Tag Archives: Alun Armstrong

“Dark Angel”: The gruesome true story of Mary Ann Cotton, Britain’s first serial killer

May we serve you a nice cup of tea? Imbibe, as long as the beverage isn’t being served by Mary Ann Cotton.  Inspired by the book Mary Ann Cotton: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer by noted criminologist David Wilson, the PBS program Dark Angel (PBS Distribution) dramatizes the events that drew a troubled woman ever deeper into a career of casual murder, while her loved ones and friends, who were also her victims, never suspected a thing.

Joanne Froggatt, who stole the hearts of millions of viewers as Anna, the loving and resilient lady’s maid on Downton Abbey, stars in a totally different role in the spine-tingling two-part drama. Dispensing death from the spout of a warm teapot, Froggatt plays the notorious Victorian poisoner.

A Golden Globe-winner and three-time Emmy nominee for her Downton Abbey performance, Froggatt is joined by an exceptional cast, including Alun Armstrong as Mary Ann’s stepfather, Mr. Stott; Thomas Howes as her husband number two, George; Jonas Armstrong as her longtime lover, Joe; Sam Hoare as husband number three, James; Laura Morgan as her best friend, Maggie; plus additional actors playing other husbands, her many children, and the few citizens who suspect that something is not quite right about Mary Ann.

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Born in North East England in 1832, a child of the coalfields, Mary Ann Cotton grew up in poverty with the dream of escaping the hard life of a miner’s family, a goal she came tantalizingly close to achieving. Her chosen means were her good looks, sexual allure, and the dirty secret of nineteenth-century suspicious deaths: arsenic, which is tasteless and easily disguised in a cup of tea.

For authorities, the problem was that arsenic poisoning, if done skillfully, mimicked the symptoms of two of the major public health scourges of the day: typhoid fever and cholera. The passing of a child or husband after a week of severe stomach pains, convulsions, and other portents of disease was all too common—and even less surprising when several members of the same household succumbed.

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Mary Ann did tempt fate by taking out a modest insurance policy on her intended victims, whenever possible, but she inadvertently hit on the major success strategies of a serial killer: keep moving, be charming, and exude self-confidence. And along with others in this line of criminality, her body count can never be certain; the current best estimate is at least thirteen, ranking her far above her Victorian male counterpart, Jack the Ripper.

Female serial killers are so rare that criminologists continue to debate what makes them tick. Is it a thirst for power, a desire for material gain, or a sadistic delight in undermining gender stereotypes when they ask, “Why don’t I make you a nice cup of tea?”

“Masterpiece” dials back the clock to spotlight the influences to create “Prime Suspect: Tennison”

Behind every great detective is a backstory. Masterpiece dials back the clock to spotlight the influences that turned 22-year-old rookie WPC (Woman Police Constable) Jane Tennison into the savvy, single-minded crime fighter beloved by Prime Suspect viewers over the course of seven seasons. Stefanie Martini stars as Tennison–the iconic role immortalized by Helen Mirren.

Prime Suspect: Tennison (PBS Distribution), based on the bestselling novel Tennison by Lynda La Plante, will be available on DVD and Blu-ray July 11; the program will also be available for digital download.

A prequel to one of the most innovative crime series in television history, the program also stars Sam Reid as Jane’s mentor, DCI Len Bradfield; Blake Harrison as Bradfield’s volatile sergeant, DS Spencer Gibbs; Jessica Gunning as Jane’s female colleague and friend, WPC Kath Morgan; and Alun Armstrong as crime family kingpin Clifford Bentley.

Tied to murder, gambling, narcotics, prostitution, and high-stakes break-ins, the Bentleys and their underworld rivals give Jane a crash course in the gritty realities of police work—an experience that is all the more challenging because she is a young woman trying to make it in the sexist culture of the force.

Set in 1973 amid the sounds of the pop tunes of the day, Prime Suspect: Tennison opens with Jane a newly minted Woman Police Constable, performing her probationary stint at Hackney Police Station in East London. Relegated to traffic incidents, dispatching, and other routine police chores—in addition to serving the senior officers tea—she gets her big break when a murder case of a young girl calls for an all-hands-on-deck investigation.

So commences Jane’s real education. The case officer, DCI Len Bradfield, discovers that she is an eager learner and an indispensable assistant for any task that comes up: from observing an autopsy to surreptitiously gathering clues while comforting the victim’s parents. Not to mention, Bradfield finds Jane irresistibly attractive.

The murder victim is a young prostitute and drug addict from a respectable middle- class family. The case is more complicated than it appears, with baffling wounds on the corpse, signs of captivity and bondage, and a widening circle of potential suspects.

Meanwhile, in a nearby prison, Clifford Bentley is about to be released after serving a sentence for burglary, which is the least of his crimes. He wastes no time setting the wheels in motion for a new felony—his masterpiece. Little does Jane know, but she has already met some of the participants in this plot, which will have a profound impact on her personality and outlook, helping to mold the hard-bitten, hard-driving character that millions of Prime Suspect viewers know as DCI Jane Tennison.