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How Channel 4 drama Deceit challenges the narrative around this real-life honeytrap operation

In this examination of what happened after the 1992 murder of Rachel Nickell, it was vital to centre the female perspective, argues writer Emilia di Girolamo in an exclusive column for RadioTimes.com.

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Published: Monday, 19th July 2021 at 4:50 pm

Emilia di Girolamo is the writer and Executive Producer of Deceit, Channel 4’s new four-part crime drama produced by the multi BAFTA award-winning Story Films. Here, she writes for RadioTimes.com about this unique and timely look at one of the UK’s biggest and most catastrophic police operations.

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In summer 1992 a young woman, Rachel Nickell, was brutally murdered in front of her two-year-old son on Wimbledon Common. Her killer, Robert Napper, had long standing mental health issues notedly 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. 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 leaving Napper free to attack and kill Samantha Bissett and her young daughter Jazmine.

It is this controversial honeytrap investigation, known at the time as Operation Edzell, that I have chosen to focus my new four-part drama, Deceit, for Channel 4, on. 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. With the long running ongoing public enquiry into the tactics used by undercover officers in the past, it felt both timely and important to get under the skin of one of the most controversial undercover operations in British history. And 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.

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With factual crime stories becoming increasingly popular, I’ve felt for a while that other than as victims, one perspective seems to be missing from the majority of British true crime dramas: women’s perspectives. I knew from the start that was something I wanted to redress. For me, taking a feminist perspective on crime means finding alternative, less familiar, female focussed access points and exploring how women specifically are affected, which is why I chose to focus on "Lizzie James”. Furthermore looking at the case through a modern day prism and knowing that the real “Lizzie James” is protected by a lifetime anonymity order, it feels important to ask questions about how she was treated, what it was like to work in a male dominated, hierarchical organisation and the duty of care or lack of that was afforded to her. What are the long-lasting effects of carrying out an undercover role like this and how should we look after the officers who undertake this difficult work?

With the whole life anonymity order preventing the disclosure of the real “Lizzie James” identity, it was incredibly important to find ways to ensure she remained totally safeguarded. Fictionalising her personal life became a key component and as a result her private emotional journey is partly imagined. We drew on extensive research and spent time talking to other female undercover officers about their experiences as well as taking inspiration from the ongoing public enquiry to afford her the protection she morally and legally deserves.

Before we started production, it was also essential that Rachel’s son and his father as well as Samantha and Jazmine’s family were fully understanding and supportive - it is not a drama about them but we wanted to honour them appropriately. We also worked closely with Colin Stagg and Keith Pedder who consulted on the series and several other key individuals involved in the cases and made sure they were comfortable and knew exactly how we were approaching the story.

Colin Stagg (played by Sion Daniel Young) was initially spuriously identified by a Crimewatch phone-in. There was nothing but circumstantial evidence to link him to the crime; so the Met Police, led by DI Keith Pedder (played by Harry Treadway) and advised by criminal psychologist Paul Britton (played by Eddie Marsan), devised the ‘’honeytrap” based on the profile Britton had written for the killer. Britton claimed that if Stagg had committed the crime he would respond in specific ways to the brave young undercover police officer who was placed right at the heart of the operation and tasked with forming a relationship with Colin. In their minds the honeytrap would give Stagg the opportunity to either ‘implicate or eliminate’ himself from the enquiry.

“Lizzie James” was then styled, coached and given a bizarre Satanic backstory specifically designed by Paul Britton to appeal to what the police believed Rachel Nickell’s killer desired. Having a criminal profiler design an undercover operation had never been done in the UK before and was seen as cutting-edge science led by the FBI, but its untested status left the investigation vulnerable to criticism if it were to go wrong.

“Lizzie” was expected to go to extraordinary lengths, telling Stagg in detail about her fabricated history, even creating disturbing false confessions, in the hope it would encourage him to tell her his own dark secret. But the police had got it terribly wrong. Colin didn’t have a dark secret. He was innocent and as “Lizzie” was encouraged to verbally push further and further in her interactions with Stagg – whom she legitimately believed was a violent killer – the toll on her own mental health and wellbeing was devastating. We know this as it’s widely reported that after the case collapsed “Lizzie” took eighteen months sick leave suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and she retired early soon after, taking legal action against and receiving compensation from the Met.

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With unique access to hours of incredible previously unheard audio, unseen video and hundreds of pages of written materials I was compelled to include some of the astonishing verbatim dialogue within my fictionalised retelling of the operation. Listening to the material I was shocked time and again by what “Lizzie” was being asked to do. I repeatedly questioned whether a female undercover officer today would be expected to go to such extreme lengths. I’d talked to undercover officers about their own experiences in the 90s, and more recently, and the operation stands out as unique in many aspects but primarily in being shaped and led by a psychologist, something that would also never happen now.

