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    “Fear will not drive us away”: what life was like under the long shadow of the Yorkshire Ripper

    Katherine Kelly and Daniel Mays in The Long Shadow Photo: ITV

    One of my most vivid memories from childhood is with my mother. telephone planning of evenings with girlfriends. Every week on Tuesday and Friday, this determined group of 1970s twentysomethings would leave their home town of Barnsley to enjoy the livelier nightlife across the border in West Yorkshire. No detail was left to chance. The group left and returned in the same car; in the intervening hours they never lost sight of each other for a moment.

    I know this is true because I checked the details with my mom this morning. Although, as an only child whose formative years were spent watching adults rather than playing or fighting with siblings, I'm pretty sure I concluded that something serious was going on. In the straightforward North, I may even have been privy to the details. I may well have known that these young women were trying very hard not to be killed by the Yorkshire Ripper.

    Of course, on our way he was not the Yorkshire Ripper at all. For us, as a local resident, he was simply the Ripper. ’

    These details came back to me thanks to the artistry and authority demonstrated in the television drama The Long Shadow. The seven-part series, airing on ITV, focuses not on the serial killer, but on the police who tried to catch him (and who questioned him nine times before finally doing so) and, crucially, on the women whose lives were cut short. , or be forever scarred by its blunt force. Among the brilliant cast are Toby Jones, Daniel Mays and (especially) Katherine Kelly.

    Of course, this struck a nerve in the city where I grew up. “Everyone I meet who has seen it wants to talk about it,” my mother reports. “Friends who remember what it was like at that time immediately returned there. I know yes.

    On screen, the attention to detail is amazing. Emily Jackson's willingness, played with gritted stoicism by Kelly, to submit to street sex work rather than admit to friends and neighbors that her family is struggling for money is a poignant snapshot of an indomitable northern matriarch. Equally resonant is husband Sidney (Mays), whose business is failing, partly because times are tough for everyone, but also because he is inherently slow and weak. If it had been left to him, his wife knows well—as many working-class women knew about their spouses—the Jacksons would likely have starved to death.

    At the party, while Sydney drinks bitters at the bar in the next room, an attractive stranger, next to whom she silently danced, mistakes Emily for a “pro.” Although she declines his offer, her fate is sealed by the expression that appears on her face as she looks forward to earning five pounds for as many minutes of work. Recounting the incident in the marital bedroom, her husband initially takes what he is told as an admission of infidelity. “I’ll kill you,” he says, “and I’ll kill him, and all that.” However, Sydney Jackson will not actually kill anyone. They both know it. However, they don't yet know that someone will do it.

    Because there's a killer on the loose, or haven't you heard? By the time my mother and her friends raced past the working-class men's clubs and cozy pubs of Barnsley towards the liveliness of Huddersfield and Wakefield, it was known throughout the country that they had entered the Ripper's territory. “We were terrified, absolutely terrified,” she tells me. “But at the same time, life finds a way, doesn’t it? I guess we didn't want to let fear get the better of us.”

    Protesters gather outside the Old Bailey in 1981 to protest the differences between judges and the media. between prostitutes and “decent women”; during the Yorkshire Ripper case. Photo: Getty

    By refusing to succumb to the long shadow, they became their sister's guardians. They even had a silent call for help in case the man on the dance floor started to scare them. Friends knew to intervene if anyone in the group fiddled with a pendant or cross hanging from a necklace. They swooped in: “Come on, Katie, let’s go to the bar and have a drink?”

    It was different before, of course. Until 1975, or certainly until 1976, they walked into the night like soldiers: together they stood, separately they fell. When my mother worked as a nurse at Barnsley General, a Tuesday or Friday evening in her prime could be shortened by an early shift the next morning. The rest of the gang were single, and this relationship status presented its own opportunities. But then reports began to appear, first on the regional programs “Calendar” and “Look North”, then on “Nine O'Clock News” and “Ten News”. The startling details were leaked from the Yorkshire Post to the Daily Mirror. This went on for years. Is it any wonder that groups of young women began to move as one?

    But, bolstered by numbers, they hit the road – to the Mecca Ballroom in Wakefield and the New York Bar in Huddersfield. On the dance floor they watched in delight as one of the two gay Dutchmen who owned the Amsterdam bar, also in Huddersfield, proceeded to fulfill the last orders, standing on the bar in full drag and singing This Is My Life (La vita) with Shirley's gusto Bassey. I'm afraid that in The Long Shadow the West Riding is not shown enjoying such nights because it cannot imagine such events happening in towns such as this. If one aspect of the first episode gave me pause, it was the idea that ordinary people were dancing, drinking and fucking because there was nothing else to do.

    Peter Sutcliffe (right under blanket) is escorted out of Dewsbury Magistrates' Court in Dewsbury on January 5, 1981. Photo: AP

    In fact, of course, the cold was felt not only by people who walked around the city with a can of spray paint or did their business under a red light. For years, half the religion's adults lived with the knowledge that a stranger wanted them dead. It became more and more difficult to think straight. My mum changed garages after finding out that the friendly mechanic on Stokes Lane in Barnsley was actually a West Yorkshireman. I know one woman who was accompanied to and from work by her older brother. Many, undoubtedly, were pleased to present their family as the most reliable source of unconditional security. Despite this, the killer was someone's relative.

    Even when Peter William Sutcliffe was caught and named the Ripper in 1981, it was initially hard to believe that the ordeal was truly over. My mother and her friends wondered if there could have been more than one killer. Or what if the courts handed down 20 life sentences to the wrong person? Of course, no one could forget the recorded message from the hoaxer nicknamed “Wearside Jack” – “You're no closer to catching me now than you were four years ago when I started,” it gloated – which brought matters to a standstill for months on end. From start to finish, this investigation never went smoothly.

    But it was all over. Sutcliffe went to Parkhurst, and groups of young friends across large areas of northern England were finally able to resume their lives without thinking about him. Now, of course, my mother no longer wanders around the clubs and pubs of West Yorkshire.

    Proving that what falls must rise, after a spell in London she returned to her hometown at the turn of the century. At the end of her street stands the Lamproom, a beautiful theater owned and run by a man whose daughter recently revived memories of the Ripper. Her name is Katherine Kelly; she also moved home to Barnsley in 2020.

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