True Crime Tuesdays: White House Farm
Helen Archer | On 25, Feb 2020
Every Tuesday, our resident true crime obsessive gets their fix with a documentary film or series. We call it True Crime Tuesdays.
True crime dramatisations can be a mixed bag. While occasionally sensationalist, they can also be very moving, giving voice to the forgotten victims behind tabloid headlines. White House Farm is directed by Paul Whittington, who comes with something of a pedigree in the genre, his most most recent credits including Little Boy Blue and Hatton Garden. In this six-part series, he details the events leading up to and following the 1985 Bamber family annihilation, in which married couple Nevill and June Bamber, their adopted daughter Sheila, and her twin six-year-old boys Nicholas and Daniel were killed.
Some viewers will remember the case, which is as shocking now as it was then. Others will know about it via its semi-regular appearance in the press, due to the multiple unsuccessful appeals Jeremy Bamber (Sheila’s brother) has made since he was found guilty of the murders. There remains a small but fairly vocal group of supporters for Jeremy, and several books have been written on the crime. This dramatisation is based on two such books: The Murders at White House Farm, written by Carol Ann Lee, and In Search of the Rainbow’s End, written by Colin Caffell, Sheila’s ex-partner and father of the twins. Both sources are very much of the opinion that the conviction is safe. Jeremy’s camp, needless to say, were unhappy with the programme from the outset.
The series opens with Jeremy disturbing the quiet of an Essex police station in the middle of the night, with a phone call to suggest that all is not right at the farm. Police attend and eventually – with the help of a firearms unit – breach the house, and find the bodies. Very quickly, with the ‘help’ of Jeremy, the investigating officers make up their mind that this is a murder suicide – that Sheila, who had mental health problems, shot her family before aiming the gun at herself. They rapidly clear the crime scene, literally burning most of the evidence, and the papers fill up with salacious stories about Sheila, whose name is blackened. Jeremy is, of course, treated with the sympathy of the bereaved. One detective, however, doggedly questions that narrative, and what follows is his struggle to bring Bamber to justice.
In the age of box set binges, the pacing of the series seems positively sedentary. There is a quietness to it, emphasised by the slow pans round the deserted farmhouse that open each episode, contrasting with the implied violence we know took place there – a violence which, wisely, is never shown. The viewers, like the police, have to recreate the events of that night in their imaginations, with the help of devastatingly realistic crime scene photos and the positioning of the bodies.
The programme is grounded by Mark Addy as DC Stan Jones, in an understated and subtle performance as the moral centre of the piece – the perfect foil to Freddie Fox’s ever more lurid and outrageously dislikable Jeremy, who goes from snickering behind closed doors and having his mother’s dog put down to auctioning off family heirlooms and trying to sell naked photos of Sheila to the tabloids. An uncharacteristically unsubtle Stephen Graham sports a fairly dodgy Welsh accent as Jones’ superior, DCI Taff Jones. Alexa Davies plays Jeremy’s girlfriend Julie Mugford with a fitting blank amorality, while Gemma Whelan as Jeremy’s cousin Ann Eaton is somewhat wasted in a thankless role. Cressida Bonas swerves accusations of stunt casting, playing a spaced-out, heavily medicalised Sheila to perfection.
The slowness of pace is such that the courtroom aspect of the drama, in the final episode, seems rushed. Much of the evidence against Bamber is circumstantial, so that, despite knowing the outcome, the verdict is still something of a shock. His performance in the witness box likely didn’t help matters. Failing to temper his arrogance even then, he manages to alienate the jurors by glibly responding to the question of his guilt: “Well, that’s what you’ve got to try and establish.” It is terrifying to contemplate that if he had just managed to control his hubris, the verdict may have been very different.
The series ends with reminders of the victims, captured in photographs. One is of Colin Caffell with his two boys, Daniel and Nicholas, standing on a hilltop, looking to some unidentified point in the distance. Will this series end the seemingly ever ongoing round of appeals, and quieten the people who still believe in Bamber’s innocence? Caffell doubtless hopes so, but it seems unlikely.
White House Farm is available on available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription. It is also available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.