SPOILER ALERT: The following contains spoilers for the HBO Max series The Murders at White House Farm.
In August of 1985, the British nation was glued to the gruesome story of the Bamber family murders. For weeks that summer, the papers ranted about Sheila, the crazed, immoral 28-year-old daughter who had, they said, shot dead her own twin six-year-old sons and her wealthy parents as they slept in their Essex farmhouse. It was the stuff of ‘80s UK tabloid dreams: the privileged, beautiful woman ‘gone off the rails’ into nude modelling, which apparently led directly to murderous ruin. The headlines reveled in her mental health problems and her nickname, ‘Bambi’—the ultimate ‘good girl gone bad’.
Only she didn’t do it. In October of the following year, her younger brother Jeremy was convicted of the murders and will remain in prison for the rest of his life. Then 24, it seems he killed everyone before placing the shotgun in his dead sister’s hands to look like a murder-suicide. Detectives initially missed that Sheila couldn’t have reached the trigger to shoot herself.
At the center of this almost-miscarriage of justice, lies Detective Sergeant Stan Jones, who doggedly fought against the blanket assumption of Sheila’s guilt and challenged his superior officers, finally gathering the damaging testimony of Jeremy’s girlfriend Julie Mugford, along with stories of Jeremy’s hatred for his parents and his desire for the family money.
In putting together this fascinating true crime story for the UK ITV limited series The Murders at White House Farm, now showing on HBO Max, executive producer and writer Kris Mrksa (The Slap, Requiem), met Sheila’s former husband Colin Caffell and the surviving detectives. Here Mrksa tells why he crafted the story as a ‘hero’s journey’ for DS Jones, how he wishes the detective was still alive to see it, and what Jeremy himself might make of the series.
DEADLINE: So, this is weird, but I actually went to Gresham’s, the same school as Jeremy Bamber. He was a lot older than me so I never knew him, but the murders were huge news at school, as you can imagine.
KRIS MRKSA: Wow. Really? That’s…wow.
DEADLINE: I was really young but I clearly remember when everyone believed Sheila had done it. And in the show, you really accurately portray how the UK was at that time, how sexist and classist it was. But did you grow up in Australia? I doubt you heard about it over there?
MRKSA: Yes, so this story was completely new to me. I’d never heard about it at all until my agent actually sent me Carol Ann Lee’s book (The Murders at White House Farm: Jeremy Bamber and the Killing of his Family. The Definitive Investigation). I was probably a third of the way into it and I contacted him and said, “Are you really sure no one’s adapted this already? It’s such an astonishing story I’m amazed it hasn’t been already tackled.”
I suppose I did look at the whole thing with an outsider’s eyes. And there are some very culturally specific and very English quirks about the whole circumstance, I think, which made it all the more interesting to me, I must say.
DEADLINE: What were those quirks? As a Brit living in LA, I spend a lot of time trying to explain those subtle cultural differences, so I’m curious. What were some of those things that seemed very typically British and strange to you in this story?
MRKSA: I think the village culture, and the position that the Bambers occupied in that social milieu, to me, are fairly distinctively English. It’s not as though they’re landed gentry or something, but they’re like squires of the area. Again, I don’t know if there is something exactly equivalent in Australia, and I’m not altogether sure if Americans would immediately… I mean, I think they’ll intuitively get some understanding of the sort of social status and so on, but it all struck me as just a little bit quirkily, distinctively English, the way that the social milieu was there and the way the subtleties of class do play through the story.
Jeremy and Julie, their relationship, I think that there’s a lot to do with him being, again, the son of a squire, and the rather more polished young gent who’s gone to a public school and who is dating a woman who’s probably from a humbler background. Really, I think he’s quite a catch for her. So, I think that even the way that feeds into some of the key relationships in the story, struck me as being inflected in a very English way.
DEADLINE: Your telling is also based on Sheila’s husband Colin’s book, In Search of the Rainbow’s End: Inside the White House Farm Murders. How did he take the news that you were making the show? How did you decide to use his book and involve him?
MRKSA: It’s an interesting question. I’ve done quite a lot of stuff based on true stories, factual drama, here in Australia, and there is a decision you have to make early on about who you’re going to talk to and who you’re going to consult. Because sometimes, it can be a negative, actually, to talk to some people who are involved in a story like this. Very early on, we decided that if we were to go ahead with this, we would really want Colin to be onboard. I felt like, although Carol Ann Lee’s book was enormously detailed and useful from a forensic point of view and from a point of view of understanding the crime and the legalities and so forth, the formal story if you like, the emotional story was, for me, in Colin’s book. So, I felt the two books were a wonderful complement to one another.
