It is almost 40 years since John Bingham, the 7th Earl of Lucan, disappeared following the murder of his children's nanny Sandra Rivett. Lucan was convicted of the crime in absentia and, while his body has never been discovered, his estranged wife Veronica believes he killed himself sometime in the early hours after Rivett's death.
Not everyone is convinced. For much of my childhood it seemed as though newspapers filled a slow news day with a sighting of Lucan apparently propping up a bar in a far-flung outpost of the former Empire and the most common conspiracy theory has the Clermont Set – John Aspinall, Jimmy Goldmith, Dominic Elwes et al – closing ranks to protect the peer, helping him to elude the police at a crucial time.
Lucan, ITV's glossy reconstruction of the events leading up to and after Rivett's murder, began with the declaration that "much of this story is based on fact, though we have also included an element of speculation" before plunging us straight into the familiar tale of upper-class cads, gambling addiction and domestic despair.
Scripted by Jeff Pope, who has good form in tricky real-life adaptations having produced the award-winning Fred West drama, Appropriate Adult, Lucan drew on John Pearson's The Gamblers to present a hermetically sealed world in which women knew their place and the greatest sin was to be a bore.
In the lead role, Rory Kinnear perfectly caught Lucan's ponderous charm, making you see why women such as Susie Maxwell Scott might have covered up for him simply by dint of his birth, while there were strong performances from Jane Lapotaire as the older Susie, Leanne Best as Rivett and, in particular, Catherine McCormack as poor beleaguered Veronica, trapped in marriage to a husband who appeared to delight in tormenting her and even attempted to have her committed.
The show's real villain, however, was the machiavellian Aspinall, played by Christopher Eccleston with serpentine grace (and the odd accent issue). This Aspinall was a consummate game player and puppet master, an outsider who pulled off the neat trick of seeming like the ultimate insider and who was shown repeatedly reminding Lucan about survival of the fittest, the natural order of things and the need to "fight dirty and let there be no shame".
"Aspers" might have been an upper-crust Iago but "Lucky" Lucan was no Othello brought low by jealousy and, while Pope's script was adept at showing you how the peer got to the desperate place where murdering his wife seemed a logical way of gaining custody of his children, the best thing about Lucan was the way in which it gave Veronica a voice, making this as much a story about the quiet desperation faced by many married women, both then and now, as the same old sensational tale.
Yet even Pope's astute script couldn't quite shake off a growing sense of queasiness that here was murder regurgitated as entertainment. We talk about the Lord Lucan affair yet the real story is the brutal death of Sandra Rivett and there was something wrong about the way she was reduced to a bit part in her own tale.
The killing itself was shot in near- darkness and tastefully handled but it was hard to watch without feeling like a voyeur in someone else's tragedy. A feeling that seems only likely to increase next week when the focus switches to the aftermath of the murder and the attempts or otherwise of the Clermont Club to save one of their own. Lucan was a brilliantly acted, cleverly scripted and beautifully shot drama. I'm not sure it should have ever been made.