Steeltown Murders Interviews: Priyanga Burford
Steeltown Murders is set in the Port Talbot area in 1973 and the early 2000s and tells the remarkable story of how the murders of three young women in the area were finally solved almost 30 years later with the help of groundbreaking DNA evidence.
Steeltown Murders is a portrait of a town dealing with the repercussions of an unsolved case three decades later, and it asks if justice can ever be found in light of the policing methods of the 1970s and the forensic breakthroughs of the early 2000s.
Priyanga Burford plays Sita Anwar in the 2002 timeline.
How would you describe the story behind Steeltown Murders?
It’s set around Swansea in a small village called Llandarcy. Three girls were murdered, this was back in 1973 and they were never solved at the time. There was a huge police operation taking in everyone they could question, but they still didn’t solve it. The case was re-opened in 2002 once the breakthrough in DNA forensics had been made. In our story it’s the same police officer who leads both the 1973 case and then goes back and leads the 2002 case. We follow him and his wife and his partner, other police officers and also the families of Geraldine and Pauline, who were the last two girls murdered.
What reflections did you make when researching this role?
Violence against girls and against women is still, unfortunately, a huge issue everywhere and I suppose I reflected on that. 1973, the culture thankfully has shifted a bit from there, but we still have a big problem. There are still pockets of this idea that as a woman if you go out in the evening you have got to watch yourself. It’s a shame we still have to do that. The other thing that I found fascinating was how little the police had to go on back then, so what a difference being able to use DNA made.
Does it change the feeling on set, dealing with a story that is based on reality?
I haven’t found that with this actually because once you are in it you are doing the job – you understand your character, that’s your job. I haven’t noticed that much of a difference. Although Paul and Karina Bethell did come down to set one day whilst I was filming and it was really lovely to meet them. I immediately had total admiration for them and for the work that Paul had done, that was really interesting.
What can you tell us about the two time periods within the drama?
It’s weird going back to 2002, it’s such a specific time. I remember when we were talking about costume, like the bootleg jeans. The toes on shoes were a particular trend back then, I remembered. And 2002 is just long enough ago that it’s different but then it’s also quite recent for me it feels. I think that’s one of the really interesting things about this, the time shift from 1973 to 2002.
What can you tell us about the character you play?
I play a woman called Sita Anwar, she is a mixture of a few different girls who knew Pauline and Geraldine at the time, friends of theirs. In our story Sita was out with Pauline and Geraldine the night they were murdered. Sita’s dad, knowing that Sandra had been murdered earlier and with the killer on the loose as it were, said not to go out that night. But Sita sneaks out of the house and joins her friends in the pub, that happens to be the night that they were murdered. Sita survives because her dad came and found her. So she has lived with that, being ‘the one who got away’, for her whole life. When the case reopens in 2002, everything had been nicely packed away because she now has a new life with a husband and her daughter, but she now has to unpack all that and deal with a lot of things she did not deal with or couldn’t have dealt with at the time. Not least the relationship with her dad, it has become very difficult, there is a lot of guilt.
How did you go about bringing the character of Sita to life?
It was really important to me to understand the relationships, that’s where a lot of material you use comes from. So, understanding those friendships, making sure I fully understood the story of 17-year-old ‘me’ so that I could bring that into what I was doing now in 2002. I also have a daughter now, who is about the age of Pauline and Geraldine when they were murdered, so that element was really interesting. Sita is quite lonely, I think because of what has happened, so all of her relationships have been affected.
There is also a 17-year-old version of Sita in the series played by Natasha Vasandani, did the two of you meet?
Yes, it was lovely to meet her and to be able to talk to her about the experiences she has been playing out. It turned out to be quite important for me to just meet her really. We had a long car journey together where we were chatting. Just being with her was really nice and really useful – to just get a bit of her energy and imagine that her scenes are my memories.
What attracted you to the script?
The script is really well written, I wanted to keep reading and I couldn’t predict what was going to happen next. For me as an actor the character and the relationships the character was having were really interesting. She had some really complicated things to deal with internally and as an actor that is what I want to have a go at. It’s so much more interesting and creatively so much more stimulating to have someone who is not straightforward, who is dealing with big issues in their life and trying to overcome big challenges.
How have you found working in these locations?
Wales is really beautiful, there is so much beauty. But actually, our story is set in a working class community that has gone through deprivation, especially going from the seventies through the eighties and nineties. This is not a wealthy, aspirational type of place. It’s important that I saw Port Talbot and places like that – working class communities based around a particular industry. That feeds into the people who are there and the kind of life lives that they lead, the energy that they have and that they don’t have. The kind of things that Sita as the headmistress of the local comprehensive school would have been dealing with.
What would you like the audience to take away from the series?
Hopefully a sense of the resilience of this little community. I personally found the parents of Geraldine and Pauline and their incredible ability to carry on really moving. And also the determination of the police to solve it and to give the community some answers.
Steeltown Murders premieres on Monday 15 May at 9.00pm on BBC One.
Image Credit: BBC
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