TV UK, 30 January

Torso in the Thames showed police and documentary-makers possessed with 'muti murder' fetish.

Dolan Cummings

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Torso in the Thames (last Sunday) followed the murder investigation after the discovery of a boy’s torso in the river in September 2001.

Channel 4 has a discussion on its Think TV website about whether the programme was too disturbing for primetime TV (1). I was less disturbed by the pictures of the boy’s torso than by the programme-makers’ uncritical acceptance of the police’s assumption that this was an African ritual murder.

This made the investigation a moral mission as much as a professional one, taking the police to darkest Africa to study the culture. The most nauseating scene was when a Nigerian policeman donned the bobby helmet the British detectives gave him, and gushed about how moved he was by the resources they were dedicating to the murder of a boy who wasn’t even a British citizen. Ah, yes – that Great British tradition of anthropological police junkets. We used to have an empire, you know.

It would be different if all this voodoo jetsetting helped the enquiry, but as far as I could tell it didn’t. First the detectives went to South Africa for an audience with Nelson Mandela, and then a briefing on ‘muti murders’ from crank cop Foox van Muldaar, who sent them to see a ridiculously attired witch doctor of indeterminate gender. The latter said that the red shorts found on the boy are associated with reincarnation, suggesting that he was killed by family members. This was accepted as gospel by the detectives.

Meanwhile, scientists were hard at work on the evidence, and were able to tell from the boy’s remains that he was from west Africa, not the south. This meant the detectives had to adjust their theory – it was not a muti murder, but a Yoruba murder, a sacrifice to the river goddess Oshun, who apparently likes the colour orange (now the shorts were orange, not red). The narrator was at pains to emphasise that they were talking about deviant Yoruba, not good Yoruba. Well, we can’t go around encouraging Yorubaphobia.

The programme’s basic problem was that the case remains unsolved. Despite the arrest of a woman suspected to be the boy’s mother/murderer, the police were unable to make their story fit the one told by the evidence. And rather than asking questions about their approach, the makers of Torso in the Thames dutifully followed every twist and turn in the case. Since the case has no ending, the programme had no ending – it just stopped, either because the money ran out or because everyone got bored. To be fair, the forensic science was very impressive, but it was clearly too dull for the police.

Perhaps appropriately, the American forensic science drama CSI (just back on Channel 5, Tuesdays and Saturdays) is set in Las Vegas and Miami, surely two of the least interesting cities in the USA. But the stories are usually gripping on their own terms. Despite Grissom’s aversion to ‘theories’, the dead tend to spin a good yarn. If that isn’t enough, CSI Miami has an extra charisma-boost from David Caruso, the legendary John Kelly from NYPD Blue, and Emily Procter, Republican cupcake Ainsley Hayes from The West Wing.

No ritual murders so far though.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Think TV

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