Lord Lucan, the disappearing act that refuses to die away

The enduring fascination with the life of Lord Lucan continues in an ITV drama. James Rampton hears from the show’s stars

Chris Clough, the producer of Lucan, ITV1's new, two-part drama about the larger-than-life aristocrat Lord Lucan who stands accused of murdering his children's nanny on 7 November 1974 and then vanishing off the face of the earth, is a baffled man.

"I just don't know why no one has made this story into a drama before," the producer says. "It's got everything – aristocrats, romance, murder, the Establishment, casinos, a crime of passion, the wrong murder victim, the disappearance of the murderer and supposed sightings of him ever since. Perhaps film producers were just waiting for Lord Lucan to turn up!"

ITV1 has decided not to wait for that highly unlikely eventuality. They have just gone ahead and made this absorbing drama anyway. Penned by Jeff Pope and starting next Wednesday, the piece centres on Lord Lucan (Rory Kinnear).

At first he seems to be a character exuding charisma, glamour and wealth. After streakily winning £26,000 in one night at a casino in Le Touquet, he gains the nickname of "Lucky" and decides to become a professional gambler. But as his losses mount and he is unable even to pay the milkman, Lucan's nickname starts to look increasingly ironic.

The Old Etonian Lucan is drawn into the malevolent orbit of John Aspinall (Christopher Eccleston). A ruthless puppet-master, Aspinall runs the Clermont Club, a Mayfair casino where gullible aristocrats are all too easily parted from their money.

When Lucan's wife, Veronica (Catherine McCormack), begins to complain vociferously that her husband spends far more time at the Clermont than at home, Lucan soon becomes fed up and resolves to split from her.

When, as part of the divorce settlement, Lucan is denied custody of his children, he swiftly unravels. He starts to spy on his ex and tape her phone calls. Poisoned by the virulent world-view of the Clermont Set and addled by drink and debt, he determines to bring the dispute with his wife to a sudden and violent conclusion.

In the basement of the family home, Lucan lies in wait for her with a length of lead piping in his hand. However, his children's nanny, Sandra Rivett, has the misfortune to walk in at the exactly wrong moment ...

As you can see, Lucan is a story that comes with its own, inbuilt drama. As the executive producer Francis Hopkinson puts it: "Just as the Profumo Scandal is the perfect storm of aristocrats, sex and spying, so the Lucan Affair is the perfect storm of aristocrats, money and murder mystery. It has fascinated us for almost four decades. Because Lucan completely disappeared after the murder, there is still a real mystique about the case. On the night the nanny was killed, there was an IRA bomb in south London. You never hear about that bomb now. But you still hear an awful lot about Lucan."

Lucan, who felt abandoned when his parents sent him to boarding school at a very young age, was a textbook example of arrested development. He also possessed the archetypal English trait of being unable to express his emotions.

Clough says: "Lucan had 12 identical suits and he ate exactly the same thing for lunch every day – smoked salmon followed by lamb cutlets. A psychologist would have a field day with that!

"Lucan was removed from his family at a young age, and remained like a little boy. As well as gambling, he was addicted to adrenaline sports like bobsleigh. He once got someone to film him in a speedboat race. He stormed into the lead before spectacularly sinking – which is not a bad metaphor for his life."

It is not hard to see where Lucan's warped view of women came from. Eccleston says the drama underscores the fact that the Clermont Set was mired in misogyny.

"At first, I was worried that we might be hitching a lift on someone else's tragedy," says the 49-year-old actor.

But, he continues: "Once I read Jeff's script, those worries disappeared. I saw that it has a very strong moral centre. Jeff highlights the victims' plights and underlines that Sandra lost her life and Veronica lost her children and status and was unfairly vilified.

"This drama exposes the misogyny that prevailed among the moneyed classes. These men progressed straight from public school to another form of all-male common room in the casinos. They took a medieval view of women as mere chattels."

For all that, Lucan is not portrayed as an out-and-out villain. Kinnear says: "The drama shows that gentle people are capable of the most appalling things. There is very little rationality in life, and that's scary."

Eccleston chips in: "The audience is left with a lot of grey areas. They're not spoon-fed. They're treated with intelligence."

The drama leaves us with a strong sense of the enduring influence of the class system in this country. For instance, Lucan is initially convinced he will win custody of his children simply because he is an Earl.

"This case shows how obsessed we are with the class system," observes Eccleston. "At that time, we were labouring under the delusion that the upper classes behaved better than everyone else because they had more money. We were incredibly naive.

"But we all still define things in those terms. Class is still the monkey on this country's back. This drama does what drama does best: it lifts the lid on that exclusive world."

'Lucan' begins on Wednesday 11 December at 9pm on ITV