The US premiere of “Manhunt” gives American TV viewers the chance to see one of the biggest true-crime dramas in British TV history.
The three-episode series, starring Martin Clunes (“Doc Martin”) — and now streaming on Acorn TV — is based on the memoirs of Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton (Clunes), who methodically hunted down British serial killer Levi Bellfield in 2004.
“Manhunt” averaged 9 million viewers on ITV when it aired in January and was the UK’s highest-rated new drama since “Broadchurch” in 2013. It also wasn’t far behind the drama series “Bodyguard,” which averaged 10 million viewers over six episodes on BBC One last summer with stars Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes.
Clunes has some experience with onscreen serial killers. He played England’s “Acid Bath Murderer” in a 2002 series called “A Is for Acid” (for Yorkshire TV) and says there’s a reason that “Manhunt” focuses on Sutton — and not on Bellfield, convicted of killing Milly Dowler, Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delegrange and for attempting to kill Kate Sheedy. He’s serving life in prison.
“We wanted to show more about how crimes get solved, rather than enigmatic people wandering around staring out of windows,” says Clunes, alluding to detectives in other police procedurals. “It’s a lot of hard work — an awful lot of people working very hard doing very boring police work and that was the story we wanted to tell. Telling the story in the manner of [the BBC’s] ‘Luther’ [starring Idris Elba] or any of those shows was never our intention.
“Colin [Sutton] is an amazing man,” he says. “When I first met him, I said he seems more like an accountant than a detective. He’s just an ordinary, extremely decent person and a very good policeman.
“Manhunt” was produced by Clunes’ wife, Philippa Braithwaite and written by Sutton and Ed Whitmore.
‘We wanted to show more about how crimes get solved, rather than enigmatic people wandering around staring out of windows.’
“When Philippa was developing [‘Manhunt’] I would hear about it,” he says. “It wasn’t necessarily intended for me because I’ve always said I’m offered quite a few detective-type roles over the years and I didn’t want to do them because I don’t watch [detective dramas] or really like them.
“But the more I thought about Colin and this case it sort of seduced me,” he says. “The state of the British TV detective is to spend more time with the murderer and the murdered and not the [investigation],” he says. “So we were concerned about telling that story because we were basing it on Colin Sutton’s journal and his memoirs — and that was very much the story we wanted to tell.”
Clunes says he spent a lot of time with Sutton, getting to know him and his police methodology. “When Gary Oldman played Winston Churchill in [the movie] ‘Churchill’ he was under a whole load of makeup to make him look a lot like Churchill,” Clunes says. “We didn’t go that route — but somewhere there’s a Polaroid photo of Colin and I on the set standing next to each other in equally bad knitwear laughing and looking very similar.”
He’s asked if there was any thought given to extending “Manhunt” beyond three episodes.
“Yes, we were desperate to do that,” he says. “But ITV are our customers and they just wanted three [episodes]. There’s always a casualty when you shorten or condense something. I have regrets about what we couldn’t fit in, but it did work well in that three-act structure.”