White House Farm review: Cressida Bonas is excellent in dramatisation of Jeremy Bamber’s shocking murder case

Freddie Fox heads up strong cast of six-part drama that hasn’t been ‘endorsed’ by the Bamber campaign

Ed Cumming
Wednesday 08 January 2020 18:47
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White house farm trailer

Thirty-five years on, the Jeremy Bamber murders are still shocking. Partly it’s because of the enormity of the crimes. In August 1985, the 24-year-old former public schoolboy Jeremy Bamber called Essex police in the middle of the night. He reported that his parents Nevill and June Bamber, his sister Sheila and her six-year-old twin sons, Nicholas and Daniel, were locked inside the family’s home, where Sheila had a rifle. When police entered, they found five corpses, including Sheila, who had apparently turned the gun on herself after killing her parents and children. At first the case looked open and shut. Then cracks appeared in Bamber’s story. Eventually, he was tried and convicted of all five murders.

The bare facts were embellished by the details. Both Bamber and Sheila had been adopted. He was a charming but dilettantish public schoolboy. She was a former model with schizophrenia. But the other reason the story has stayed in the public imagination is that Bamber, uniquely among the British prisoners serving life without hope of parole, has always protested his innocence. He has appealed numerous times during his sentence, and attracted celebrity supporters including Peter Tatchell and the former MP Andrew Hunter, but he remains firmly behind bars.

Pre-publicity made it clear Bamber’s campaign does not “endorse” White House Farm (ITV), a new six-part dramatisation of the case based in part on interviews with Sheila’s widower, Colin Caffell. It’s an unshowy but quietly competent production, written by Kris Mrksa, who previously gave us the Welsh ghost story, Requiem, and directed by Hatton Garden’s Paul Whittington. Six hours of true crime may hold more interest for those who remember the original events, but there is enough for newcomers.

The first episode shows us events as they first appeared to police, and reveals a strong cast. Freddie Fox plays the skittish Bamber, a party boy with a twinkling eye and a dark heart. Cressida Bonas is excellent as the miserable Sheila. She plays her with enough darkness to make the murder-suicide seem plausible but without straying the wrong side of our sympathies.

Game of Thrones veterans abound elsewhere. Alfie Allen and Gemma Whelan, brother and sister Greyjoys in Westeros, are reunited. Robert Baratheon himself, Mark Addy, plays DS Stan Jones. He is the first to suspect the official findings, but must persuade DCI “Taffy” Jones (Stephen Graham, giving his Welsh accent full welly), who wants a swift conclusion with the eyes of the world on him.

The problem for these true-crime programmes, from which White House Farm cannot escape, is that it’s difficult to separate them in one’s mind from fictional crime shows. Even if you know this is based on real events, it belongs to the same mental universe as Midsomer Murders, with the effect that at times it feels cliched. The tricksy murderer, the beleaguered but ultimately vindicated detective, the gruff superior. It sounds like an unfair accusation to level at reality, but there you are.

There are flashes of directorial elegance. The flat expanses of Essex farmland are established with patient overhead shots. The opening image, of a phone ringing in a police station, could be out of a Korean thriller. A conversation between Sheila and her parents in the driveway of their house is shot with a yellow camper van between them. The details build a sense of the egregiousness of these crimes in this place. They would be horrific anywhere, but especially here, where little else happens. And, on the whole, the direction is content to let the facts speak for themselves. In a case like this, they are plenty.

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