When Colin Stagg’s trial collapsed “Lizzie” was essentially held culpable and vilified along with the police and psychologist Paul Britton, for as Justice Ognall called it in his summing up, “deceitful conduct of the grossest kind”, but examining the material closely it was clear to me that she was being manipulated just as much as Colin was. I had no doubt that we would look upon her orders and her actions very differently in our post #metoo world and that Lizzie was clearly traumatised by the operation, ultimately sacrificing her career.

But listening to the police interviews and reviewing the circumstantial evidence against Colin Stagg, it was easy to understand how when faced with little else the police fell into the trap of focussing all their attention on him. At the time his solitary hobbies and lifestyle matched Briton’s profile of the killer all too well and despite the lack of forensic evidence, the police were quick to believe he must be guilty. He looked remarkably like the killer who had been seen by three witnesses on the Common that morning, lived in the vicinity of the murder as Britton’s profile suggested the killer would and he had a fascination with the misunderstood, peaceful religion of Paganism at a time when Satanic Panic gripped the nation.

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It’s a real lesson in confirmation bias. Many viewers watching the series who don’t know the facts of the case may initially believe Colin Stagg was guilty. I deliberately chose to lead the audience on the same journey “Lizzie” and the police went on, interpreting his words and actions to fit their certainty of his guilt, failing to see that in fact, Colin was just a vulnerable young man who didn’t conform to societal norms and who, as the judge outlined, was saying what he thought “Lizzie” wanted to hear. Even after being acquitted he spent 15 years living with a press and public that wholeheartedly believed he was the man who had got away with murder. It became impossible for him to get a job or live a normal life. The consequences of the police’s mistake were for him, catastrophic.

It’s easy to be critical of the police with the benefit of hindsight and lay the blame solely at their feet but I felt it was important not to demonise the men behind the operation but instead to look at the decisions they made, the reasoning for them and their handling of “Lizzie” in a far more nuanced way. The police were under intense public and media scrutiny. With Rachel’s murder filling the front pages for seven months there had barely been a case that had attracted so much media attention. The way they reported the story and conducted themselves, it was like they had claimed ownership of her — and as a consequence so did the public.

This, as well as the circumstances of the murder, put the Metropolitan Police under enormous pressure — perhaps unprecedented — to find “the monster” who’d committed the crime. This constant pressure undoubtedly affected their judgement and their desperation for justice. The dire consequences were that while they focussed solely on Colin Stagg, the real killer was free to kill again.

The horrific murders of Samantha Bissett (played by Anna Tierney) and her four-year-old daughter Jazmine didn’t attract anywhere near the same level of press attention. They weren’t killed in daylight on a common in a wealthy part of London but rather at night, in a council flat in the far less salubrious Plumstead. The misogynistic rhetoric of the time meant Samantha’s status as a single mum didn’t deem her as worthy. Almost thirty years later and there is arguably still a similar discrepancy in how much attention murder victims get from the press. Women who fit the ‘perfect victim’ profile undoubtedly attract more headlines than women who don’t.

I knew I wanted to honour Samantha and Jazmine by recognising their murders within the drama and bringing them to life. Samantha was a wonderful, loving mother who deserved just as much focus. It also felt important to briefly include Napper himself in the story, to show how severely mentally ill he was in contrast to Colin Stagg and how this along with a number of other factors really didn’t fit Britton’s profile. I also chose to use a sleight of hand to dip into Napper’s childhood which bore some similarities in family dynamics to Colin Stagg’s childhood though Colin never suffered the horrific abuse inflicted on the young Robert Napper (played by Jonah Collier).

While they didn’t have the resources or as much help from the media, thankfully Mickey Banks, Alan Jackaman and the other police officers investigating Samantha and Jazmine’s murders, were quickly able to identify Robert Napper, after he left his fingerprints at the scene. Sadly, it was another 15 years before technology and a thorough cold case review allowed him to be forensically linked to Rachel’s murder and Colin Stagg was finally vindicated.

It was later revealed that Napper came to police attention at least seven times, on at least two occasions displaying behaviour that clearly marked him out as a danger to women. But he was never pursued and was able to conduct a horrendous series of over a hundred sex attacks on and around the Green Chain Walk, unchecked. Had these been properly investigated Napper would have been behind bars long before he spotted Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common or spied on Samantha Bissett through her window.

The drama is dedicated to Rachel, Samantha and Jazmine but also to the many anonymous women who survived attacks by Napper. I thought about them constantly when I was writing, hoping the drama wouldn’t be in any way triggering for them and hoping more than anything that they had found a way to deal with the horrific trauma he inflicted on them. The drama will of course point victims and survivors to sources of support.

In this time of cultural reappraisal of how we treat women, it felt incredibly important to highlight the narrative of what really happened and the systematic errors in policing so lessons can be learned. I hope the public enquiry into undercover policing gets to the heart of these issues and that no woman ever has to go through what “Lizzie James” went through again.

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Deceit is coming soon to Channel 4 and All 4. While you're waiting, take a look at our TV guide or check out the rest of our Drama coverage.

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