ITV’s “Lucan”: It’s murder, old thing!

Forced enunciation and hopeless miscasting make this an incongruous caper.


All writers are thieves, robbing graves by night and even by day. As one myself, only rarely do I wag my finger at this form of kleptomania, but in the case of ITV’s Lucan (11 December, 9pm), written by Jeff Pope and based on John Pearson’s 2005 book, The Gamblers, I find that I’m unable to do anything but play the judge. This series – yep, it’s in two parts – isn’t a work of art. It’s a plodding, moderately well-acted thing (with one catastrophic exception, which I’ll come to in a moment) that treads thoroughly tired ground in the name of nothing but ratings. This makes it pretty cheap, in my view.

Meanwhile, Lord Lucan’s widow, Veronica, is still alive, as are his three children, Frances, George and Camilla. So, too, is Neil Berriman, son of Sandra Rivett, the nanny Lucan bludgeoned to death with a piece of lead piping on the night of 7 November 1974, in what appears to have been a case of mistaken identity (the earl was really hoping to bash in the head of his wife, from whom he had recently separated). How grim for all these people. They have my sympathy.

The series does, however, give us the opportunity to examine one of television’s greatest failings: its conviction that toffs aren’t really worth properly fleshing out, even that they might not be capable of deep feeling. I’m sure Lucan and his chums were ghastly: shallow, spoiled, vain, casually misogynistic. But couldn’t Pope have drawn this ghastliness with an HB pencil rather than a magic marker?

Several of the lines that Lucan (Rory Kinnear with one of Nigella Lawson’s eyebrows on his upper lip) was forced to splutter in the first episode were laugh-out-loud clichéd. It isn’t enough to throw in the odd “old thing” here and there, and then to sit back and assume that all the oiks at home will simply lap it up. They won’t. Yes, it’s well known that Lucan’s close friend, John “Aspers” Aspinall (Christopher Eccleston) – who ran the Clermont Club, where the murderous earl gambled away his fortune – kept a private zoo at home and was much concerned with the primacy of the male in the wild. But Pope barely let him open his mouth without making reference to the behaviour of primates, breeding and bloodstock. Meanwhile, the moronic Lucan sucked it up. He was Tarzan and Veronica was Jane, and Tarzan had to win. Was this really how his mind worked? I doubt it. However thick, I expect his mental processes were a lot more complicated than this.

Still, I might just about have bought it had Aspinall been played convincingly. Eccleston, though, is dementedly miscast, with the result that he has turned in a catastrophically bad performance – one of the worst I’ve ever seen. He simply can’t do posh. He has no charm and no insouciance. His voice sounds forced, every “h” a crazy fart of determination, every long vowel a constipated groan. So hard is he concentrating on his enunciation that he seems unable even to move freely – unless, of course, the stiffness is part of his idea of posh.

Like all Lucan’s pals in this version of the tragedy, Aspinall is convinced that Veronica is “unhinged”. After all, aren’t all women unhinged? Again, I’m sure this was in the air. But it strikes me that the countess’s class might have played a part in their loathing, too – her stepfather, I gather, ran a hotel – and this is something that the drama chooses not to explore, perhaps because to do so would involve nuance. Far easier just to line up the sexist boors, not a cigarette paper between them, and present us with a cabal. The public loves a cabal, especially a posh one.

Veronica herself is well played by Catherine McCormack, an actor of whom we see far too little. Anxious, out of her depth, battling to keep custody of her children; she is like thousands of women before and after, the only difference being that she lives in Belgravia. I also relished Jane Lapotaire’s slyly nasty turn as Susie Maxwell-Scott, the late wife of another of Lucan’s pals and one of Pearson’s sources (the tale is framed by his journalistic researches, so we see her mostly in widowed old age). Maxwell-Scott is portrayed as a traitor to her sex, happy now as then to throw Veronica Lucan to the lions (I’m speaking metaphorically, but the big cats were always on standby down at Aspers’s place in the country; perhaps it was to their cages that Lucan was hoping to take the mailbag that contained Rivett’s body). Her first loyalty is to her class. The barbarians are at the gates – or at least, a journalist is.

One dimensional: Rory Kinnear as Lord Lucan.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.