Recent cries of anger over the BBC’s decision to axe BBC Three instead of BBC Four have been coupled with mass mourning over the loss of television staples such as my personal favourite ‘Don’t Tell the Bride’, in favour of BBC Four’s partiality for many a documentary. Yet, through the dense cloud of predominantly military facts there emerges a remarkably likeable blonde with a penchant for hair clips; Lucy Worsley. Curator and writer by day, Worsley’s TV programmes are a mere segment of her historical repertoire. Her TV work focuses on social history from the last 500 years and offers an insight into the foods, clothing and homes of those before us whilst being complemented by her friendly television persona. Without patronising the viewer with dull and obvious facts, Worsley offers a fresh and engaging view of social history.
Worsley’s recent three part series A Very British Murder was first aired at the beginning of the year (yet can still be viewed via Bob National) and accompanies her 2013 book of the same name. The programmes span from the early 19th century up to the Second World War, covering some significant changes. Worsley highlights Victorian society’s obsession with violence in the first half of the 19th century before progressing to the rise of detective work and finishing with an investigation into the popularity of the armchair detective. Worsley encapsulates a niche British obsession with all aspects surrounding murder; from the criminal identity, to the violence of the murder itself and to the investigation afterwards. Murder has evolved into our national psyche without us realizing it and Worsley reveals how this happened with the engaging charisma of a talented TV presenter.
The throne of the Armchair Detective can belong to no one other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His works remain amazingly popular today (just ask one of the 10 million viewers of the New Year’s Day special of Sherlock); Doyle was the first and most influential writer of the detective genre. The first of the Sherlock Holmes series, A Study in Scarlet (1886) was both hugely popular and important to the British police force. The methodology Doyle attributes to his Detective Holmes of observation, thought and deduction, was highly relevant to contemporary events in the emerging field of forensic science. The early 19th century saw a broadening public interest in the criminal, encouraged by the increasing number of trials and circulation of the Penny dreadful. Criminals were seen as savages and society for the first time was willing to understand and take responsibility for them.
Work on the identity of the criminal sought to explain criminal behaviour through establishing differences between criminals and the ‘average’ person. Advances in photography enabled a photographic identity for the criminal and marked a movement away from 19th century theories of criminality within phrenology. After taking thousands of pictures of criminals the police force had a problem: how to organize and draw a theory of criminality from the mass of data they had accumulated. Here, French detective Alphonse Bertillon’s ‘Bertillonage’ system became vital. He standardized the lighting, frame and dimension of the pictures, as well as recording key focal points of the face to easily distinguish one individual from another. Yet still there was no explanation for criminal behaviour. Works from Frances Galton characterize peculiarities in criminals and Cesare Lombruso tried to establish a ‘criminal type’, yet this physiological identity of criminals is now more associated with offensive theories of degeneration.
The interests of the detectives moved on from identifying the criminal to crime scene investigation. Observation of the victim could now be stated as evidence in court, the expert observation now overrode the common observation. However detectives had no ‘rules’ of observation or investigation. Hans Gross’s handbook of the Principles of CSI (1893) proved famously popular and established the field of criminalistics. Gross clarified what the fictional Sherlock Holmes seemingly already knew: the importance of incorporating human psychology with scientific observation. The unusual influence of hugely popular detective fiction on the police force is what makes Worsley’s series so engaging. She provides not just a narrative of a literary genre but offers a core insight into the contemporary discussions of both the everyday man and the professional. That she does this whilst being highly watchable can only lead the viewer to think that perhaps BBC Four has the potential to offer entertainment as riveting as BBC Three.