When it comes to source material for decent drama, police archives have a track record for delivering the goods. If you've binge-watched all the best true crime documentaries already, here are eight of the best fictional adaptations to keep you on the edge of your seat:
The Salisbury Poisonings
Televised back in spring 2020, this portrayal of the shocking events in Salisbury came with uncomfortable topical parallels: not least a frazzled public health official trying to identify and contain a mysterious deadly pathogen. Screenwriters Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn wisely choose to eschew the geopolitical intrigue and instead focus on the everyday Brits whose lives were turned upside down by the state-sponsored attack. Rafe Spall stars as DS Nick Bailey, the heroic police officer whose survival is left hanging in the balance after just the briefest of encounters with novichok poison.
If true crime has a fault, it's that too many productions work to that simple rule of thumb that the grislier the better. Thankfully, playwright James Graham turns that assumption on its head with an utterly-thrilling adaptation of the most talked about trial of 2003 - the infamous ‘coughing major’ scandal. Originally a hit play before being adapted for ITV, Quiz’s magic comes from his ability to blend the frenetic tabloid energy of his source material with the emotionally-rich human stories underlying it. With the West End finally waking up from its slumber, let’s hope it’s not long before we're seeing some new work from theatre’s golden boy.
With six hour-long episodes, this weighty dramatisation of the infamous Waco sage - in which a stand-off between a heavily-armed Christian cult in Texas and the FBI ended in tragedy - is a first-class slice of high-octane true crime. Canadian actor Taylor Kitsch avoids the pitfalls of cliche as cult-leader David Koresh, whose eccentric Biblical teachings sew the ground for a survivalist retreat and then, latterly, an armed insurrection. Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon plays the senior FBI negotiator charged with defusing the situation, and on whose book the series is based.
You know the way certain true crime stories just have a way of getting under your skin for weeks afterwards? Well, The Serpent does that in spades. Shot on location on Thailand’s luscious hippy trail, it tells the story of Charles Sobhraj: the suave serial killer who lured back-packers and spiritual types into his deadly spider-web throughout the 70s and 80s. Priding honesty over comfort, this BBC-led production wisely decides to stay clear of antihero territory: instead presenting Sobhraj as the kind of irredeemable bastard whose demise can't come soon enough.
Netflix (coming soon)
Few magazine stories get around the world quicker than that of Anna Sorokin: the Russia-born ‘fake heiress’ whose multi-million dollar exploits led to a spell in New York’s infamous Rikers Island jail. Unsurprisingly, the story became the prize in a television bidding war, in which the all-powerful Netflix eventually triumphed. While the series isn’t due to land until the autumn, you can pass the time by listening to the BBC’s excellent docudrama podcast on the story, Fake Heiress. It’s a tough act for Netflix to follow.
Little Boy Blue
Issues-led true crime dramas can be a delicate path to tread - with today’s viewers rightly sensitive towards the first hint of mawkishness or sensationalism. Thankfully, we Brits have been hitting consistently high standards in recent years, as this 2017 adaptation of the murder of Rhys Jones - the 11-year old Everton fan killed when he was caught in gangland crossfire - shows. Emerging national treasure Stephen Graham stars as the police lead who finds himself repeatedly banging his lead against a wall of silence. Don't miss him in BBC's Time which, though not a true story, has been praised for its uber-accurate portrayal of prison life.
Borgen scribe Tobias Lindholm does a superb job in honouring the story of Kim Wall: the 30-year-old Swedish journalist murdered by a high-profile entrepreneur she had been interviewing. Wall’s murder sent shockwaves across Scandinavia, meaning that any adaptation would require the utmost senstivitiy. Thankfully, this Danish dramatisation handles the whole thing deftly and delicately - without sparring viewers the horror of what happened.
When They See Us
When a television series ends with a special episode in which Oprah Winfrey interviews the cast, along with their real life counterparts, you know you're not dealing with your average crime serial. And that's exactly the case here. The work of acclaimed screenwriter Ava DuVernay, When They See Us tells the story of the Central Park 5: a group of young black men who successfully fought to clear their names in New York's criminal justice system, having been unjustly convicted of a brutal murder. After widespread acclaim in 2019, it went on to bag an Emmy: establishing itself amongst the highest tier of Netflix originals.