Silent Witness is a series based on the work of police pathologists: the “witness” refers to the body of a murder victim. It’s been running since 1996 and the stories are always in two parts on two consecutive nights (Monday and Tuesday, currently). It has always prominently featured female characters, notably the star Amanda Burton, who played pathologist Sam Ryan until she left in the 8th series. Early series were set in Cambridge, echoing other British crime dramas that were set in Oxford, but since series four it has been set in London after Ryan relocated to take up an academic position. Since 2013, it has featured the disabled actress (and comedian) Liz Carr as a lab assistant and has been regarded as a model drama in terms of using a disabled actor to play a disabled character without making it all about the disability. Last week, however, the story was about the murder of two women, one of them disabled, and the abuse of elderly and disabled people at two care homes, and her character (Clarissa Mullery) was at the centre of it. (You can watch the two parts here and here for the next five weeks at the time of writing; there is an interview with Liz Carr here.)
The story opens as a woman drives her car along a road through a park in south London. She is struggling to remain awake, swerving to avoid pedestrians and other vehicles and ultimately colliding with an oncoming truck, killing her. The pathology team find that she has a high dose of two drugs in her system and initially believe it was suicide; however, an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease has died and similar drugs are found in her system. The first woman had a son in a local care home — a very grand building, but obviously understaffed and the staff that are there are obstructive — and both homes use the services of a particular doctor. Suspicion falls on the woman’s son, named Kevin, who is autistic and displays challenging behaviour and at one point says he hates her. He also has a girlfriend, Serena, whose impairment is not made clear but it includes a speech impediment, but staff are doing everything they can to keep them apart. One member of staff in particular, Connor, is a bully and uses a stun gun (which is illegal) to subdue the young man when he “steps out of line”. During the first episode it is apparent that he has raped Serena.
An older detective develops a theory that the woman’s son is to blame for her murder and will not consider any other possibility. He tries to arrest Kevin, who lashes out and escapes, injuring the cop. He then escapes from the home, taking Serena (who had previously said she did not want to leave) with him. They go to Kew Gardens, a place Serena had always wanted to visit; when the security guard tells them it is time to leave, he refuses and threatens to shoot him. He and Serena leave and then go to a secluded bench under a tree, but are subsequently surrounded by police who tell him to come out with his hands up and “let Serena go”, it being assumed he has kidnapped her. He refuses, threatens them with a wooden stick which he brandishes as if it were a gun, and is promptly shot dead. The rape is discovered when Serena is examined afterwards, and the prejudiced cop tries to blame this on Kevin as well. He is unwilling to extend the investigation to cover apparent abuses at the care home or to consider the possibility that Kevin was not to blame for his mother’s death, despite evidence that he has suffered abuse (he has burns from the stun gun when examined after his death). Clarissa is convinced that the incidents, and the cop’s attitude, are connected by the victims’ disability and the sense that they are “less than”.
It transpires that Connor and the doctor, Albert Kahari, are killing patients (and their relatives) with overdoses for money; the woman with Alzheimer’s had been killed at the request of their three sons who were alarmed at their inheritance being swallowed up by care home fees while she was unable to do anything, they said, except shit. Clarissa was initially unable to enter the care home where Kevin had been living because she was afraid of going in and never coming out again, being aware that this is what had happened to many other disabled people even though she had had what she considered a lucky escape, but overcame her fear in order to “go undercover” in the home where the lady with Alzheimer’s had died. She discovered that similar methods of ‘control’ were in use (i.e. physical force) on residents with learning disabilities and that Connor was aggressive and had no respect for people’s privacy. He is suspicious of her for asking too many questions and she discovers him in her room; he seizes her phone from her, telling her it “disturbs other residents”. She then raids the dead woman’s room and finds drugs; Connor catches her with them, overpowers her and pushes her to a disused part of the building where he ejects her from the wheelchair onto the floor. He tells her that disabled people are worth nothing and cannot do anything; he attempts to feed her the drugs that had been used to kill the old lady. At this point, however, Clarissa’s colleagues burst in and arrest him.
I know people who know Liz Carr and I know a lot of parents in similar situations to Kevin’s mother’s, i.e. having relatives (particularly children) in care homes or hospitals, often involuntarily. One of them said that she was hurt by a remark made about the relatives by Connor; I didn’t catch it but he wasn’t meant to be sympathetic character and the sentiment was common among institution staff when long-term institutionalising of disabled people was common. I thought the scripting was fairly sensitive and for the most part believable. I did have a qualm about making the main villain of the piece a black African doctor, particularly given that there is a misconduct and manslaughter case against a black African doctor still under appeal (even if the cases are not that similar and the doctor in the real-life case is a woman). I very much doubt that a pathology lab assistant who is not a police officer would go undercover in a real investigation; the police would, if necessary, send a non-disabled person in with a microphone. Although there is violence, the sexual assault which takes place is implied rather than shown and an opportunity for a rape scene towards the end (a common trope in a lot of films and plays nowadays) was passed up (I am talking about where Connor overpowers Clarissa towards the end).
So, this was a well-scripted drama about things that go on in some care homes (and psychiatric units and other closed institutions) and attitudes that are very real. The story is fiction and doctors killing their patients for money isn’t something that goes on every day, but dreadful abuses of people with learning disabilities especially are well-known, neglect is a major problem, a number of people have died who should have been allowed to have a life. The attitudes displayed are prevalent enough even if usually displayed a bit less bluntly. It was a great drama about things that the general public need to be more aware of.
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