From Fred West to Lord Lucan: Jeff Pope is the man who outs the 'truth'

Gerard Gilbert meets the award-winning screenwriter trying to get to the bottom of Britain’s most notorious real-life crimes

Either as a screenwriter or in his role as Head of ITV Factual Drama, Jeff Pope has written or produced dramas about Myra Hindley, Fred West, The Yorkshire Ripper and Ronnie Biggs – none of whom requires further introduction. His films are both popular and critically acclaimed – See No Evil: The Moors Murders won him a Bafta in 2007, Appropriate Adult, his 2011 drama about West, bagged four more, and last year’s Mrs Biggs won one for the actress Sheridan Smith.

“It’s not like I set out with some hit list [of villains]”, he says when we meet in his 20th-floor eyrie at ITV on London’s South Bank.” It’s not blood and gore and horror – what you’re looking for as a dramatist are extremes of behaviour.”

Pope, who also co-wrote this autumn’s acclaimed true-life film Philomena with Steve Coogan (more of which later), has now turned to another infamous murderer, or rather presumed murderer, since he has never stood trial: John Bingham, the 7th Earl of Lucan, who vanished from his London home in November 1974 after bludgeoning to death his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, in an apparent case of mistaken identity, before then attempting to kill his intended victim, his estranged wife Veronica. Supposed sightings of Lord Lucan over the past 40 years have sold books and newspapers, but Pope’s upcoming ITV drama, Lucan, featuring a beautifully understated Rory Kinnear as the moustachioed aristocrat, posits an entirely different theory about his fate.

It is based on the journalist John Pearson’s 2005 book, The Gamblers, which started as a look at the high-society gambling set in 1960s Mayfair who congregated at the Clermont Club, a casino owned by Lucan’s friend John Aspinall. However Pearson stumbled on what he claimed to be the answer to a mystery that has fascinated the British public for the past 39 years: what actually happened to “Lucky” Lucan? Pearson’s theory is both shocking and plausible and also perhaps a little disappointing for those hoping that he was still at large in Africa or India – although I don’t wish to spoil it here for viewers. In any event his widow, Lady Lucan, was unequivocal about this new hypothesis when I contacted her via email. “I think that John Pearson’s book is the most absurd book I have ever read on the Lucan story”, she wrote.

“She doesn’t like John Pearson’s book”, admits Pope. “We’ve stuck with Pearson’s story but we’re clear to say that it’s a theory”. Pope has met George Bingham, the Lucans’ son, now a banker, who was seven years old (and upstairs asleep) when the murder took place, and also contacted his sisters, Camilla and Frances. “Their overriding concern was to know whether our story inferred that they had been in contact with their father since the murder”, says Pope. “They all have high-flying careers and any suggestion that over the years they’d sneaked off to Namibia and met with their father would paint them in a difficult light.”

 Pope’s roots are in journalism: he started his career as a reporter on the Ealing Gazette in west London before moving into television in 1983 as a producer on LWT’s news magazine programme The Six O’Clock Show, whose presenters included Danny Baker and Paula Yates. There followed a stint on Crime Monthly, presented by Paul Ross, for which Pope created 15-minute re-enactments. “That [led onto] Michael Winner’s True Crimes”, he says. “But the really big breakthrough for me was in 1992 and Fool’s Gold: The Story of the Brink’s-Mat Robbery, which was a full-blown two-hour drama.”

Pope says that Fool’s Gold is “his perfect model” for real-life crime drama – and exemplifies the way in which he finds his way into a story almost obliquely, in this case after reading that one of the men involved in the notorious theft of £26m of gold bullion from Heathrow’s Brink’s-Mat warehouse tried to give back his share. Similarly in Appropriate Adult, with Dominic West as a horribly plausible Fred West, his entrée was through the character of Janet Leach (played by Emily Watson), the prison visitor appointed to represent West’s interests. But how does he square the dictates of drama with the feelings of victims or their families?

“We contact them, but at that stage it’s not a question of a right of veto because if you have a strong reason for wanting to make a story, that doesn’t change purely because it would upset someone. Having said that there are three stories that we have not continued with – a mother once just said ‘please don’t’ and we couldn’t fly in the face of that.”

What about the accusation that he is mining real suffering for commercial profit? “I’m always the first person asking ‘why are we doing this?’,” he replies. “And the answer can’t be because it will look sexy in the TV schedules.” Financially, he says, ITV would prefer a returning series such as Downton Abbey. “The fact that I’d spend a year making a two-parter like Appropriate Adult makes no sense commercially.”

His next project is The Widower, starring Reece Shearsmith as wife-killer Malcolm Webster – only he can’t discuss it because Webster is currently appealing against his conviction. And neither can he discuss his drama about the early life of a British singing legend because he is still negotiating with the star concerned, although he can confirm that he is working with his old Six O’Clock Show colleague Danny Baker on an adaptation of Baker’s memoirs.

And then there is Philomena, the big-screen adaptation of Martin Sixsmith’s book about a woman’s search for her long-lost son, taken from her in a convent in 1950s Ireland, and featuring a bravura lead performance from Judi Dench. Pope and Steve Coogan wrote the screenplay closeted in Coogan’s houses in Brighton and the Lake District. “At the same time as creating a script we had to create a relationship”, he says. “We’re firm friends now and are going to work together on another project.”

“There’s a story in what he’s going through at the moment – which is the Oscar circuit,” he adds. “I didn’t know the half of it. You go out there for a month and go to different cities and meet different Academy members – he texted me recently from a tiny lodge somewhere in the Midwest.” And what about the film’s Oscar potential? “I don’t walk under ladders, I salute magpies and I couldn’t possibly comment.”

‘Lucan’ begins on ITV1 on Wed 11 Dec at 9pm

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