It’s possible that the only way to make a tantalising story more seductive is to add an element of truth. In recent years, televising a fictitious retelling of real stories has held favour with UK audiences—often delicious in their efforts to answer the unknown questions that have evaded the bandwidth of cold, hard facts. If the BBC have mastered the period drama and Channel 4 is the go-to for visceral modern narratives, ITV has continually excelled in the riveting delivery of the biopic. Perhaps their formula for success lies in their broadcast cross-section, able to take the compelling additive of reality TV, the harsh focus of real-time news, and a healthy dose of competition show countenance to effectively commission drama that hits all the hunger pains of TV combined.
With the BBC airing a possibly questionable recalling of the life of Jimmy Savile later this year and Netflix not dropping their crown as the king of the crime documentary, it remains to be seen whether ITV can keep their formula for biopic success intact. As The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe airs this month, the channel shows it has no intentions of loosening its real-life grip, following a decade of notable TV highlights.
Appropriate Adult (2011)*
Following the role of housewife Janet Leach (Emily Watson) during the investigation of the murders by Fred and Rose West (Dominic West and Monica Dolan), ITV used Appropriate Adult to set out their visceral precedent in the market of real-life crime. With its lead protagonist quick to win a Best Actress BAFTA, the miniseries tapped into the collective appetite for an in-depth look at the UK’s most famous criminal case. By anchoring the narrative around an innocent bystander wrapped up in a heinous slaughtering of humanity, the lives of the Wests became accessible from a healthy distance. Bringing together a triage of arguably underappreciated actors, the series marked a turning point in what both true crime and biopic depictions could achieve.
Proving they had mastered the biopic away from the shadows of the much-loved crime genre, Sheridan Smith’s portrayal of Cilla Black was met with widespread acclaim. Taking yet another beloved facet of British life while spotlighting a historically denigrated social class, ITV’s whistle-stop tour through the eyes of the Liverpudlian musical heyday introduced the former life of a national treasure to a brand new audience. Smith’s rendition of the classic Anyone Who Had A Heart entered the UK’s Top 100 Singles Chart, while her incredible embodiment of Black is perhaps still considered her career highlight.
Torvill & Dean (2018)
Following the return of ITV’s competition series Dancing on Ice, 2018 saw the nation’s ice skating heroes in a completely new light. Chronicling the events leading up to the pair’s 1984 Olympic gold in Sarajevo, the series not only played with the parallel anticipation for Dancing on Ice, but toyed with the ‘forbidden romance’ trope that has followed Torvill & Dean’s career. Allowing the UK to buy into the two as romantically intertwined, the fictitious filling of the behind the scenes gaps in their lives was all the more satisfying.
Returning to the UK’s insatiable appetite for crime drama, ITV’s most noteworthy biopic came in the form of 2020’s Des. Depicting the murders and investigation of serial killer Dennis Nielsen, David Tennant delivered a performance exceeding the high calibre of his acting back catalogue. Mirroring the brooding 70s tension of Netflix’s Mindhunter, the channel was onto a gift that would keep on giving—an impeccable supporting cast, astute attention to detail, and narrative hooks that were almost too ideal to be true.
The Hillsborough disaster is something that has always demanded a visceral lens of truth—and in early 2022, ITV brought it to screens with a sobering 4-part miniseries. Playing campaigner and mother of Hillsborough victim Kevin Williams, Maxine Peake’s Anne is regarded as one of ITV’s most remarkable dramas in recent memory. Holding the audience’s hand through the identification of victims that was tragically makeshift, the series never loosens its grasp on the emotional torment the country has never forgotten.
The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe (2022)*
Coming full circle with Monica Dolan’s second appearance in an ITV biopic, The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe brings together the piqued interests of ongoing mystery, self-indulgence and criminal outcome. Following the fraudulent behaviour of John Darwin (Eddie Marsan) that led to his faked death, the miniseries held the avid attention of the UK as effectively as the real case back in 2007. Following up with a tell-all documentary and expose live TV interviews, ITV has firmly cemented itself as the omnipotent force behind the British biopic.
*Available to stream on ITV Hub