A series of static camera shots from doorways and corridors in the dead of night show nothing but a dark house at peace, and yet we immediately know that something is very wrong. White House Farm is a 6 part series aiming to tell the true story of how an entire family, including two young children, were murdered at an Essex farm in 1985. The series explores how, by accepting the first impression assessment of a murder-suicide rampage, a series of bungled police decisions almost led to the real cold-hearted culprit escaping justice.
The series is at pains to point out that the events are true and cites such sources as the books In Search of the Rainbow’s End by the children’s father Colin Caffell, and The Murders at White Farm Down by author and biographer, Carol Ann Lee.
The local police station received a 3:20am call from Jeremy Bamber (Freddie Fox) saying that he had just spoken to his panicked father on the phone. Sheila, Jeremy’s recently discharged sister, sufferer of schizophrenia, and mother to the two boys in the house, had gone mad and started shooting. Next, Jeremy says, the line went dead. As police descend on the house and make the grisly discovery of 5 bodies, including Sheila with the gun in her hands, it seems like a straightforward tragic case of murder-suicide.
Yet Jeremy’s behaviour over the coming weeks and episodes cast doubt on his control of the narrative. White House Farm is anchored to reality but clearly injects some speculation into its story. The police investigation is compelling viewing as mind-boggling decisions get made. Keen to get rid of the media circus, DCI Taff Jones (Stephen Graham, in a bellowing part that lacks any attempt at subtlety) accepts the first impression without question, even allowing bloodstained furnishings to be burned.
Doubt comes in the form of seasoned copper Detective Sergeant Stan Jones (a gentle yet determined Mark Addy) who ties together the holes in the leading explanation. Did Sheila even know how to shoot a gun? How come not a single shot missed? How could she have shot herself in the head twice?
As White House Farm continues it struggles with the balance between needing to tell background and get us into the minds of the people involved (devastated father Colin, played by Mark Stanley, clinging to the good memories of his ex-wife Sheila, is particularly powerful) and sinking into the egotistical and arrogant behaviour of Jeremy. As a telling of events corroborated by many others, such as his performative grief at an infamous and televised funeral procession, this is gripping. But come episode 5 the series gets uncomfortably fixated with turning into a larger-than-life villain piece.
Any problems with White House Farm would likely have been improved by condensing the run time. You can sense the forward-thinking from ITV bosses at reselling the series to Netflix and having the gold standard 6 episodes limited series. The testimony of Jeremy’s girlfriend, Julie Mugford (Alexa Davies), was a key factor in his prosecution thanks to otherwise inconclusive evidence. Through Davies’ wonderful performance, Mugford comes across as vulnerable but not necessarily entirely trustworthy.
Indeed, most shows of this nature would cut to showing the actual crime taking place so as to wrap things up. White House Farm keeps the veil of doubt by never explicitly stating one way or the other what happened. Scenes theorising over Jeremy’s dark salacious ways therefore come across as sensationalist padding rather than any investigation of worth into his mindset, something episode 5, in particular, is guilty of indulging in.
Shows of the nature of White House Farm, centralise on either ‘whodunnit’ or ‘how did they catch who did it’. As it is clear who the finger of blame is pointing at early on then we are firmly in the latter category. It is a shame that White House Farm doesn’t lean harder into this and dig more into the nature of botched police investigations, as these are the real gasp worthy points rather than conjecture over a callous and greedy person who made the leap to murder. Yet White House Farm pulls through on the back of a strong cast and your own will to see justice is eventually done, even if reasonable doubt casts storm clouds overhead.
Words by Mike Record