The Harold Shipman Files: New BBC series reveals missed chances to stop serial killer doctor in Yorkshire

A new BBC series reveals the stories of Harold Shipman’s victims, and explores how social attitudes towards the elderly allowed him to kill with impunity for decades. Chris Burn reports.

Dr Harold Shipman pictured in 1998.  Photo PA/EDI
Dr Harold Shipman pictured in 1998. Photo PA/EDI

Over the course of three decades, Harold Shipman killed hundreds of his patients in Yorkshire and Greater Manchester in their own homes with brazen impunity – only finally being stopped as a result of a dispute over the will of his final victim rather than by a murder being uncovered.  

Now a major new three-part BBC Two series is re-examining how the family GP got away with killing so many people for such a long time by telling the stories of his victims and their families - and concludes that society’s attitudes towards older people played a key part in him being able to evade justice.

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The Shipman Files: A Very British Crime Story is made by the same production company behind last year’s BAFTA-winning series The Yorkshire Ripper Files, which took a similar approach in focusing on the lives of victims and the historical and social context in which the crimes were being committed rather than the story of the serial killer.

Eva Lyons, one of the victims of Harold Shipman. Picture: Debbie Bartlett/BBC

Director Chris Wilson says while The Ripper Files revealed much about how society’s attitudes towards women and sex workers, this programme shows that Shipman’s ability to carry out mass killings - sometimes taking multiple lives in a single day - was assisted by the way older people are thought of.  

“The big question is how does someone kill 200 to 300 people without anyone noticing? The received story is he got away with it because he was a doctor. That was a massive part of it but I don’t think that is why he was allowed to kill so many people. If he had tried to kill 250 30-somethings, he would have been stopped sooner. It says a lot about our prejudices and attitudes towards elderly people.

“Covid happened towards the end of filming and it is a very similar thing. Even now you hear, ‘Yeah it just kills old people’ – as if that is somehow OK or less important.”

The first episode of the series looks at how Shipman’s serial killing was finally uncovered in 1998 following the death of former mayoress of Hyde, Kathleen Grundy.

After it came to light that Grundy’s will had been changed shortly before her death to leave all her estate to Shipman, a police investigation began.

Grundy’s body was found to contain traces of pure medical-grade heroin called diamorphine – and investigations began into other deaths Shipman had certified.

A pattern was discovered of the doctor administering lethal doses of diamorphone, signing patients’ death certificates and falsifying medical records to cover his tracks.

In 2000, Shipman was convicted of 15 murders but subsequent investigations have put the true total he killed at around 250 people, with the majority of them being women in their older years, although he is believed to have killed patients as young as four.

His chilling regular practice was to finish his morning surgery then drive over to a patient’s home in the afternoon before administering an injection that would kill them.

Despite frequently being the last person to see his patient alive, having such high mortality rates among his patients that he became known locally in Hyde as ‘Doctor Death’ and fellow professionals reporting suspicions about him down the years, the authorities never pieced together what was happening until the issue of the forged will came to light.

Shipman took his own life in Wakefield Prison in 2004 the day before his 58th birthday, leaving the families of his victims and those he is strongly suspected of killing with painful unanswered questions about his actions and motivations.

The documentary examines the many shocking missed opportunities to stop him and also reveals how he manipulated patients and their loved ones into believing he was not just their doctor but a trusted friend.

Shipman studied at Leeds School of Medicine, graduating in 1970. He began working at Pontefract General Infirmary and in 1974, started working as a GP at the Abraham Ormerod Medical Centre in Todmorden. It was there that the first major opportunity to stop him was missed. A police investigation just a year after Shipman had become a GP revealed he was addicted to the drug pethidine and would obtain large quantities of it for personal use by befriending his elderly patients, visiting them at home and then forging prescriptions in their names.

Shipman was convicted and fined £600, losing his job in Todmorden. But the documentary shockingly recounts how the General Medical Council decided not to strike him off the medical register. Decades later, it was to emerge Shipman hadn’t just been grooming elderly patients to help feed his drug habit – he had also been killing them in their own homes.

Among those interviewed for the series is former police officer George McKeating, who conducted the investigation into Shipman’s forgeries and pushed for the GMC to strike him off after seeing how he had exploited lonely older people.

“He would drop into these patients at 8, 9, 10 o’clock at night and say ‘Put the kettle on then’,” McKeating recounts in the show. “That’s strange, isn’t it? I don’t know any doctor then or now that would do that. ‘I’m his favourite patient’, one of them said - well you are one of 50 favourite patients.

“Some of them were in bits and crying when you went to see them again. They were upset because they had said Shipman had done this and thought they were going to be treated differently by the practice.

“They were all old people and I think they were very susceptible. He was grooming them, I’ve no doubt. We think about grooming as young girls for sex but he was grooming old people to get his drugs. Some wouldn’t give a statement as they said they didn’t want to get Dr Shipman into trouble. It is the first instance of grooming we can connect with.”

