Watching ITV’s White House Farm, I felt uneasy

It’s hard to tear your eyes away from White House – but this doesn’t make it acceptable. Not to me.

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Some murder cases you live with all your life. In 1985, when a former public schoolboy called Jeremy Bamber murdered his parents, sister and twin nephews at their Essex farmhouse – Nevill and June Bamber were wealthy, and Jeremy stood to inherit – his picture was everywhere, slyly inserting itself into the collective memory as if into a family photograph album. His lips were as plump as pillows, his newly dyed hair as black as a raven’s wing, and at the funeral of his parents and sister, he wept ostentatiously in the arms of his then girlfriend, Julie Mugford. On that all-too-public occasion, she wore a little hat with a veil, and I still wonder about it, even now. Was it an Eighties thing, or did all young women wear hats to funerals back then?

Either way, it’s about to appear before us once again, perched on the head of Alexa Davies, who plays Mugford in White House Farm (8 January, 9pm), ITV’s new drama about Bamber and his crimes. This six-part series has been made with the cooperation of Colin Caffell, whose six-year-old sons, Daniel and Nicholas, Bamber shot dead in their sleep. (Colin was separated from their mother, Sheila, a schizophrenic whom the police initially believed had carried out the murders, before turning the gun on herself.) And it is tastefully done: un-rushed where it might be fast-paced; careful rather than broad-brush. All the same, as I watched the first episode, I felt uneasy. Though Bamber has always protested his innocence, his various attempts to appeal his sentence have never come to anything. He is serving a whole life tariff for murder; as I write, there is no doubt surrounding his conviction. What, then, can a series like this hope to achieve? All it can do is revisit well-established events, and dish them up for thrills.

Flamboyant Freddie Fox plays Bamber: a choice bit of casting, given the latter’s infamous taste for theatrics. (“I should have been an actor,” Bamber is supposed to have said to Mugford, when she arrived at his cottage with the police on the morning after the murders.) Thanks to Fox, and to the set designers’ way with period detail, it’s hard to tear your eyes away from White House Farm (a Kenwood chef, a bottle of Milk of Magnesia, a pair of kitsch china statuettes: in the Bambers’ posh-shabby farmhouse, everything is so absolutely right, you can almost smell the Floris bath oil, the homemade oxtail soup). But this doesn’t, in itself, make it acceptable – or not to me.

Irrespective of what he stood to gain, Bamber is a sociopath; the question of motivation is largely irrelevant, which leaves something empty at the series’ heart, while the casting of Fox makes Bamber glamorous, which is wrong. Desperate to mitigate this hollowness, writers Kris Mrksa and Giula Sandler go out of their way to explore that sadness that was abroad in the Bamber family prior to the killings. But since there can be no justification for these murders, their efforts seem to me to be not only futile, but grotesque too. Who cares if June (Amanda Burton) was too zealous a Christian? She hardly deserved to die for her faith.

In the midst of all this, as well, there are some of the usual clichés. When Bamber is told that his family are all dead, he vomits in the farmyard, a sudden streak of pink against grey. Stephen Graham is DCI Thomas “Taff” Jones, a moustachioed Welsh cop of a bullying, corner-cutting jobsworth kind that we seem to see on television practically every week (not even an actor as brilliant as Graham can make him less cartoonish). Mark Addy is DS Stan Jones, whose dishevelled appearance belies the fact – surprise! – that he’ll notice first that it would have been hard for Sheila (Cressida Bonas) to shoot herself twice.

Watching all this, your mind turns, inevitably, to Bamber, who will presumably drink in the whole thing in the fug of the recreation room at HMP Wakefield. Will he like it, or loathe it? My conviction is that giving a narcissist like him the opportunity to feel either of these things cannot possibly be right. To put him on screen at all is only to plump up yet again his vicious personal mythology. 

White House Farm

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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 appears in the 10 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran