As a nation we’re hooked on true crime — a genre that promises murder, mystery and lashings of intrigue. And TV has never covered it better. Notorious cases have been re-created by top-notch actors in a huge selection of big-budget dramas, while in-depth documentaries examine the most tantalising crimes. There are more on the way too. Here we present the 80 best true crime shows and podcasts — because there’s never been a better time to play armchair detective…
1. THE SERPENT
Charles Sobhraj, played by French actor Tahar Rahim (right), avoided detection thanks to a mixture of charm, good fortune and loyal support. His partner Marie-Andrée Leclerc, a role taken in The Serpent by Victoria’s Jenna Coleman (left), stood by him despite his promiscuity
French serial killer Charles Sobhraj (centre) and his wife Nihita Biswas (left) are guided by Nepalese policemen towards a waiting vehicle after a court hearing in Kathmandu in 2011
Sobhraj killed a dozen travellers in Asia in the 70s. Now a new drama — with Jenna Coleman as his conniving girlfriend — reveals how they caught him
He was the murderer with the million-dollar looks — the charmer with psychopathic tendencies.
The story of Charles Sobhraj, who drugged and killed at least a dozen Westerners on the Hippie Trail in Asia in the 1970s, will be told in eight-part drama The Serpent.
But it won’t glamorise his actions. As executive producer Preethi Mavahalli says, ‘We are bringing Herman Knippenberg’s determined story to the screen, not Sobhraj’s life of crime.’
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Knippenberg was the Dutch diplomat in Bangkok who exposed Sobhraj as a multiple killer.
He will be played by British actor Billy Howle, best known as Leonard Vole in the BBC’s adaptation of The Witness For The Prosecution.
Billy, 30, admits that the story of Sobhraj, who poisoned, strangled and drowned his victims, is so extraordinary he thought it a work of fiction at first. ‘Sadly, for his victims, it is what happened,’ he says.
Sobhraj, played by French actor Tahar Rahim, appears to have avoided detection thanks to a mixture of charm, good fortune and loyal support.
His partner Marie-Andrée Leclerc, a role taken in The Serpent by Victoria’s Jenna Coleman, stood by him despite his promiscuity and full knowledge of his crimes.
The Serpent brings Herman Knippenberg’s (played by British actor Billy Howle, right) story to life. Knippenberg was a Dutch diplomat in Bangkok who exposed Sobhraj as a multiple killer
Initial attempts to bring him to justice in Thailand were halted for fear a murder trial would be bad for the tourist industry.
It was only when Knippenberg became involved in 1975 that the net started to close.
His brief was to help Thai police investigate the deaths of two Dutch students who had been invited to Thailand after meeting Sobhraj in Hong Kong.
Unable to interest the Thai police in his work, he launched his own investigation and gained permission to enter Sobhraj’s home, after the suspect had left for Malaysia.
There he found victims’ blood-stained documents and passports, as well as poisons and syringes.
A sighting of Sobhraj in Kathmandu in 2003 led to his arrest for the murders of two Canadians there in 1975, and at his trial the prosecution relied on evidence accumulated by Knippenberg.
‘I think they were all killed for refusing his offers to join him in his nefarious activities, including drug trafficking,’ he says.
BBC1 and BBC iPlayer drama, coming soon
2. CONVERSATIONS WITH A KILLER: THE TED BUNDY TAPES
Ted Bundy (pictured) is one of the world’s most notorious serial killers. In Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes four hour-long films share journalist Stephen Michaud’s story
Journalist Stephen Michaud knew it would be the scoop of a lifetime — the chance to talk exclusively to one of the world’s most notorious serial killers about his heinous crimes and write a book based on the interviews.
What he couldn’t have anticipated when he accepted the offer to talk to Ted Bundy was the impact the interviews would have on him.
Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes was released by Netflix at the start of last year.
There are four one-hour films, which begin with the story of how Stephen Michaud and his colleague and mentor Hugh Aynesworth accumulated 150 hours of audio conversations with Bundy, who abducted, raped and murdered 30 women and girls across seven US states.
Episodes two and three give an account of Bundy’s crime spree and his escapes from custody.
The final chapter deals with his trial and execution at Florida State Prison in 1989.
Horrified by the sheer wickedness of the offences Bundy talked to him about so callously, Michaud would often need to stop his car on the way back to his hotel in order to be sick.
‘He left an indelible mark on everything he touched,’ said Michaud. ‘You don’t just walk away from him — and I never will.’
3. THE HAROLD SHIPMAN FILES: A VERY BRITISH CRIME STORY
Harold Shipman (played by actor James Bolam, pictured) managed to escape justice for years. This three-part documentary will consider the Mancunian GP’s extraordinary litany of crimes
Harold Shipman managed to escape justice for years. This three-part documentary will consider the Mancunian GP’s extraordinary litany of crimes, which began with him forging prescriptions before going on to poison his patients.
But it will also ask how he literally got away with murder — the 15 for which he stood trial plus hundreds more.
Producer Chris Wilson believes the faith we place in doctors is key to an understanding of the case.
‘It’s fundamentally about an abuse of trust,’ says Wilson. ‘There have been many films about Harold Shipman and most have attempted to take us «inside the mind» of a serial killer, but what we are going to be doing is exploring the historical, cultural and social context in which Shipman operated, a culture that enabled a medical professional to take the lives of hundreds of trusting patients over more than two decades. It’s a chilling story about power, authority and a betrayal of trust.’
The GP was jailed in January 2000, guilty of murdering 15 women with lethal injections of heroin.
An inquiry launched after the trial concluded that Shipman had probably murdered more than 200 of his patients, many of them in perfectly good health.
The series will include interviews with officers who investigated the case, lawyers and doctors who were involved in the inquiry, as well as relatives and friends of the victims.
A dramatised version of the Shipman story, Harold Shipman: Doctor Death, originally seen on ITV and featuring New Tricks star James Bolam in the lead role, can be bought at Amazon.co.uk.
BBC4 documentary, coming soon
4. APPROPRIATE ADULT
Emily Watson (left) as Janet Leach and Dominic West (right) as Fred West. Appropriate Adult is a thriller based on the relationship that developed between the social worker and murderer
Monica Dolan is pictured as Fred’s wife Rosemary West. The drama bagged four BAFTAs, including ones for Watson, Dominic West and Monica
Appropriate Adult is a thriller based on the relationship that developed between Fred West (Dominic West), the builder convicted of 12 murders in Gloucestershire, and Janet Leach, the trainee social worker who provided him with support during his police interviews.
Played by Emily Watson, Leach was there to safeguard his interests and make sure this supposedly vulnerable man was afforded some protection.
The drama bagged four BAFTAs, including ones for Watson, Dominic West and Monica Dolan, who played Fred’s wife Rosemary.
Dominic West’s performance was haunting. Producer Jeff Pope said, ‘When Fred’s daughter Mae first saw Dominic playing her father, she was mesmerised.
‘She felt he had captured the evil essence of him. And Janet Leach was spooked by him. When she came on set, she found it very hard to go near Dominic.’
5. FOUR LIVES
He’s famous for playing it for laughs, but Stephen Merchant’s next big project will be devoid of them. When Four Lives finally reaches our screens it will be one of the darkest dramas around.
The three-parter will tell the story of Stephen Port, the man dubbed the Grindr Killer, who received a life sentence in November 2016 for the rape and murder of four young men in their 20s — Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor.
He’d met them through dating websites and taken them back to his flat in Barking, East London, before drugging, raping and murdering them.
Sheridan Smith is Sarah Sak (pictured), the mother of Anthony Walgate
It’s been written by Jeff Pope and Neil McKay and will tell the story from the point of view of the families of Port’s victims. Port will feature prominently and it’s a landmark role for Stephen Merchant, whose comedy career includes hit sitcoms The Office and Extras.
‘I’ve done a lot of comedy but don’t watch it much,’ he says. ‘I watch drama or more serious-minded stuff and I’d always wanted the chance to be able to do that kind of work. That’s definitely been a goal.’
Four Lives will show the investigations undertaken by the family of Port’s fourth victim Jack Taylor, which showed police the striking similarities between his death and the previous three murders.
It will also feature the private investigations undertaken by John Pape, landlord of Port’s victim Gabriel Kovari, a hunt that started when he Googled ‘unexplained deaths in Barking’ for further details about Kovari and found a newspaper report about Anthony Walgate, a fashion student from Hull whose body had been found in strikingly similar circumstances to Kovari’s.
W1A star Rufus Jones plays John Pape and Sheridan Smith is Sarah Sak, the mother of Anthony Walgate.
Stephen Port was finally caught by the police in October 2015 after killing the men between June 2014 and September 2015, and the drama will be shown after the victims’ inquests have been held, so producers can take the results into account.
BBC1 drama, coming soon
6. DARK ANGEL
Mary Ann Cotton, played by Liar star Joanne Froggatt (pictured) in this two-part chiller, coldly ended the lives of three of her four husbands in the mid-1800s
Mary Ann Cotton, played by Liar star Joanne Froggatt in this two-part chiller, coldly ended the lives of three of her four husbands in the mid-1800s so she could claim on their life insurance policies.
She may have claimed up to 21 victims, including 11 of her 13 children. They all suffered an agonising death from arsenic poisoning.
‘What really shocked me was the way she went about her deathly business,’ said Joanne. ‘She was very calm and calculating, and troubled neither by mental illness nor any kind of hallucinations. She just saw an opportunity and went for it.’
7. THE PEMBROKESHIRE MURDERS
Luke Evans as DCS Steve Wilkins. Wilkins is the man who led the police’s cold case inquiry known as Operation Ottawa
Welshman John Cooper lost more than just a game of darts when he appeared on ITV’s Bullseye.
His brief and unsuccessful appearance would help lead to the permanent loss of his liberty.
The year was 1989 and Cooper was eager to grab one of the star prizes — speedboats, exclusive cars, £5,000 cash — on the show hosted by Jim Bowen.
Cooper and his partner began well and secured £220. But his female opponent was faster on the draw when it came to general knowledge, and he flopped when at the dartboard so was left empty-handed.
He glared at the TV camera as the Bullseye credits rolled. A month later he killed for the second time.
The Bullseye footage had been consigned to a video library in Leeds for the best part of 20 years, but then suddenly it assumed significance for this cold case murder story which is being dramatised in a three-part series, The Pembrokeshire Murders, due to air on ITV soon.
Based on a book by journalist Jonathan Hill, who found the Bullseye evidence, and DCS Steve Wilkins, who led the police’s cold case inquiry known as Operation Ottawa, it reveals how the pair desperately searched for new evidence to link the murders to Cooper — already in prison for violent robbery — as he approached the end of his sentence, which would mean he would be free to kill again.
Jim Bowen with the real Cooper on Bullseye. Finding the image of Cooper on the show was to gain huge importance as it was the only image police had of him from the time
Wilkins had long suspected that Cooper was also guilty of the murders of millionaire farmer Richard Thomas and his sister Helen in 1985, as well as the deaths of Peter and Gwenda Dixon four years later, who were shot while walking on the idyllic Pembrokeshire coast.
Finding the image of Cooper on the show was to gain huge importance as it was the only image police had of him from the time; and it matched an artist’s impression given by one of the few eyewitnesses who had seen Peter Dixon’s killer.
The story focuses on the huge effort Wilkins put in to nail Cooper for the brutal murders.
His team went through every bit of evidence, toiling for long, frustrating months until pioneering forensic methods discovered fibres that linked the robberies Cooper had been convicted of to the murders.
Gwenda Dixon, from Oxfordshire, was one of Cooper’s victims
During the investigation, they also discovered he was guilty of a series of sex assaults.
Cooper was convicted at Swansea Crown Court in 2011 of the four killings and was also found guilty on separate charges of rape, sexual assault and attempted robbery.
The series stars Keith Allen as Cooper and Luke Evans as Steve Wilkins. Luke, who grew up holidaying in Pembrokeshire, says, ‘The task of playing Steve Wilkins carries with it a huge responsibility for me, as the drama depicts a true crime which to this day still affects the families of those whose lives were tragically taken.
‘I feel privileged to be bringing this man’s work to the screen.’
ITV drama, coming soon
8. A CONFESSION
Joe Absolom as Christopher Halliwell in A Confession. It is a six-part ITV drama that tells the real-life story of Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher
It was a stroke of genius on the part of ITV, to shock and surprise viewers by asking an actor known for playing one of the channel’s most genial characters to appear as someone truly evil.
A Confession was the critically acclaimed exploration of the case involving Christopher Halliwell, the Swindon taxi driver who murdered two young women, Sian O’Callaghan, 22, and 20-year-old sex worker Becky Godden-Edwards, and may well have killed several more.
Joe Absolom, lovable pub landlord Al Large in Doc Martin since 2004, took on the role.