Wilson says he agrees with McKeating’s assessment. “You think about grooming and our image is of vulnerable young people. But he was grooming older people and their families so he could kill them without the victims knowing they are dying. Families didn’t know what had happened and even stood up for him.”

McKeating also tells the documentary of his anger at the GMC’s decision to allow Shipman to continue practicing.

“The chairman said he is no longer a danger to the public. I was furious. I slammed my briefcase shut. I said, ‘I think you’ve made a big mistake. This man is dangerous and I think he should have been struck off. I think you are totally and utterly wrong’.”

The programme also hears from Debbie Bartlett, the granddaughter of Eva Lyons, who was killed by Shipman in Todmorden in March 1975. She reveals how Shipman carried out the murder of her 70-year-old grandmother, who had cancer, directly in front of her grandfather after being a regular visitor to the family home.

“My grandfather said the doctor turned up about 11 at night and he let him in,” she says. “They went into the bedroom, she was asleep and then he said he would just give her something for the pain and he injected her in the back of the hand. My grandfather made him a coffee and they were chatting in the kitchen. At the end, he said ‘I’ll just check in on her again before I leave’ and goes back in and she’s dead.

“This man was in my grandparents’ bedroom and he is stood next to my grandfather and he basically kills her in front of him. My grandfather trusted that man and then made him a coffee in the kitchen.”

The subsequent Shipman inquiry chaired by Dame Janet Smith found Eva Lyons to have been one of Shipman’s murder victims, with a further six deaths in Todmorden – including three that occurred in a single day – also suspected of being killings.

Dame Janet also ruled Shipman had “probably caused the deaths of between ten and 15 patients” while working at Pontefract.

One of the suspected victims was a four-year-old girl while the programme hears from another doctor who worked with Shipman at the time about his strong suspicions he was involved in the death of another child.

Wilson says that testimony is important to understanding Shipman’s killing was not just limited to older people.

“That disproves this idea he had a thing for killing old people - he had a thing for killing people.”

He says that his later killings of elderly patients may well have been because he knew he’d be more likely to get away with it.

After his 1975 conviction, Shipman initially got a job as a clinical medical officer in Durham but returned to General Practice just two years after his conviction after getting a job at a surgery in the town of Hyde on the outskirts of Manchester. He was to spend the rest of his career there, setting up his own practice in 1992.

In March 1998, fellow Hyde GP Linda Reynolds raised concerns with the local coroner about the high death rate among Shipman’s patients after becoming alarmed at how many cremation forms for elderly women he was asking to be countersigned.

But a flawed police investigation found no evidence to bring any charges and the case was closed in April. Shipman went on to kill a further three people before being arrested initially in connection with Kathleen Grundy’s will in September of the same year.

Wilson says it is striking how different authorities down the decades missed what was unfolding.

“He wasn’t discovered because of a murder, he was discovered because of a dispute about money in a will. It makes you think he could have carried on without that happening as there is no reason to think he would have been detected.

“They are all making the same mistake to look at cases properly because it was dismissed as a load of elderly women dying. That is the bigger story. Even when a GP comes forward with pretty clear evidence something is going on, nobody thinks to find out what is happening.”

One of the most powerful aspects of the documentary series are the interviews with family, friends and neighbours of Shipman’s victims. Contrary to the common perception that Shipman’s victims were already near death, Wilson discovers that many were fit and healthy. The average age of his victims was 76.

Although these women were elderly, their deaths were mostly unexpected, and yet, at the time, Shipman was able to pass their deaths off as due to natural causes, without raising suspicions.

Wilson admits making the show forced him to examine his own attitudes towards the elderly.

“One of the interesting things was it forced me to question my own prejudices. If you had said Harold Shipman to me 18 months ago, I would have said ‘isn’t he the doctor who had a thing for killing old people?’ That is probably quite a common image of Shipman but it is just not true.

“For me, it isn’t a story about the medical profession - even though it was important to fix lots of failings in that world - it is about how we treat the elderly.”

So what does he hope viewers take away from the series?

“This series is the start of a conversation. It is for people other than me to get into the process of it but what I would hope this does is make people think a little bit harder and a little bit differently about their own prejudices.”

Documentary ‘has something new to say’

Chris Wilson says the team behind the series, which took around a year to film, were determined to make something meaningful and give a voice to those affected by Shipman but who had not previously been given the chance to have their say about his impact on their lives.

“We didn’t want to make a Shipman series for the sake of it. We wanted it to be worthwhile and have something important and new to say.

“We had a massive wall in our office with lots of names on and we just tried to contact every single family of the victims and start from the point of view of who are these people and what were their stories?”

The Shipman Files: A Very British Crime Story, stripped across the week from Monday September 28 at 9pm on BBC Two.

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