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Richard Attenborough and '10 Rillington Place'

25/08/2014 14:18 BST | Updated 24/10/2014 10:59 BST

10 Rillington Place, the London address, no longer exists. It was expunged, scrubbed away, deleted, plastered over, realigned, removed. It has undergone a process of damnatio memoriae, in the hope that its environs might thrive anew, free from association, rebranded and nondescript. But if you poke about for a minute, there's nothing stopping you from pinpointing its former location. There are maps upon maps: digitised blueprints superimposed on ghastly graphs, the brazen frame of a house of death printed there in stark relief, inviting the curious to pay a visit and wonder where the old walls once stood.

10 Rillington Place was a world unto itself, a microcosm in which life functioned in its barest terms. Tenants arrived, families departed, people lived and people died. But the fulcrum around which these unacknowledged lives pivoted was John Reginald Christie. I don't know why we emphasise the middle name. It's almost as though the plainness of 'John Christie' requires a crutch, a buttress that imposes an awkward rhythm, a name with its own bizarre topography - an unwieldy gait that binds itself to his hideous persona. 'John Reginald Christie' and '10 Rillington Place' are forever entwined, their syllabic patterns aligning, their similarities remarkable and undeniable: the place and the man were both possessed of an unsettling stillness and grubbiness, and filled with violence and secrets. For while most people bury things in the mind, John Christie buried people in his home.

10 Rillington Place is where Christie murdered at least eight people and hid their bodies, all the while acting as landlord. This was a man who saw down the well and cast his abject lamplight into the distant recesses, a man who wanted to kill and needed to kill, a man who lied and murdered and lied to hide his murders and perpetuated this self-made cycle, compelled by some internal mechanism to gain control by whatever means necessary. Up to a point, he hid in plain sight; however, as the mountain of evidence grew and the facade became more difficult to maintain, the mask began to slip.

He had done things we must never do. Where others have dreamed, Christie went; he acted out that which so many have suppressed and dismissed in the heady churn of subconscious thought. But killing is real. Terror is real. Here were things that men have done.

There is a dream, perhaps an archetype, in which the protagonist, whether by means seen or unseen, whether as engineer or bystander, becomes the sole proprietor of a burial plot, or at least a site of some decrepitude and unease, wherein something hidden has taken root, hijacked the pattern of life, disengaged the narrative from the prescribed. Only the protagonist knows; to speak of it would be fatal. The secret, the knowing, the horrifying uncertainty when the dream ends - these are the things we cannot bear.

In the case of John Christie, 10 Rillington Place became the outward manifestation of his loathsome compulsions - a place where the ornaments of his misdeeds would physically accumulate, where his arrogance and single-mindedness could forge new paths and scorch the very earth beyond his kitchen window. He lured strangers in need with the promise of medical assistance; he assured them a better place in the world, free from the burden of despair; he gassed them, defiled them and removed them from the picture. These helpless people, entrusting themselves corporeally in their time of greatest need, suffered deaths of the lowest order in the name of this man's basest desires. He justified his murders as "mercy killings", yet what he was actually doing was working through his fear of women, calculating and acting, creating opportunities, preying on trust. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the period following the murder of his wife Ethel: alone for the first time, he brought three women back to Rillington Place in three months. His victims were buried in the garden, kept under the floorboards, wrapped in the wash-house and stacked in the alcove. He essentially swept them under the carpet, untroubled by the potential repercussions.

What makes stories like this so remarkable is not how ordinary the circumstances seem, or how unassuming the protagonist. It's the stark reality that, when something such as this rears its head, we're faced with something for which we are entirely unprepared: we're living inside someone else's mind. Had John Christie not perpetrated his heinous crimes, we would never have heard of him. These innocent lives would not have been swept into oblivion. But there is only one reality, and only one timeline. Christie did these things and, in doing so, turned the inside of his mind outward, showering us in the minutiae of his transgressions.

The conviction and execution of Timothy Evans, a lodger of Christie's whose wife and infant child were murdered - their bodies discovered wrapped in tablecloths in the wash-house - is known as one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in the legal system. However - difficult as this may seem to reconcile - the death penalty may not have been reviewed with such vigour had Evans not been wrongly executed and the story reexamined in the ensuing years. Justice had not been swift in the wake of Christie's trial and hanging. A subsequent reevaluation of the case, and of Evans' wrongful execution, played a large part in the abolition of the death penalty in the following decade. As it stands, it took the courts 15 years to pardon the man - 15 years too late.

Decades later, we recognise the cycle of tragedy and voyeurism in cases like this: headline, speculation, encampment, rolling news, dissemination, analysis, et cetera. The spectacle is an ouroboros devouring itself - the news cycle feeding speculative grist into its own dreadful mill. The question of what is newsworthy is one that plagues news outlets with decreasing frequency as the years trundle on, but the uncovering of an unsanctioned burial site, a disordered allotment, a pixelated forensics tent in a suburban backyard: these are the things on which nightmares are built. Surely, we think, I deserve a peek behind the curtain?

Christie's reality was a universal nightmare: the prospect of having murdered someone and concealed their body somewhere about one's property. His downfall seems to have come about due to the simple desire to surrender - to the authorities, certainly, but also to his fate. It strikes me that he had given up by the time the police apprehended him. Given the opportunity - certainly the time - to leave London, at least under cover of darkness, by whatever means, he opted to wander its streets, floating about, grubby and desolate, perhaps no longer either able or willing to run. In a house full of lodgers, he made cursory efforts - bundling bodies into a flimsily boarded-up alcove, leaving them in shallow graves, or simply wrapping them in cloth - to cover up his crimes. There was an arrogance in his concealement; perhaps even laziness. A femur propped up a garden fence. Christie's dog pawed at a human skull.

