Lucan: a new drama stirring up fresh controversy over a mysterious high-society murder

“Lucan is about a kind generous father who lost his way when he lost children,” says star Rory Kinnear

Few cold cases have gripped the public imagination like that of Lord Lucan. It’s 39 years since the high-rolling peer vanished without trace on the night his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, was bludgeoned to death in Belgravia in London.


Now a new ITV drama, Lucan, starring Rory Kinnear as the flamboyant aristocrat, claims to shed fresh light on the events and personalities involved in this still-unsolved mystery. While Lucan was named, in absentia, as the murderer at the inquest into Rivett’s death and declared officially dead by the High Court in 1999, the case has spawned countless theories about what really happened on the night of 7 November 1974. Even now there are alleged sightings of Lord Lucan across the globe.

Lucan, scripted by Bafta-winning writer Jeff Pope, is heavily based on John Pearson’s 2005 book The Gamblers, which investigates the tight social circle – the Clermont Set, with links to the exclusive Clermont gambling club in Mayfair – who surrounded Lucan at the time of Rivett’s death. In a statement, ITV defends its decision to dramatise the story, though the families of both Lucan and Rivett have told RT they are angry about it.

The channel says: “ITV has contacted everyone immediately connected with the story and given them a chance to engage and discuss any concerns. No one connected with this story had declared they were unhappy about us pursuing the drama. This includes the Lucan family and, in particular, the family of Sandra Rivett. The drama is not a re-hash of the story but rather seeks to provide a new insight into the events of 7 November 1974 and, crucially, attempts to answer the riddle of what became of Lord Lucan.”

Rory Kinnear treads a very careful line when describing his role. “There is nothing glamorous or exciting or mysterious, in the sense of detective crime novels, about this set of events; it’s the sad breakdown of a domestic situation – something that lots of people can relate to.

“I think people are interested in this story for various reasons. There’s the society aspect, but it’s also unknowable – every version of the story is unstable. This production says that Lucan ‘did it’ and it seems to hold together well, but doubtless people could pick holes in it, as they could pick holes in any telling of this story.”

While Lucan might not necessarily depict real events, Kinnear and his co-stars are portraying real people, a task that brings particular responsibilities. “In some ways, playing real people is an easier job than creating fictional ones, because the facts of that person’s life are there for you. But you’re also conscious that these people have children or grandchildren who are still around. I met people who knew him and who knew his children and I do know that they were profoundly affected by it – it shaped the rest of their lives.

“I know, because I’ve seen an interview with him, that Lord Lucan’s son [George Bingham] spent a long time working out what he thought was the most rational answer. He believes that his father was involved in crime, but hadn’t actually murdered, and escaped. And I understand that. You protect yourself and you tell the stories that you want to be told down the generations.”

For Kinnear, whose own father, the actor and satirist Roy Kinnear, died when Rory was ten years old, Lucan’s relationship with his children is at the heart of the drama. The Earl and his ex-wife Veronica Duncan were locked in a bitter custody battle for their children (son George, who was 7 at the time of Lucan’s disappearance, and daughters Frances, 10, and Camilla, 4) and it’s widely held that Rivett was killed after being mistaken for Duncan.

“The film is about a kind, generous man and father who lost his way – and possibly his mind – when he lost his children,” says Kinnear. “And, in our take on it, he was encouraged by his friends, in particular John Aspinall, to take control like a ‘real man’ should.”

On Aspinall, the owner of the Clermont Club (played in the drama by Christopher Eccleston), Kinnear takes a harder line. “Obviously, his kids are still around too, but there aren’t many people who have a nice word to say about Aspinall. He was a bully and a misogynist who believed in a prehistoric sense of society where only the strong shall prosper and any weakness shall be ruthlessly punished.”

While Lucan is very much a period piece, Oxford-educated Kinnear, 35, is not convinced such attitudes have disappeared. “It’s one of the eye-opening, unavoidable aspects of Oxford life. Having gone to a public school, I thought I knew about posh people, but I didn’t know anything until I went to Oxford.

I think some people go there, aware of its history and its resonances – the whole Brideshead thing – and play up to that. “I imagine it’s changed a little bit in the 18 years or so since I was there, but not, I think, enormously. We now have a government who constantly have their Bullingdon Club membership held up to them and I think that despite all the negative press about benighted entitlement, it still exists. However democratic and egalitarian we kid ourselves into thinking society might be, I think that sense of entitlement operates as basically and viciously as it always did.”

Kinnear, an outstanding classical actor whose credits range from Shakespeare to Skyfall and Count Arthur Strong, was playing Iago in the National Theatre’s Othello at the same time as shooting Lucan. “It was funny playing these characters at the same time.

Both were unable to talk about their problems with the one person with whom it would have had most benefit. In the case of Iago, you think ‘Why didn’t you just ask Emilia: did Othello sleep with you?’. “And if Lucan had talked to Veronica, instead of his friends, he would have seen another point of view. Where we join their marriage [in Lucan], it is so broken that you can understand how his detachment leads her to become more deranged, while he just gets colder and clenches his jaw. You just wish someone had given him better advice.”

Playing two roles in tandem meant Kinnear was unable to grow his own moustache for Lucan. His character’s distinctive guardsman’s brush is, he reveals, a stick-on job. “I watched the first episode and, honestly, the first thing I was watching for was how the moustache looked. It does make you hold yourself differently – you can withdraw a bit because there’s this physical barrier and you do sort of look down your nose a bit more. That sense of watchfulness and eccentricity all seemed to come instantly with the moustache.”

Perhaps understandably, ITV is keen not to give away how its drama deals with the million-dollar question: what became of Lucan after the murder? One oft-repeated theory is that he drowned himself in the English Channel, while John Pearson’s book suggests that he was spirited abroad by his friends and killed when he became a security risk.

For Kinnear, was Lucan murderer or victim – or both? “I don’t like to judge the characters I play,” says Kinnear, “and you don’t tell the audience what they’re meant to be thinking. But when you tell real-life stories you remove the ability to dismiss it as you would a work of fiction. Something like this happened. If we can’t judge, we can try to understand.”

Daughter of Lord Lucan, Camilla Bingham QC, tells Radio Times:

“To be clear, the collective Lucan family has never endorsed this drama and I don’t believe that the Rivett family has either. ‘Declining to engage’ with the producers is not the same as endorsing their adventure. In or around June of this year I was informed in general terms that the making of a drama was underway and told that I would receive further details nearer the time of broadcasting. I have received no such details. I am not aware that the drama will offer any new ‘insights’ into the tragic events of 7th November 1974, which led to the death of lovely Sandra. If there were new ‘insights’, the proper course would be for the relevant evidence to be submitted to the police, not titivated and presented to the public under the guise of ‘entertainment’. As to the fate of my father in the days, months and years following 7th November 1974, the notion that the drama’s focus in that regard is somehow ‘new’ or ‘fresh’ is preposterous.

Over the past four decades my father has been sighted almost monthly in supermarkets, on beaches and in casinos across the globe. Sometimes he is spotted simultaneously in different continents. It is hard to imagine that any reader will find that angle new or interesting. This drama will not inform or educate and no right-thinking person could regard it as entertainment.”

See Lucan tonight on ITV at 9:00pm