A city in fear

Simon Pearson reviews the recently shown BBC Scotland documentary series 'The Hunt for Bible John'.


BBC Scotland should be congratulated for producing an excellent piece of social history with the documentary short series ‘The Hunt for Bible John’, currently streaming on BBC iPlayer. TV true crime can often be sensationalist, the victims of crime no more than inconvenient extras to the main act, the perpetrator of the crime. Instead, over two parts, we are drawn into the murders of three young women, an ineffectual investigation by the City of Glasgow police and the impact this had on the local community.

What starts with the brutal killing of Patricia Docker, concludes with the linking of two further murders, an artist’s impression of the suspect, biblical references, and the biggest manhunt in Scottish police history. Rather than just a police procedural, this is very much a story about Glasgow. Archive footage is put to great use alongside interviews of those who investigated the crime, reported on it, or happened to frequent the same clubs and bars as the deceased.

We learn about life in the tenements, a space in which working-class families struggled. The housing stock was shown to be in a terrible state of disrepair, crumbling around the families who dwelled there. Buildings with no windows are unimaginable in summer let alone winter. This was a time without a state safety net to catch the unfortunate so that those in and of the tenements worked hard to survive. While life was tough, those who did work (and that included childcare), looked to escape the tenements even if it was only for a night.

Glasgow may have been an industrial city, of dirt, smoke, and grime, but it was also one of lights and music, home to a thriving dance hall scene. It was also a violent place, scores settled with fists and the occasional knife. The city police were under-resourced and stretched. But people would still come, for the dancing, to forget the hard graft even if just briefly.

The Barrowlands was the place to be seen in 1960s Glasgow, a popular nightspot, known for its neon sign above the door, large crowds and sprung dance floor.  A place of fun but sadly where three women met the man who would brutally murder them. Patricia Docker was an auxiliary nurse, mother of one, only 25 years old and estranged from her husband. Patricia would often go dancing at the Majestic nightclub (that night she had told her parents this was her plan), but found herself at the Barrowlands, most likely for an over 25 event hosted every Thursday. Having failed to return the following morning, Patricia’s parents assumed she had stayed the night at a friend’s place. Patricia’s body was discovered not far from her home. It would be days later when the police linked her death to the Barrowlands.

I do not want to go into detail here about the investigation, but what this documentary does so well is focusing on how these murders were reported in the press. This was a time when the crime reporter was King, a brutal murder could easily make a reporter’s name. The more salacious the article, the more likely it was to be poured over rather than become tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper. There is a problem with this, the portrayal of female murder victims for one. A body becomes a naked body (even if it was, a body is a body). When a woman is out dancing alone, the focus is on the ‘why was she out alone’. Something that men did often and without comment. The reporter’s male gaze focuses on the contrived ‘she was asking for it’ angle, rather than the fact that everyone should be able to have fun and return home at the end of the night.

The series treats the murder of each victim (Docker, Jemima McDonald and Helen Puttock) with respect, we live through the frustration of the police investigation, the infamous sketch of the murderer, the invention of photofits, a dental impression of some teeth, the use of a mystic and how John became ‘Bible John’. A recommended watch.

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Simon Pearson is on the Editorial Board of the Anti*Capitalist Resistance and is a Midlands-based political activist.

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