Martin Freeman is pictured as DS Fulcher
In a final, devastating sixth episode, his character shows a total lack of remorse for his crimes as he is questioned in the witness box.
Absolom says, ‘We used some of Halliwell’s actual words from court transcripts and the odiousness of this pathetic man was there for all to see. Preying on young women: it doesn’t get much lower than that.’
A Confession begins as the police try to track down Sian, who has gone missing after a night out in her home town of Swindon in March 2011.
DS Steve Fulcher (Martin Freeman) believes she could still be alive and, when Halliwell becomes the prime suspect, reckons he might be keeping her captive.
The detective feels he has to do whatever he can to discover her whereabouts. Jeff Pope, writer and executive producer, explains, ‘Fulcher was supposed to caution Halliwell and the first line of that caution reads, «You have the right to remain silent.» But he didn’t want Halliwell to remain silent. So he didn’t caution him.’
Fulcher was found guilty of gross misconduct, and felt he had to resign. But justice was eventually done — at least with regard to Halliwell.
When tried in 2012, he was only convicted of Sian’s murder, but he was found guilty of killing Becky in 2016.
9. FIVE DAUGHTERS
Five Daughters stars Aisling Loftus, Jaime Winstone (above, right) Eva Birthistle and Nathalie Press as four of Suffolk strangler Steve Wright’s victims
This three-part series, originally made for the BBC, focuses on the five women attacked and killed by Suffolk strangler Steve Wright between October and December 2006.
The series, which starred Aisling Loftus, Jaime Winstone, Eva Birthistle and Nathalie Press as four of his victims and Sarah Lancashire as one of their mothers, looked at how falling into drugs and prostitution meant they were easy targets for twisted forklift truck driver Wright.
Producer Simon Lewis said: ‘These girls were not exceptional. A couple of bad events, a couple of things going wrong and then one mishap tumbling upon another, you can find yourself very readily in dire straits.
‘I think this drama will surprise, because people think they know the story and they don’t.’ Its screening in 2010 led to a debate about the safeguarding of prostitutes.
10. IN PLAIN SIGHT
Douglas Henshall (left) as detective William Muncie who pursued killer Peter Manuel (Martin Compston, right). Manuel killed seven people between 1956 and 1958
Martin Compston postponed his honeymoon for a stint as a serial killer.
The role the Line Of Duty star couldn’t say no to back in 2016 was that of Peter Manuel, who murdered seven across Lanarkshire and southern Scotland between 1956 and 1958 and is thought to have killed two more.
He was dubbed ‘The Beast of Birkenshaw’, a reference to the Lanarkshire village where he grew up.
The drama focuses on Manuel and detective William Muncie, who pursued him. Manuel’s arrogance extended to dropping birthday cards through Muncie’s front door.
11. JACK THE RIPPER — THE CASE REOPENED
Jack The Ripper — The Case Reopened is presented by criminologist Professor David Wilson (left) and actress Emilia Fox (right) who believe they’ve finally solved the mystery
For more than a century, speculation has surrounded the identity of Jack the Ripper, the monster who viciously murdered five women in London’s Whitechapel in 1888.
But Jack The Ripper — The Case Reopened, presented by criminologist Professor David Wilson and actress Emilia Fox, believes that it has finally solved the mystery.
It points the finger at Aaron Kosminski, a Pole who had been living in the area at the time of the killings.
A contemporary illustration of Jack the Ripper first published in the Police Gazette
‘When I began making the documentary I didn’t think I would be able to say anything certain about the killer’s identity,’ said Wilson. ‘But we were led by the evidence and I am absolutely confident we named the right man.’
Their programme drew on new technology to make its assertion, in particular a recently refined, computer-based Home Office system called HOLMES (Home Office Large Major Enquiry System).
As Wilson explained, ‘It links together criminal inquiries in a way that wouldn’t have happened 130 years ago at the time of the Ripper killings, and which hadn’t been done before in relation to this particular case.’
After the murder of the Ripper’s fifth victim, Kosminski was put under surveillance and when in 1890 he attacked his sister he was locked up in a mental institution. Significantly, no more killings were then linked to the Ripper.
Wilson and Fox aren’t the first to name Kosminski, but there are other names still in the frame including American quack doctor Francis Tumblety, barrister Montague Druitt and Queen Victoria’s grandson Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence.