The story of 10 Rillington Place was made into a film in 1971, 20 years after those murderous events and 12 years after the publication of Ludovic Kennedy's book about the trial. The film, starring the late Richard Atenborough, was shot in 1970 on Rillington Place itself, using number 7 for interiors.

Richard Attenborough's perfomance in 10 Rillington Place was so triumphantly, shockingly convincing that those who see it must surely appreciate his total commitment to this story. His initial reluctance to inhabit the role was tempered by the passion he felt for the film's message, declaring it "a most devastating statement on capital punishment". As a study of postwar London, dangerous and unmade, it is peerless. As a horror story, unblemished by hyperbole or sensationalism, it has few equals. As a statement about the death penalty, it is indelible and haunting.

Here is a man who offered to help. Here is a man who saw women who were adrift, in a hopeless situation, beyond help; women who had given up, with nowhere to turn. Here is a man who took people in, who showed them compassion and then cut them loose. Here is a man who served his country and shattered his community. Here is a man who gained the confidences of his lodgers and tore them asunder with violence and deceit.

Attenborough portrayed Christie as a desperate, manipulative man. Christie was intensely and horrifyingly quiet - ostensibly as a result of a wartime gas attack - and we see onscreen how the critical focus of his shameful activities brings him to a shuddering, asthmatic climax each time he extinguishes another life, almost apologetically quiet and soft in the thick air of his crumbling home, the moment acrid and dismal. This is a performance of towering and unprecedented humanity, and one which nonetheless eviscerates this awful man's brutal reality. John Christie was a dreadful soul, entombed within his appetites, neither capable of nor hoping for redemption. For his victims, of course, there was no hope at all. Here are their names: Ruth Fuerst, Muriel Eady, Beryl Evans, Geraldine Evans, Ethel Christie, Rita Nelson, Kathleen Maloney and Hectorina MacLennan.

The story of 10 Rillington Place is a very sad one, but it served to illuminate certain aspects of the legal system and society as a whole, and the book and film are credited with bringing about a fundamental and sweeping change in the law. In this case, a man who would otherwise have drifted through the system, a simple man who worked hard and bragged on occasion and got drunk and argued with his wife about petty things - whose child was born into adversity but would have been raised in good faith by her young mother - was framed for a hideous double murder, losing not only his young family but his own life, unable to devise a way out of his Kafkaesque situation, manipulated by a man whose true nature he could never have hoped to fathom. Tim Evans lost his wife Beryl and his daughter Geraldine in that house. In bringing this character to life, John Hurt produced one of his greatest performances, a work of considerable genius, drenched in grief and bewilderment.

Evans was pardoned 16 years after his execution. Christie casts a long and terrible shadow over the landscape of postwar London, and indeed suburban England, always concealing its truths, something unknown always lurking in the periphery. Richard Attenborough's performance in 10 Rillington Place has become inextricably linked with the story, such is the diligence with which he applied himself to the role - one he rightly found abhorrent. It is now impossible to view the character of John Reginald Christie, that destroyer of worlds, that soft-spoken butcher of the back-streets, without imagining the endless desolation and self-loathing in Attenborough's expression; the insidious scheming of this wretched degenerate plain to see in his petrified aspect. His appearance - the permanently anxious countenance, hovering between states of artificial calm and frenzied longing - spoke of impotence and fear, and a lust with no provenance.

Richard Attenborough created a deceitful creature, panicked by the monster within. His Christie exists in a world of heavy shadow and faint light, a hell indoors. He produced a performance characterised not only by its poise and the solemnity of his delivery, but by the most unsettling of characteristics: breathing. For Attenborough's Christie breathed like an animal hunched in the throes of a carnal act. He grunted and strained with the burden of his freight. The shallowness of his breaths signalled his - and our - proximity to the next killing. The intimacy is frightening and all too real. We're brought close to the crime, practically implicated by virtue of our claustrophobic closeness. Christie is tangible and loathsome. He is unquestionably the perpetrator. Evans has neither the evidence to bring Christie down nor the wherewithal to determine the truth; we, on the other hand, are left in no doubt that there was only one murderer here. We're struck repeatedly by the mundane reality that formed a cocoon around his private acts.

Even taking into account the staggering work Richard Attenborough produced in his long and unparalleled career, one in which he received all manner of accolade and became recognised as one of the finest actors ever to have graced a cinema screen, his performance in 10 Rillington Place stands as not only his most important role but his greatest achievement as an actor. He plumbed the depths in order to present an unspeakably abhorrent character in human terms. He accepted the role having taken a cursory glance at the script, having recognised that the message within was of vital importance and that this was a role like no other. There had been a clear-cut miscarriage of justice. The case was relatively fresh in the memory. And, given the right circumstances, Attenborough was eager to be involved. He said that his turn as John Christie was "one of the performances I'm not ashamed of". Such modesty, given the quality of the performance in question, is nothing short of incredible. That he never won an award for his portrayal does not take from his achievement.

RIP Richard Attenborough - one of the greatest actors the world has seen, an extraordinarily talented filmmaker and a wonderful, beautiful human being.