We approached Colin in the hope that we could both option the book and ask him to be involved and be a consultant. So that was, I think, really the first big decision we made in terms of how to unlock this story. Willow Grylls, one of the producers on the show, and I met with him and we hit it off very well. He said he had a very good feeling about it. He told me later that he felt it could draw a line under the whole business for him. ‘Optimist’ is not the right word, but he’s a person who does look for a positive in even the most negative things. And I think that’s how he’s approached the awful, awful thing that happened to him and to his family.
So, I started with the two books, going through them in detail, and obviously they throw up all sorts of questions. Even a well-researched book like Carol Ann Lee’s opens up more and more mysteries in some ways. It’s like one mystery leads to another. As soon as you think you’ve solved one thing, it starts raising more questions. If you assume that Bamber did come through this window and started killing his family in this order, then how did this happen? How did the fight end up being down in the kitchen and with his father and so forth and so on?
That led us to talking to a wider range of people, most importantly, Mike Ainsley and Ron Cook. They’re both in the show. Ainsley was the second lead investigator. We were able to meet with him and we were able to meet with Ron Cook, who was the head scene of crime guy who was there right from the start. We drove down to Essex and sat in this old pub and met with him. And you know, in TV shows, the retired detective will pull out these folders full of evidence, and I always watch that and I think, “That’s bullshit. They would never have all that stuff still, 20 years later or 30 years later.” It’s such a TV cliché. But sure enough, Ron just pulls out all this stuff. In this pub. He was bringing out crime scene photos, which were really shocking, and there are these kids who work in this place as wait staff and so on, so we’re trying to hide these photos so that they don’t see them, because they’re awful.
The most interesting thing about that was that unlike Mike, who’s quite just straight down-the-line adamant, “Jeremy did it. It’s straightforward. It’s simple.” Ron is adamant that Jeremy did it, but even he admits there are some things about what happened in that farmhouse that night which even he can’t quite piece together. He still to this day can’t make all the pieces fit. That really intrigued me, that perhaps this show wouldn’t be like most dramatized crime shows, where at the end there’s a straightforward, simple answer. The truth is outed. I thought, “Well, I believe Jeremy did it and I think that he really must have, but I would like the show to be a little bit also about the slipperiness of truth, and also a little bit about the fact that, in the final instance, maybe we would leave the audience arguing about what happened as well, rather than offering them up a simple explanation.” Something more like Making a Murderer or The Staircase, where you watch it and at the end you walk away and you’re still arguing about what went on.
DEADLINE: Obviously you’re convinced that Jeremy did it, as am I, based on everything we know, but what do you think of him? He has to be a psychopath?
MRKSA: Yeah. I think that he’s undoubtedly a very manipulative person, and some experts have deemed him to be the archetypal psychopath or sociopath. Probably psychopath would be appropriate. I’m not in a position to give a medical diagnosis or a psychiatric diagnosis, but as a writer, I have to go off what he does, what his actions were, how he behaved, and stuff that’s on the public record. And the opinions people who knew him can give me. I think that there is sometimes a sort of a wanton cruelty in Jeremy. As the series goes along—and these are real things that did happen—although he is manipulative and sometimes almost too clever for his own good in the first half, toward the end of the thing, he starts behaving in ways that are difficult to fathom. They seem almost self-destructive. For example, attempting to sell the [nude] photos [of Sheila]. Antagonizing Colin intentionally. Some of the ways he behaves with the police, and even the decision to dump his girlfriend at that time. I mean, okay, he’s no longer in love with her, but if he was really a clever, arch, manipulative psychopath, you think he would’ve kept her sweet for longer.
Some people will point to that stuff and say, “Oh, well that just suggests that he’s not really guilty,” but I don’t agree. I think what it shows is someone who’s impulsive in a way that’s not always cleverly thought out. He is prone to acts of, as I say, rather wanton cruelty. I think it also suggests a sort of a splintering, if you like, in the guy. I think there are inconsistent and very almost diametrically opposed impulses that he seems to me to be wrestling with at different times. And I think they often lead him to do things that seem either inconsistent or seem to undermine his own goal.
