‘True crime’ is a contentious subject area for TV drama. Is it ghoulish to repackage people’s very real tragedies as entertainment? Or do the victims’ stories deserve to be heard? And if so, to what purpose?
Knotty moral questions aside, ITV has earned a reputation for its respectful handling of such acts of unthinkable brutality as the Moors Murders and the Gloucester ‘House of Horrors’ killings while, more recently, Little Boy Blue, Manhunt and A Confession won plaudits for dramatising the investigations into the murders of Rhys Jones, Marsha McDonnell, Amélie Delagrange, Milly Dowler, Sian O’Callagahn and Becky Godden-Edwards.
The channel’s latest entry into the canon opens on a dark, seemingly empty house – silent except for the chirruping of crickets outside – and the plangent ring of a telephone in a near-deserted police station. “My name’s Jeremy Bamber,” says a trembling voice on the line. “You’ve got to help me. My father’s just rung and told me to come over. He sounded terrified. He said it was my sister… that she’d gone crazy with a gun.”
Arriving on the scene to find Sheila Caffell – a glamorous former model with a history of mental health problems – her adoptive parents and her twin six-year-old boys all dead, police initially treated the case as an open-and-shut murder-suicide. But the following year, it was Jeremy Bamber who was sentenced to life imprisonment for five counts of murder (a crime he continues to deny) after being convicted by a 10-2 majority verdict.
For that, we can thank the dogged detective work of Stan Jones, a police sergeant brought into act as family liaison, who suspected his superiors of overlooking vital evidence in their desire for a quick win.
Kris Mrska’s screenplay draws heavily on Carol Ann Lee’s 2015 book The Murders at White House Farm, as well as In Search of the Rainbow’s End by Colin Caffel, Sheila’s husband and father to twins Daniel and Nicholas. By his own admission, Colin would have preferred not to have the terrible events of that night raked over again, but agreed to serve as a consultant on the production in order to retain a degree of oversight.
As such, it’s as sensitive an approach as you could hope for. The killings – in the first of the six episodes at least – happen off-stage, and director Paul Whittington (who also helmed Little Boy Blue) keeps his camera at a discreet distance as the police discover the bodies, showing us only what’s forensically important to see. Elsewhere, the dust-baked, bleached yellow wheat fields of rural Essex give the episodes a certain terrible, cinematic beauty.
Freddie Fox is perfect casting as Jeremy Bamber: even in the opening act, when he’s effectively presented as a grief-stricken victim, there’s a certain shiftiness behind the eyes that makes him hard to warm to. Cressida Bonas (yes, of pre-Meghan ‘Harry and Cressida’ fame) is also terrific as the damaged, traumatised Sheila, who is kept heavily medicated by her stern, overbearing parents (Amanda Burton and Nicholas Farrell). In the immediate aftermath of the killings, Sheila – who was found clasping a shotgun under her chin, with a bible by her side – suffered the further indignity of a posthumous trial by media, the press gleefully picking over every bone of the tragic beauty’s troubled life. So there is, perhaps, some belated justice in showing the frightened young woman behind the tabloid titillation.
If we didn’t know better, it would be easy to assume the police procedural elements have been made up, or at least heavily fictionalised. A middle-ranking DS (sympathetically played by a world-weary Mark Addy) refusing to stay in his lane in a manner that puts him on a collision course with his guv’nor? It sounds like every ITV crime show you’ve ever seen. And it doesn’t help that DCI Thomas ‘Taff’ Jones – played by the hardest working man in television, Stephen Graham, complete with Welsh accent – is a blinkered, time-serving rulebook copper straight from central casting. But it’s all true, apparently. Or true-ish, anyway.
Also bringing some extra class to a first-rate cast is Gemma Whelan, who’s fast establishing herself as one of the finest, most mutable actors of the age, embodying everyone from proud ironborn warrior Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones to feckless kidnapper Karen Matthews in The Moorside. Here she plays a pivotal role as Ann Eaton, the cousin whose suspicions about Bamber added weight to Stan Jones’ suspicions.
Some scenes – like Colin Caffel (Mark Stanley) hugging his sons goodbye before they’re led reluctantly into their grandparents’ farmhouse with a last, lingering look over the shoulder – are impossible to watch without a sob catching in your throat. Starting the same week as Channel 4’s harrowing Deadwater Fell, about the slaughter of another (albeit fictional) family in an isolated community, White House Farm certainly offers precious little comfort for the cold January nights. If there’s any solace at all to be found in the story, it’s that, 35 years on, it remains as deeply shocking as ever. Maybe when we stop being morbidly fascinated by such horrors is the time we should really start to worry.
You can buy the biography, The Murders at White House Farm by Carol Ann Lee on Amazon.
The six-part drama White House Farm airs on ITV at 9pm on Wednesdays