I can remember the sensation caused by the White House Farm Murders vividly, even though the tragedy took place way back in 1985. Five members of the same family were shot dead in a farm house in Margery Allingham country, the attractive Essex village of Tolleshunt d'Arcy. Few British murder cases in my lifetime have caused quite such a media frenzy or given rise to so much controversy. Jeremy Bamber was found guilty of the crimes, and is currently serving a whole life sentence. But he continues to protest his innocence.
This is the basis of the new ITV drams White House Farm, the first two episodes of which aired last week. The script is by Kris Mrska and draws on a book about the case by Carol Ann Lee and also a book written by one of the people who was closely involved with the real life events, Colin Caffell, the ex-husband of Sheila "Bambi" Caffell, one of those who died.
In a flashback in episode one, it's clear that Sheila (Cressida Bonas) is a troubled woman. She's split up from Colin, who is now involved with someone else, and they take their two children to the White House Farm, owned by Nevill and June Bamber, parents of Sheila and Jeremy (both of whom were adopted). There are hints of family tensions. And then the police get a call from Jeremy, claiming that his father has called him to say that Sheila is running amok with a rifle. When the police finally manage to get into the house, they discover the bodies.
It's a very shocking scenario and some reviewers have questioned whether it's a suitable subject for a TV dramatisation at all. I think there are real questions that need to be asked about TV shows (and, yes, books) which add dramatic spice to incidents in the lives of people who are still alive, but I don't think they are wrong in principle. The real question is whether the factual material is handled properly. On the evidence of the first two episodes, Mrska has done a fairly good job. The script isn't unnecessarily sensational - indeed it didn't need to be, given the real life events. However, the long, lingering shots of the countryside are perhaps over-done, even though they are well done.
So far, Freddie Fox has been very good as Jeremy Bamber, as has Mark Addy, playing the shrewd sergeant who begins to suspect that Sheila couldn't have committed the crimes. Stephen Graham, playing DCI Taff Jones as a pantomime villain, is a good actor in the wrong role. Many people have commented on the feebleness of his attempt at a Welsh accent and I'm afraid they are right. One other thing's for sure, if Jones were still alive, the laws of defamation would have ensured that he wouldn't be portrayed as such a bully and buffoon. I do feel rather sorry for his living relatives and this is the area where sensitivity of treatment is most important. This aspect of the script jars, but otherwise I've been gripped.