Tonight sees the start of new Channel 4 drama Deceit, which explores one of the most controversial police operations in modern British history.
The four-part series takes a look at the investigation into the murder of Rachel Nickell in 1992, focusing on the honeytrap investigation that saw undercover officer ‘Lizzie James’ tasked with striking up a relationship with suspect Colin Stagg – who it later transpired was completely innocent.
The series is billed as a feminist account of the story – told from Lizzie’s perspective – and Channel 4’s Head of Drama Caroline Hollick recently said she hoped it would serve as a welcome antidote to the often “quite misogynistic” true crime dramas that populate the TV schedules.
“That’s where Deceit is so different from other true crime you see on other channels,” she told RadioTimes.com and other press. “Emilia [di Girolamo]’s incredibly powerful sense of the importance of the female voice in this show really made it stand out.”
The Deceit cast includes Niamh Algar, Nathaniel Martello-White, Line of Duty star Rochenda Sandall and Eddie Marsan, and according to the synopsis, the drama “enters a dysfunctional world, where a female undercover officer, codename ‘Lizzie James’, is asked to become sexual bait for a suspected killer.”
But what is the true story behind Deceit, and who was undercover officer ‘Lizzie James’?
Is Deceit based on a true story?
Yes, Channel 4 drama Deceit is inspired by a real-life undercover honeytrap operation, known at the time as Operation Edzell. The drama is based on real events, extensive research, and interviews.
The operation was at the heart of the high-pressure police investigation into the devastating murder of 23-year-old Rachel Nickell on 15th July 1992. Nickell, a mother-of-one, was killed in broad daylight on Wimbledon Common, where she was walking with her two-year-old son, Alexander Louis.
In an exclusive column for RadioTimes.com, series writer Emilia di Girolamo recently explained how Deceit challenges the narrative around a real-life honeytrap operation, Operation Edzell, which went terribly wrong.
“Depicted from a unique female viewpoint, that of the undercover officer codenamed ‘Lizzie James’ (played by Niamh Algar), Deceit examines the complicated and toxic sexual politics of the early ‘90s, the police’s obsession with the wrong man and the devastating impact on all involved,” she writes.
She continued: “With twists and turns as surprising as the fictional undercover stories in Line of Duty, I had no doubt this real story would keep viewers gripped.”
Who was undercover officer ‘Lizzie James’ and where is she now?
‘Lizzie James’ (codename) was an undercover police officer who was tasked with forming a relationship with Colin Stagg, who at the time was the main suspect in the investigation into Rachel Nickell’s murder.
As writer Emilia di Girolamo writes for RadioTimes.com, ‘Lizzie James’ was asked to become sexual bait, and was “styled, coached and given a bizarre Satanic backstory specifically designed… to appeal to what the police believed Rachel Nickell’s killer desired”.
During the undercover operation, the real ‘Lizzie James’ attempted to elicit a confession from Stagg by describing violent sexual fantasies. In released police tape recordings, she said, “If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder, if only you had killed her, it would be all right”, to which he replied: “I’m terribly sorry, but I haven’t.”
However, the police had got it wrong: Colin Stagg was innocent. As di Girolamo explains, “‘Lizzie’ was encouraged to verbally push further and further in her interactions with Stagg – whom she believed was a violent killer – the toll on her own mental health and wellbeing was devastating.
There’s currently a lifetime anonymity order preventing the disclosure of the real identity of ‘Lizzie James’; in Channel 4’s Deceit, the character’s backstory and personal life (including her name, Sadie Byrne) are entirely fictional.
Is the office sexism in Deceit based on real life?
While we can’t know about the experiences of the real ‘Lizzie James’, the Channel 4 drama Deceit is set against the backdrop of ‘lad culture’, and grounded in “the complicated and toxic sexual politics of the early ‘90s,” according to the synopsis.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com and other press, Niamh Algar describes the “familiar” everyday sexism that her character Sadie/’Lizzie’ encounters in and outside of the office throughout the four-parter.
“It’s interesting to watch it back,” she says. “And Emilia [di Girolamo] has created this… amazing scene at the start [of the series] where you see, it’s almost like Sadie being introduced as the officer – as the detective – and the subtext between Sadie and Rochenda [Sandall]’s character kind of speaks volumes. They don’t need to say one piece of dialogue, but every woman I think watching it will understand what that feeling is. And it’s the power of not having to say anything, but also having lived through that and still living through it. I think what this [show] does, is it showcases the sexism that women are under and the pressures that they’re under.”
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Who murdered Rachel Nickell?
Rachel Nickell’s true killer was Robert Napper, who “had long-standing mental health issues rooted in the trauma of his own childhood, which are believed to have culminated in more than a hundred violent sexual attacks on women and three horrific murders,” says Deceit screenwriter Emilia di Girolamo.
She adds: “Catastrophic and systematic police failings meant Napper escaped detection numerous times and when he killed Rachel, another innocent man, Colin Stagg, became the sole focus of the police investigation.”
Colin Stagg (played in the TV drama by Sion Daniel Young) was falsely charged with murdering Rachel Nickell, and spent over a year in custody. The case against him was thrown out in 1994, after Mr Justice Ognall excluded evidence from Operation Edzell from the trial. Stagg would go on to claim compensation from the Metropolitan Police.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com and other press, executive producer David Nath revealed the the real-life Colin Stagg collaborated on Channel 4 drama Deceit “because he wanted the definitive story… that tells the rest of the world he is and was an innocent man”.
“We deliberately start the start the story, six or seven months after the murder of Rachel Nickell… we were focusing on the investigation and not dwelling on the crime.
“You know, you talk to people now, and, and you mentioned the name of Colin Stagg, and a lot of people will still say, ‘Oh Colin Stagg, he was the person who was convicted to the murder of Rachel [Nickell], and you go, ‘No, he wasn’t’. And so we have to be very mindful when we’re making this series that we’re not reinforcing some of the misinformation that exists about Colin already. And I think, you know, it’s one of the reasons Colin collaborated with us, because he wanted the definitive story out there that tells the rest of the world he is and was an innocent man.”
The four-part drama series Deceit begins on Friday 13th August at 9pm on Channel 4. All four episodes will be immediately available on All4 after the first episode airs.