DEADLINE: He also seems driven by a kind of delusional grandiosity a lot of the time, as though he feels untouchable and is so superior to the police that they could never get him. Were you ever tempted to meet him?
MRKSA: We actually discussed at great length whether we should meet with him, and it might not have been a straightforwardly easy thing to do. But in the end, we decided not to pursue it. Paul (Whittington), our director, in particular, felt it was a mistake. He’s a guy who’s done a lot of true crime.
DEADLINE: Yes, he did Little Boy Blue, which was so good.
MRKSA: Yeah. The Moorside also. Paul is a thoughtful director who brings a lot of, I think, respect and dignity to the stories he tells. There’s no doubt about that. And my sometimes gothic impulses were, I think, nicely balanced or counterbalanced by his more controlled and realist approach, and I’m grateful to him for that.
On the Bamber question, he was strongly against it. He didn’t feel it would be helpful. And Willow, in the final instance, came down that way too. So, I guess that I agreed with the team on that score. I must admit, there’s part of me that would’ve been very curious to meet him. But whether that would’ve been a positive thing, I’m doubtful. I think they were probably right. For a start, Jeremy is now a much, much older man who has lived most of his life in maximum security prisons. In some ways, I don’t think we would’ve been meeting the same person that committed those crimes anyway. Secondly, my take on him is that he’s manipulative, and I think to that extent it would also have been potentially counterproductive. Thirdly, you can say, “Oh, well, it’s important to hear every side of the story,” but I think once we were completely convinced that he was guilty, I certainly didn’t want to give him any kind of a platform.
DEADLINE: How was it decided that this fit best into a limited series?
MRKSA: Well, I’ll say right away that ITV didn’t dictate to us at all. It was very much a creatively driven decision. Once we started plotting out the new approach in more detail, there were times when I thought, “Is this five or six episodes?” But really, in a final instance, I felt like I wanted to honor the human stories. If you were to do this as strictly just a procedural, then okay, I suppose it might only be two or three hours. But I wanted to actually focus on the human impact of these crimes and the way those ripples went through this extended family, and the impact it had on them all. Most importantly, of course, on Colin.
DEADLINE: How does someone carry on when their twin sons have been murdered? I can’t even begin to imagine.
MRKSA: Well, I actually spent quite a bit of time with Colin. He’s a sculptor, you know? And there was a Rodin exhibition in London and he took me along to that. We walked around all afternoon looking at the sculptures, and it was actually a real privilege, listening to him talk as an artist about the work. But in the course of that, we had some wonderful conversations, and I think the answer is that he’s doing very, very well given that he’s a man who had such a terrible tragedy befall him. The key things he wanted out of the series all the way along were that he not be portrayed as a victim, and that there be some sort of a redemptive or positive message in it for Sheila and for his boys as well. And I think that that’s true to how he’s lived his life since the tragedy. I mean, he trained as a grief counselor for a while. He’s tried to help others, I think, who’ve had tragedy in their lives. I know he sees his book as something that he hopes might help people who’ve had big tragedies befall them. Obviously, he has rebuilt his life in practical terms too. He’s remarried and he’s got a new family and he lives in Cornwall and runs a gallery there and works as a sculptor, but I think that the impact of those events must be there, but he’s adamant that he’s not a victim to them. I guess that’s my own takeaway.
DEADLINE: I can only think it’s a kind of do or die, isn’t it, when something like that happens to you.
MRKSA: I have two children myself, and I did feel … I mean, I said this to Colin. I find it almost impossible to understand how he kept walking around after that happened. He actually dropped the boys there [at the farmhouse], after all, and they were begging him not to go. I’m not suggesting for a second that Colin should feel bad about it. It’s not his fault. But people who’re involved in tragedies often feel, I guess, responsibility, even though it’s not rational to do so. And Colin says he did feel that, but he has managed to march through it.
DEADLINE: I also can’t imagine how it was for Colin to see his wife Sheila so readily blamed and vilified, based on her mental health issues and her having posed for nude photos. The way things were back then.
MRKSA: I think it’s so easy to forget how much things have changed since then. You see [sexism] in something like Mad Men and you think, “It’s so shocking and so backward,” and I don’t think things had changed that much by the ’80s. I think that you’re absolutely right to say that’s the way Sheila was so readily written off. She’s a woman, she’s hysterical, she’s done immoral things, she’s living this drug-fueled lifestyle and doing nude photos and so forth, as though these things would make her a murderer, or make her more disposed toward murder. It’s ridiculous and offensive.
