The Long Shadow: If new Peter Sutcliffe drama listens to victims it will be worth revisiting terror of era - Christa Ackroyd
Sometimes it seems like a lifetime ago but as every woman who lived through it can testify, just the mention of it brings back the sense of terror we all felt as though it were yesterday.
We were all scared witless, going out of our minds that we would be next. Because we were told we could be. We ran from the bus stop to our homes. We stayed in behind locked doors. We looked behind us when we did venture out alone. And we trusted no one to keep us safe.
It was the era of factories and mills and night shifts where companies put on transport to get women to and from work and men accompanied their wives, girlfriends and sisters on nights out or even to the shops, to make sure we would get home safely.
It was to build and build into a frenzy of fear over a period of five years, turning into a living nightmare for all women. And, yes, also for the police who sought to end the killing spree of one man, who revelled in his notoriety until the day he died in jail where he belonged, and not in some high security mental health unit where he still managed to control the narrative. And where he enjoyed the fame his crimes had brought him.
For me as a cub reporter it was to change my life forever. It was to make me question the authority of the police whom I had been taught never to question and always respect. But above all it was to make me angry, angrier than you can ever imagine, when the women whose lives were taken were divided into categories of ‘innocent’ victim and by inference those who were guilty. And when the onus was on us to stay safe by locking ourselves away from a man it was later revealed had slipped through the net despite being interviewed by detectives nine times.
But then Sutcliffe changed many lives and not just those of the 13 women he killed and the seven who survived. Or even the 23 children who lost their mothers. Though they must always be at the centre of the story. Every single woman who lived in Yorkshire can take themselves back to the moment when we were told collectively not to go out alone.
To the days when it was all we talked about, when it was all- consuming and when, as if we needed reminding how truly afraid we were, we could pick up a telephone and listen to a voice we were told was the murderer when in fact he wasn’t. And remember the five long years when the police assured us they were very close to catching him when we all knew they were not.
For me I couldn’t stay home. Because it was my job to go out. What’s more it was my job to go out to the very areas where the murders and attacks had been committed. And often go there alone, armed only with a stash of ten pence pieces for the phone box to either ring in my story or call for help. And I did feel afraid.
I did jump at every sound behind me and yes I did look in the shadows. I also looked at my male work colleagues and my neighbours because that was what we were asked to do as we wondered what sort of a man could control our every waking moment.
And then just when we as women were at our angriest, just when we were starting to demand that men should stay indoors, not us, it was over.
Sutcliffe was caught because of good old fashioned coppering and brought from Sheffield to appear at Dewsbury magistrates, snuck in past the baying crowd and into a courtroom where I and only one other woman was waiting to see a monster.
Instead I saw a man in the dock and later at the Old Bailey who was in fact a weak, weedy, insignificant coward, for whom the act of killing was merely an act of power. And never have I hated a man more than that day when Peter Sutcliffe was brought before us and the world started turning again. But it never again felt quite the same if you were there.
Some women never got over their sense of fear. Some gave up their university courses and went home. Others who had once planned a life of independence never quite regained the same sort of confidence. Others remained angry at the police and their failure to protect us and never again accepted without question what were we told to do with our lives.
But then there were 13 women and probably more who never got to live their lives at all. And others like my lovely friend Olive Smelt who would have to live the rest of theirs with the constant whispering that she was a victim, as though it was somehow their fault or a badge of shame.
So why I am even writing this? Why am I even bringing it all up again when it happened so many decades ago? Because next month will see broadcast a seven-part drama series on the case which I know will divide opinion as to whether it should have been made. And I am here to tell you not only that it should, but it must, if it does what the producers say it does and focus not on one evil man but on his victims, their families and the lives lost or ruined.
When I started to tell these women’s stories so so many years ago now there were no women crime reporters and very few female detectives. If there had been, the importance of listening to women who had survived, the attacks would, I have always believed, led to Sutcliffe being caught sooner.
Their photofits were spot on, as was their description of his accent as being very firmly from Yorkshire. But then the story was for most part centred on the killer not those he killed. Or tried to kill. And seven who would forever suffer the stigma of even being associated with one man’s crimes because they survived.
And so I have always campaigned to redress the balance, to make Sutcliffe insignificant and bring the women to the fore, which if this drama does the same is all to the good. Because can we be honest and admit it may have all happened 40-odd years ago but can we really say women are still not judged by what they wear or where they were, even who they are, if they become the victims of violence? That the number of rape cases which put dangerous predators behind bars is still not woefully low? And that it is the woman who is often still put on trial not the man?
Drama has an important role to play in bringing these matters to our attention and for me and many other women who lived through those times. It matters a lot. I trust they have got it right. I trust Sutcliffe is not at the forefront of the narrative.
The drama is called The Long Shadow. I hope he is put firmly back there and the women and their stories emerge from the shadows and remind us that theirs is the only story that needs to be told. And that those of us who were there will never forget them as long as we live.