But, said Emilia Fox, whose interest in crime sprang from her appearances as pathologist Dr Nikki Alexander in Silent Witness, ‘I believe that the investigation carried out by me and David was as definitive as we could have hoped for.’
BBC iPlayer documentary
Peter Sutcliffe (pictured) murdered at least 13 women across Yorkshire
Peter Sutcliffe murdered at least 13 women across Yorkshire between 1975 and 1981 and seriously injured seven others.
He chose vulnerable women and violently attacked them with hammers, knives and screwdrivers.
For six years he led a reign of terror as police, flooded with information (the floor of the incident room had to be reinforced to cope with the weight of the paper), made mistake after mistake.
He was interviewed by police nine times, but still evaded capture.
It was only when he was stopped for using fake number plates that he was charged with being the Yorkshire Ripper in 1981 after his home was searched.
He was found guilty and handed 20 life sentences. This series takes a fresh dive into his crimes and the police investigation.
Police are pictured searching the ground behind Sutcliffe’s home in Bradford following his arrest in January 1981
Netflix documentary, coming soon
Martin Clunes has revealed he always resisted the temptation to play police officers. He plays DCI Colin Sutton (pictured in character) in Manhunt
Martin Clunes had always resisted the temptation to play police officers. ‘I thought there were too many cliches, too much, «Go, go, go!» as they zoomed off in their cars in pursuit of the bad guys,’ says the Doc Martin star.
‘But then I read the script for Manhunt, recognised the extraordinary work of the man I would be playing, DCI Colin Sutton, and changed my mind. I wanted to bring his story to the screen.’
Sutton helped bring Levi Bellfield to justice, for the murders of Marsha McDonnell, Amélie Delagrange and Milly Dowler, who was 13 when she was snatched off the street while walking home from school in Surrey in 2002.
Bellfield was convicted of the first two murders in 2008 and of Milly’s killing three years later.
On both occasions, the judge recommended that Bellfield never be released from jail.
Clunes says key to the success of the much-acclaimed three-part Manhunt was capturing Sutton’s doggedness and determination, as well as the tempo of the investigation he led.
‘Colin is the most passive man you could imagine but he never loses an argument and in a very quiet way sticks to his guns and gets results. And his determination to succeed rubs off on those around him.
‘I spent time with the Major Investigation Team at Hampshire Police ahead of filming, and the leader of it said there was a buzz during an investigation which there would have been during the Bellfield investigation led by Colin. I hoped we succeeded in bringing that buzz to the screen.’
14. AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE PEOPLE V OJ SIMPSON
David Schwimmer is pictured as Robert Kardashian, Simpson’s close friend and lawyer, who battled with his own belief in Simpson
From the moment police followed superstar sportsman OJ Simpson down the Los Angeles freeway in his white Ford Bronco as he tried to evade arrest for the murder of his ex-wife and her friend in June 1994, this story has been an international obsession.
It has traces of everything that makes a scandal scintillating: a glamorous, rich leading man, a tale of crime and passion, a racial element that couldn’t be ignored, and even the Kardashians.
Often forgotten, though, are the victims of the crime; Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, who were brutally stabbed to death outside her home.
This compelling ten-part series, which won a clutch of awards, still doesn’t put them at the centre, but it makes the whole thing more real.
It focuses on the high profile eight-month trial, one of the first cases to be broadcast live on US television.
Sarah Paulson is pictured as the chief prosecutor Marcia Clark, who was pilloried for losing the case and for daring to be a strong woman
It ended with the acquittal of Simpson (played by Cuba Gooding Jr) in front of 100 million viewers.
A pivotal moment came with the revelation that one of the chief investigators was racist and the verdict partly split the country on racial lines.
‘When I finished this role I was a wreck,’ admitted Gooding Jr. ‘It moved me to grief, hatred, anger and frustration.
‘The day we filmed the funeral scene, I wept. I was thinking, «Why are you so upset?» And I think it’s because of my guilt.
‘When that not guilty verdict came in I jumped up, I was yelling, «F*** the man who tried to do another black man wrong», and I never grieved for those two families and their loss.’
Simpson had amassed the best lawyers money could buy. John Travolta is the wily defence team leader, Robert Shapiro.
Friends star David Schwimmer plays Simpson’s close friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian, who battled with his own belief in Simpson.
On the other side, Sarah Paulson won an Emmy for her incredible performance as chief prosecutor Marcia Clark, who was pilloried for losing the case and for daring to be a strong woman.