Then there’s also the mental illness aspect too. We’ve moved on a lot in terms of our understanding of that. And I think that the kind of situations she found herself in where her parents were, I think, pressuring, if not forcing her into treatment that she didn’t want and which may not have been particularly good for her. Certainly, Colin doesn’t think it was. That’s also quite shocking. But it’s easy to forget how recently our attitudes to things like mental illness have been shaken up and changed, I hope.
DEADLINE: What do you hope that people take away from this series?
MRKSA: I hope it’s actually quite a story of courage in the end. Because we have several characters who stand up in the face of more powerful forces and they speak their truth and they stick to their guns and attempt to find a truth that they believe has been missed. Obviously, it’s not the first time we’ve seen a junior cop stand up to a senior cop in a TV drama, but it’s actually what really happened, and to that extent I think that Stan’s story is a heroic one. Stan was never decorated or congratulated officially or promoted or anything.
DEADLINE: It’s shocking how his success was dismissed within the police, but I wondered whether it was partly because of his having stood up against his superior and embarrassed the chain of command. He broke rank and the truth was less important to them than the sense of honor and protecting their reputation. Do you think that’s why he wasn’t shown any appreciation at work?
MRKSA: Yeah. I think it’s completely because there would’ve been significant elements in the police force, I think, who would have seen him as a troublemaker and resented him even though in the final instance he got the right result. One of the police officers who worked on the case who did not speak to me but spoke to Carol Ann Lee, told her that the police force generally, but certainly in a regional police force like in Essex, was extremely hierarchical, obviously enormously macho, a lot of drinking was going on. And the expectation was that you just fell into line behind the Detective Chief Inspector who was running the case, or you just do what the governor says and that’s all there is to it. You don’t argue. You just back the governor and that’s it. If you don’t do that, then you’re not a team player. You’re not part of the brotherhood of the police force.
DEADLINE: A conspiracy of silence.
MRKSA: Well, if the DCI’s stuffing up, then I guess you’re meant to stay silent. That’s the expectation. So, I think there’s courage in the show and I hope people will take that as a positive. I think there’s Colin’s personal ability to come through all that and come out at the other end with hope and with optimism of sorts, and I hope people will take that as a message worth hearing too.
I hope that the show does act as a critique of the institutional culture where dissenting voices or whistleblowers or the little person can so easily be crushed and not listened to, and sadly that’s still a problem in the world today. I think our show is as relevant in speaking to that as anything set now would be. I don’t know what the situation is in the UK or in the States—well, I know the situation broadly, but in terms of the detail of it— but our government here in Australia gets away with all sorts of things and really, if anything, they’re making it harder for people to come forward and blow the whistle or point to corrupt behavior or wrongdoing or malfeasance or whatever. I think that’s still a problem we wrestle with.
Lastly, I would say that it should remind everyone that even when things seem to be obvious and cleanly stitched up, that there might be another story that may be would be worth listening to. There might be another take on something that you shouldn’t ignore.
DEADLINE: This really is a hero’s journey story. I wish Stan Jones was alive to see this. I think that would’ve been such a gift for him, after having been unrecognized for so long. Does it just not break your heart that he didn’t get to see it?
MRKSA: I am very sorry for that. We did speak to his son, who’s in the police force, and I had the impression his son was very pleased. I think there were many people who worked with Stan who were very pleased to see his heroism celebrated. Colin is very happy about that. Colin thinks that Stan was a great guy. But one of the interesting gifts about the true facts here were that, although you always have to change timelines a little bit and sometimes simplify the number of characters in a situation because TV has certain practical demands, one of the gifts this gave was that Stan really was there from right from the word go to the end of this. He is quite literally the person who escorted witnesses like Julie Mugford, Jeremy’s girlfriend. He was guarding her and kept looking after her during the trial and walked her into the courtroom. He really was there right to the end in the courtroom doing those key jobs, and he was the person who went home with Jeremy back to the house after the shootings that very first day. So in terms of a hero’s journey, it was possible to present that without significantly distorting the real facts of the whole case. And that was wonderful because, of all the stories I’ve done based on true events, this is, I think, honestly by far the most accurate. There’s been an enormous amount of attention paid to detail by every department involved in this show. And we felt that it was important to honor the truth here as much as one can within the context of something that’s a dramatization. But this has been, of everything I’ve worked on, by far the most accurate and forensically accurate thing.
