing to let law enforcers off the hook when they are found to have failed. The podcast is supplemented by an Instagram feed (www.instagram.com/thevanishedpodcast) where you can see photos of the missing people, and where listeners can submit their views or suggestions for where the investigation can go next – where to search, and what might have happened.

This season on Coastal Killers

One of our favourite things about this series is finding a case that fascinates us, then hopping down an internet research rabbit hole to round out everything we learn during the episode itself. Here are the 10 cases that the Coastal Killers team will be tackling this season:

Episode 1: The Hotelier and The Hitman 

The time: the early 1980s
The place: Bournemouth
The killer: Peter Taylor

The case: Having pulled off what he believed was the “perfect murder” in 1982, hotelier Peter Taylor didn’t hesitate when the opportunity arose to kill for a second time. Taylor was a man who held the opinion that a blunt instrument and a shallow grave could solve any problem.

Episode 2: The Brides In The Bath Murders 

The time: Late 1800s-early 1900s
The place: Blackpool and more
The killer: George Joseph Smith

The case: George Smith was a psychopathic serial bigamist whose predilection for drowning his wives in the bath earned him the nickname The Brides In The Bath Killer. Smith’s sordid story should give us all pause to think: how well do you really know the person sleeping next to you?

Episode 3: Getting Away With Murder 

The time: 1987
The place: Jersey
The killers: Roderick and Mark Newell

The case: 2 brothers from a well-to-do family committed such a brutal act that it still casts a shadow over the island to this day. It is the story of the Newall brothers who let years of pent-up resentment spill over 1 night and left both of their parents dead.

Episode 4: Massacre at Red Gable Hotel 

The time: 1976
The place: Penmaenmawr
The killer: Neil Rutherford

The case: In 1976, the small Welsh seaside town of Penmaenmawr was shaken to its core. A former military commander named Neil Rutherford unleashed terror on the unsuspecting guests and owner of the picturesque Red Gables Hotel, before turning the gun on himself.

Episode 5: Murder On The Rocks

The time: 1960
The place: Little Ross island
The killer: Robert Dickson

The case: On the west coast of Scotland in 1960, a quarrel between lighthouse keepers on the remote island of Little Ross ended in violent death. For 2 men whose lives were spent guiding ships safely into shore, they were a sorry pair when it came to steering their own fates away from rack and ruin.

Episode 6: The Seaside Lady Macbeth 

The time: the 1930s
The place: Bournemouth
The killer: George Stoner

The case: In 1930s Bournemouth, a love triangle between a beautiful socialite, her young gardener and an estranged husband ended in a bloody and brutal fashion. It’s a scandalous tale of forbidden desire that played out across the croquet lawns and cocktail lounges of the English south coast, leaving 2 dead and one behind bars.

Episode 7: The Last Taxi Rider (The Trevor Howell case)

The time: 1973
The place: Port Talbot
The killer: Trevor Howell

The case: Port Talbot taxi driver Linda Thomas made a fatal error of judgment 1 night in 1973. She was flagged down by a homicidal homeless drifter named Trevor Howell, a man of cunning wiles and wicked methods, who would prove to be the last passenger Linda ever picked up.

Episode 8: The Deadly Sins of The Father and Son 

The time: 1964-1976
The place: Dundee
The killers: Robert and Sonny Mone

The case: In a spine-chilling demonstration of the old saying “like father, like son”, this episode tells the tale of Dundee’s most infamous family duo, Robert and Sonny Mone. The estranged father and son saw killing as a competition, and between them savagely ended the lives of 7 innocent people.

Episode 9: The Murder of a Lonely-Hearted Wife

The time: 1993
The place: Hartlepool
The killer: Hassan Shatanawi

The case: In Hartlepool in 1993, cheating husband Hassan Shatanawi decided that the only way to pursue his infidelities was to resort to murder. And he almost managed to make his wife vanish entirely from the face of the Earth, if not for 1 crucial oversight.

Episode 10: The Mystery of The Man In The Woods

The time: 1996
The place: Newport
The killer: Simon Spring

The case: When Tyrone France became embroiled in Newport’s drug underworld, he met a disastrous end in 1996. It’s a grim tale of savagery at the margins of civilised society, a shadowy place where you need a death wish to get in, and a body bag to get out.

Watch Coastal Killers S2 from Sunday, 28 February on CBS Justice (DStv 170) at 19:00

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