The Shipman Files: A Very British Crime Story

The Shipman Files

Film-maker Chris Wilson revisits the Harold Shipman story as it developed from a local news piece to the biggest serial killer case in British History. 

Opening in 1998, the series begins in Hyde, the small market town near Manchester that would become the setting for a murder investigation on an unprecedented scale. This episode tells the story of how the crimes of ‘respected’ GP Harold Shipman were first discovered and how he was eventually apprehended and charged with the murder of 15 of his own patients. 

Shipman was a popular local doctor who had been practising in Hyde for over 20 years when doubts were raised over the validity of the will left by one of his patients, Kathleen Grundy, following her death in 1998. Shipman had certified her cause of death as old age, but when the police exhumed her body, the post-mortem revealed that Mrs Grundy had in fact been killed by a fatal dose of diamorphine – pure, medical-grade heroin. That turned the case into a murder inquiry, and the victim’s GP was the prime suspect. When the police began to take a look at the deaths of several more of Shipman’s recently deceased patients, the inquiry quickly snowballed into a multiple murder investigation. Shipman would eventually stand trial for the murder of 15 of his former patients from Hyde – all of them women, almost all of them elderly. 

Meeting victims’ close relatives and friends, former patients and the husband of another GP who spoke out against Shipman, Wilson reveals that despite compelling evidence against him, clear opportunities to catch Shipman earlier were missed. Wilson discovers how a dark chapter in the town’s past made the Shipman story even more difficult to face and explores how Shipman abused his power and status as a doctor to remain above suspicion – and even above the law. 

Rather than focusing on the killer, Wilson examines the lives of some of Shipman’s elderly victims, discovering that they were fit and healthy women, active members of their local community who were well loved by their families and friends. Although these women were elderly, their deaths were mostly unexpected, and yet Shipman was able to pass their deaths off as due to natural causes. 

The programme ends on the eve of Shipman’s trial. He was charged with 15 murders, but the police investigated over 100 other suspicious deaths, the vast majority of whom were elderly patients. Even though this was to be the biggest murder trial in British history, it was clear that the true scale of Shipman’s crimes, and a full examination of how he had evaded detection for so long, would only begin to emerge after the court case. 

Wilson ends with a question – could the profile of Shipman’s victims, in particular their age, be the real reason that he was able to kill so many over such a long period of time without anyone raising the alarm?

The Shipman Files: A Very British Crime Story – Friday 11.05pm on BBC2

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