Having seen the crime scene photos, when I was looking at the rushes of the stuff shot in the house, there were moments when I had to keep reminding myself that’s not the real house.
DEADLINE: Actually, it even looks like you show the real crime scene photos at the end. They’re not real, right?
MRKSA: No. We wouldn’t [show them]. When the last episode went out in the UK, there was some anger on Twitter from people saying, “They’ve shown the real crime scene photos.” We were very careful not to show the boys in our crime scene photos, and that was a decision that was taken early on, and I think was absolutely the right one. But they are still pretty shocking photos, and they are recreated quite accurately. So, they’re confronting stuff. They’re not the real photos but they are recreations.
DEADLINE: How has Colin reacted to the show? It must have been so hard to watch.
MRKSA: He mentioned that he watched it with his new family. I think at the end of that, he felt it was, again, a positive thing in a way. It put a line under part of his history that he didn’t necessarily want to talk about with them, but they were going to eventually going to find out about. I think Colin genuinely has found a lot of positives in it, and he’s added a couple of chapters to his book after the experience of doing the show, and republished it. There were more things he wanted to say. I feel that’s a positive. I hope it is.
DEADLINE: Do you know if Julie has seen it?
MRKSA: Julie Mugford has, I think, changed her name and relocated, so we did not talk to her and we’re not in touch with her, and I would rather not out her or anything. I don’t know whether she’s seen it. She’s got a new life now and I respect that.
DEADLINE: She was so fascinating, keeping quiet for so long. She was so oppressed and manipulated by Jeremy.
MRKSA: Do you know, it is one of the things that attracted me to the story. What she did in staying silent as long as she did, it was a terrible thing to do, obviously. It’s sort of poignance and humanity in her plight as well, because she clearly is someone who was bullied and manipulated and was in a bad relationship where she was in this much lower status position, I think.
And I think early on she participated in various petty crimes that Jeremy was committing, and quite enthusiastically. And I guess it was exciting early on. It must’ve been very exciting for someone who probably had lived a pretty staid and boring life. And Jeremy was very handsome, he really was. And he comes along and he’s drawing her into this almost Bonnie and Clyde exciting world. And then all of a sudden, oh no, it’s gone way, way too far. But maybe she feels that she’s in too deep to get out now.
I’ve always thought that some of the worst people in the world have gotten to that terrible place not through just deciding to be evil and taking one huge leap into the realm of evil-doing. It’s so often an accumulation of small steps in the wrong direction. And each step in itself feels, okay, well you justify it or you rationalize, and then you suddenly wake up one day and look back and think, “Oh, Christ. Where have I got myself to?” And that’s sort of how I’ve always felt about her character. If you watch her in the first couple of episodes, she hardly says a word. She’s sort of floating around and on Jeremy’s arm or whatever, and building to the point where she comes forward at the end of episode four and says, “I’m going to tell you the truth,” then stands up and speaks that truth, I think that’s a hero’s journey of sorts as well.
DEADLINE: So do you think Jeremy has seen it in prison?
MRKSA: I’d be astonished if he hadn’t. What I do know is that he has a lot of supporters in the UK, people who continue to lobby for him and on his behalf and who believe him to be innocent. There are, by the way, a smaller minority of people who don’t necessarily believe him to be innocent, but who think that the trial was flawed, and that’s a different question. And I must say, a much more complicated question. I’m not a lawyer so I won’t offer an opinion on that. But I think that’s not a crazy point of view. But I think that the people who are more just conspiracy theorists who think the police have, in some way or another, set him up, I just can’t understand how anyone thinks that.
So certainly his little organization, his little lobby group and many of the people who support him clearly have watched it forensically and posted lots and lots of stuff on social media, picking holes in it. They got on all sorts of platforms where you can rate TV shows, screaming in capital letters, “1 out of 10. This is a terrible bunch of lies,” and so forth. They’ve clearly been very annoyed by the series. I guess, then maybe the show’s done another good thing. But I don’t know. It’s an interesting thing. I mean, Jeremy is in a maximum security prison still, and I assume he’s able to watch an ITV TV show one way or another, so I would be astonished if he hadn’t. I mean, he’s such an attention-seeker.
The Murders at White House Farm is on HBO Max, with new episodes on Thursdays, while the show’s companion podcast, co-produced by iHeartRadio and HBO Max, posts updates in tandem with the show.