Review - Tell-tale hat on the 9.50 to Hackney

15th February 2013 at 00:00

Here is a tale of murder and detection. A tale of technophobia and tabloid outrage. Of immigrants, and those who fear them. Of those who live lives of indulgence, while others struggle to make ends meet.

Here is a tale from 1864.

Following in the beat-walking footsteps of award-winning book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, which recreated a Victorian crime for contemporary readers, we have Murder on the Victorian Railway.

The one-off BBC Two programme reinvestigates the case of Thomas Briggs, the first person to be murdered on a British train. Briggs, a proto-commuter in his seventies, was attacked in his first-class carriage before being thrown on to the tracks near Hackney in East London.

Wonderfully, the programme follows all the conventions of the 21st-century crime documentary. And so we have talking, bewhiskered heads, leaning casually against walls as they address the camera in Victorian English.

Their words, taken from court transcripts, letters and reportage, translate beautifully into 21st-century TV. "The surface of the whole country is shrivelling in size," one journalist says of the technological advances of steam locomotion.

Meanwhile, the tabloids were frothing with indignation. If a man could be murdered in his first-class carriage, one writer said, surely "we can be slain in our pew at church, or assassinated at our dinner tables". If the Daily Mail is ever looking to employ a ghost, I believe I may have found their man.

Still, 1864 was no CSI: the Victorians did not even know how to collect fingerprints. Observing the way that blood had spattered in Briggs' carriage, detective Richard Tanner concluded that "Mr Briggs had been sitting in this corner".

But the adeptness of the perpetrator roughly suited the detection methods: it turns out that he had left his hat at the crime scene. Eventually police tracked down Franz Muller, a German tailor. Life for immigrant tailors was not easy: "What is to become of a society where it's not possible for a hard- working gentleman to support himself?" Muller's colleague says.

But he had forgotten that, in the rock-paper-scissors game of tabloid journalism, foreignness cancels out hard-workingness. Germans who supported Muller were told that, if they did not like the British way of doing things, "they had much better stay at home".

Along the way, we do meet several characters straight out of the big book of Victorian cliches. There is the young innocent, forced into prostitution. And the lawyer who talks like a lawyer: "Matthews was evidently actuated by a desire for the reward that has motivated his entire conduct."

Nonetheless, this is a gratifying glimpse into history, which proves that human nature does not change as quickly as our shaved whiskers and discarded hats might suggest it does.

Murder on the Victorian Railway, BBC Two, 21 February at 9pm.

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