OVER three nights this week BBC Four will screen The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story, a documentary mini-series examining the 1955 shooting of David Blakely by his lover, Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK. The case was notorious at the time and remains so today for many reasons, not least for the way it crystallised opposition to the death penalty.

But what's particularly interesting about the mini-series is not its subject – Ellis has inspired several documentaries as well as plays, films and even an opera – but the five words that come after the colon in the lengthy title: A Very British Crime Story. Switch channels during Wednesday's second episode and you'll see why this is, because at the same time BBC Two will be screening episode three of The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, a forensic piecing together and re-telling of the deadly 1997 spree by serial killer Andrew Cunanan which ended in the fashion designer's murder in Miami. Again, the words after the colon are important: this is the second instalment of an award-winning anthology series whose first season examined the trial of OJ Simpson.

What this tells us is that we're in something of a Golden Age of true crime stories, be they American, British or any other nationality. It's a wide-ranging genre which takes in everything from glitzy, dramatised recreations of high-profile crimes to investigative documentaries which dig into miscarriages of justice or highlight little-known cases. But however it's done, it's a genre whose breathtaking twists and turns, ability to comment on wider societal issues and multi-part format have captivated audiences and made it one of the hottest TV forms. In the new media landscape of streaming services and content on demand, where boxsets are to be gorged upon and then dissected on social media, nothing has grabbed the public imagination in quite the same way. Here, we run down 10 notable examples.

The Thin Blue Line

If the true crime genre has a godfather, it's film-maker Errol Morris, and if it has a foundation stone it's this Philip Glass-scored 1988 documentary about the case of Randall Dale Adams, sentenced to death in 1977 for the murder of a Texas police officer. Morris, a former private investigator, was sceptical about Adams's guilt and interviewed him as he languished on Death Row. The finished film recreates various versions of events, but the technique most associated with Morris is the way he has his interviewees talk straight into the camera, giving his work an unnerving level of intimacy. Morris would go on to win an Oscar for his 2003 film The Fog Of War. Adams, meanwhile, had his case reviewed and, thanks in part to The Thin Blue Line, was released in 1989. The film itself is a how-to masterclass for everything that has followed.

Making A Murderer

A winner of four Emmys, this Netflix-produced documentary series was filmed over the course of 10 years by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos and aired in 2015. It's still available to view on the streaming service and tells the story of Steven Avery, who served 18 years in prison in Wisconsin after being wrongly convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder. The series lays out the whole convoluted story over the course of 10 gripping episodes. It's a hallmark of the true crime genre that nothing is every quite what it seems, and part of what makes them so appealing is the film-makers' skill at navigating the twists, turns and feints. Nor is the case over: without giving away any spoilers, as recently as December the US Court of Appeals was ruling on aspects of it.

The Keepers

Another Netflix series, this seven-parter debuted in 2017 and investigates the 1969 murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a teacher at a Baltimore Catholic school. Directed by Ryan White, who had already made a film about a landmark court battle to legalise gay marriage in California, it posits the theory – strengthened by interviews with former students of Cesnik's – that she was murdered to cover up systematic sexual abuse which was taking place at the school.

The Jinx

Film-maker Andrew Jarecki caused a furore in 2003 with his Oscar-nominated documentary Capturing The Friedmans, which started out as a short film about clowns and ended up as a disturbing essay on child abuse and memory viewed through the prism of a series of bizarre home movies. In The Jinx, which screened on HBO in 2015, he turns to the story of New York real estate tycoon Robert Durst, who had been investigated and cleared over the 1982 disappearance of his wife and would later be implicated in two further murders. In Jarecki's hands the background to the making of the six-parter becomes part of the story: Jarecki had already made a movie based on a book Durst had written, and as a result was contacted by Durst offering to be interviewed. A tape recording of this conversation is included in The Jinx. To cut a long story short, Durst was finally arrested for first-degree murder on March 14 2015 – the day before the final episode of The Jinx aired.

The Investigator: A British Crime Story

Inspired by watching The Jinx, Simon Cowell lent whatever producing talent he has to this four-part re-examination of the case of Carol Packman, who vanished from her home in Bournemouth in 1985. The investigator of the title is Mark Williams-Thomas, the policeman-turned-script advisor-turned presenter who's best known for 2012 documentary Exposure: The Other Side Of Jimmy Savile. Packman's husband, Russell Causley, was found guilty of his wife's murder in 1996 and jailed but that conviction was over-turned in 2003. Then, after a 2004 re-trial, he was given a life sentence. The series screened in 2016. Carol Packman's fate is still not known.


Proof that television isn't the only vehicle for the true crime story in the age of the smartphone and the download, journalist/producers Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder found themselves with a bona fide phenomenon on their hands with this 2014 podcast. Listeners were gripped, eagerly anticipating each weekly episode in the unfolding story of Adnan Syed, who at the time was serving a life sentence for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, 18-year-old schoolgirl Hae Min Lee. By 2016, Serial had won a prestigious Peabody Award and been downloaded 80 million times. A second series in the Serial strand, S-Town, was released a year ago. A third is supposedly scheduled for 2018.

The People Vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.

Cuba Gooding Jr., Sarah Paulson and John Travolta landed the plum roles of OJ Simpson, prosecution lawyer Marcia Clark and defence lawyer Robert Shapiro in this groundbreaking adaptation of one of the most high-profile American trials of the 20th century. A second instalment of the anthology series, about the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace by the serial killer Andrew Cunanan, is currently airing on BBC Two.

The Menendez Murders

The long-running (and now pretty creaky) Law & Order franchise branched into true crime stories in 2017 with a new anthology series, Law & Order True Crime. Season one aired on NBC last September and dramatised another celebrated 1990s murder case which became a media sensation – that of Lyle and Erik Menendez, accused of murdering their wealth parents in 1989 at their home in Beverly Hills.

The Central Park Five

Directed by legendary, multi-part documentary-maker Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah Burns, this one-off 2012 film examines the infamous “Central Park jogger case” – the violent assault and rape of a wealthy young white women in New York in 1989. Of the five young men convicted of the crime, four were black and the other was Hispanic. A lightning rod for media racism, the case became a tabloid sensation. Days after the attack, and with the teenage suspects already in custody, one Donald Trump took out ads in four city newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty. But all five men were innocent and, though it took years, were eventually proved to be so. Here, Burns tells the story.


Not the STV series of a decade ago, though it did something similar, nor even the US anthology series of the same name which looked into the unsolved murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, but an online-only series for BBC Three fronted by ex-Panorama journalists Alys Harte and Bronagh Munro. Series one, The Boy Who Disappeared, tackled the 1996 disappearance of 16-year-old Damien Nettles on the Isle of Wight. Delivered as eight, 15-minute episodes in 2016, it drew comparisons with Serial. A second series, The Man With No Alibi, is available to view from March 25 on BBC Three and examines the case against Omar Benguit, convicted of the 2002 murder of student Jong Ok Shin in Bournemouth.

Biggie & Tupac

This 2002 documentary about the murdered rappers is by legendary film-maker Nick Broomfield. With his trademark gonzo-style, Broomfield probes the killings deploying his English deadpan interview technique. It is a masterclass, but like most true crime stories, the viewer is left wondering what the truth really is ... that's part of the attraction, after all, true crime puts us in the place of the detective, vicariously probing the darkest side of humanity, and trying to piece together the truth about terrible events which have captured the public imagination.