There are three main ways to talk about murder: from the victim’s point of view, from the perpetrator’s and from the investigator’s. What you rarely get, for reasons practical and legal, is a true-crime story like the one at the heart of this ITV one-off. It centres on a couple under investigation for – but not charged with – this most serious offence.
In September 2020, Charles and Doris Clark were arrested on suspicion of the murder of their son, Steven Clark, who had been reported missing 28 years earlier. According to Doris, the then 23-year-old Steven went into a public toilet while on a coastal walk near their home in the small fishing village of Marske, in North Yorkshire, and was never seen again.
Between the Clarks’ arrest and their eventual dropping of charges in February this year, they invited a former police officer turned investigative journalist, Mark Williams-Thomas, into their home and their lives. The access this film has is remarkable, not only because of the reporting restrictions that usually apply in such cases, but because the Clarks participate in the kind of slightly undignified staged scenes that documentaries sometimes resort to in the absence of relevant archive footage. Here is Charles going to the corner shop to pick up a paper reporting their arrest. Here is Doris chatting with a friend over a cuppa about everything they have gone through.
There are also plenty of apparently unstaged moments when the Clarks’ behaviour seems a little off. Or, at least, it is not quite how I would expect myself to behave in their situation. But then I have never been in their situation, different individuals respond differently to intense emotion and being a bit of an odd duck is not a crime. Williams-Thomas confronts some of this directly – why didn’t Doris go into the toilet to look for her son before setting off home, especially since Steven had a disability that affected his mobility? But many more questions are left unasked and unanswered. Where is the Clark’s other child, Steven’s sister, in all this? Was Charles’s alibi not thoroughly checked at the time of the original police investigation?
Williams-Thomas is an experienced, thorough investigator whose independence has previously been an asset, most notably in his 2012 film Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, which went where Newsnight feared to tread. He also has the retired senior police officer Julie Mackay on hand as a sounding board (the ITV podcast Catching Melanie’s Killer, which follows Mackay at work, is a true crime classic). Yet, for all their combined credentials, neither have any contacts at Cleveland police, meaning their educated guesses are just that. Speculation is fun, but it is no substitute for evidence.
We also get very little sense of what Steven was like. Williams-Thomas asks the Clarks for their memories of the time, but what 23-year-old is an open book to his mum and dad? Where were the interviews with Steven’s friends from the pub? Or with staff from the local charity that had worked with Steven?
In this evidence vacuum, what is available – namely Doris and Charles and their every unguarded facial expression and peculiar choice of word – takes on an outsized importance. Scrutinising them makes for compelling television, but in the final analysis our impressions are irrelevant in determining innocence or guilt. So it is surprising that Williams-Thomas is willing to publicly hazard a judgment. Maybe he has access to information that has not been broadcast or maybe his hand has been forced by TV’s narrative conventions, but he goes for it, saying: “If Charles and Doris killed Steven, then … they’re the best actors I’ve ever met … I don’t think they killed Steven.”
Was this the vindication that the couple were hoping for when they agreed to participate? Even as William-Thomas proclaims their innocence, certain framing and editing choices subtly undermine him, allowing the film to have it both ways. And if the Clarks’ primary motivation was not to clear their own names, but to discover the truth about their son’s fate, they have been disappointed. The programme’s focus on their anguished experience of being under police suspicion left no room to pursue other theories.
Towards the end of the film, the couple are released from the investigation and, beaming, describe themselves as “ecstatic”. There is no comparable sense of conclusion for the viewer. At the time of writing, Steven is still missing, presumed murdered, and this gripping mystery has only deepened.