In the early hours of 7th August 1985 five bodies were found in a farmhouse in rural Essex. Nevill and June Bamber, both 61, Sheila, 28, their adoptive daughter, and her six-year-old twins Daniel and Nicholas had all been shot.
The alarm was raised by the Bambers’ adoptive son Jeremy, 24. He claimed that Nevill had telephoned in a panic, saying that Sheila – who had a history of mental health problems – was going “berserk” with a gun.
Initially police thought it was an open-and-shut case of murder-suicide. Sheila, a former model who lived in London, was demonised in the newspapers as a drug user who was so unstable that she could commit the worst crimes imaginable: killing her children and her parents.
But some observers had doubts over what happened at White House Farm. Studying the evidence and the victims, Detective Sergeant Stan Jones questioned his superiors’ convictions. Could Sheila really have overpowered her much larger, more powerful dad, and then shot herself – twice? Sheila and Jeremy’s cousin Ann Eaton refused to believe Sheila, for all her personal challenges, would ever harm, let alone murder, her boys.
And Colin Cafell, Sheila’s ex-husband and the father of the twins, began to consider more closely the behaviour of Jeremy, the seemingly distraught sole surviving member of the family.
Doubts hardened into questions into accusations: might Jeremy have had the motive to wipe out his family, so that he could inherit his wealthy parents’ estate?
Fourteen months later, at Chelmsford Crown Court, Jeremy Bamber was convicted on five counts of murder. He was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in prison. Eight years later that was increased to a whole-life tariff, meaning Bamber would never be released.
Twenty-four years on, Jeremy Bamber maintains that he is innocent, the victim of, amongst other things, an undoubtedly botched police investigation and false testimony from his then-girlfriend, Julie Mugford. For that reason, but mainly because of the horror and brutality of the original crimes, the White House Farm murders remain one of the most notorious crimes in recent British history.
Now they’re receiving the TV drama treatment. White House Farm is a six-part series that begins on ITV this January. Playing Jeremy Bamber is Freddie Fox.
The British actor, 30, a member of the Fox acting dynasty, has form playing real-life characters. At the start of his career, he played Eighties pop star Marilyn in Boy George biopic Worried About the Boy (2010). He’s currently filming season four of The Crown, in which he plays Mark Thatcher, gadabout son of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
“When there’s real people at stake,” he says, “you’re duty-bound to do the best job you possibly can, do as much research as you possibly can, be as professional as you possibly can. Why wouldn’t you? Also, you have the luxury of real source material. You don’t need to invent everything. It makes you even more specific.”
But Jeremy Bamber is a different kind of real-life role. For one, he’s a murderer convicted of heinous crimes. For another, he’s a convicted murderer who, backed by a campaign group, insists he’s innocent.
If you believe Bamber is guilty, that means that, in White House Farm, Fox is a murderer who’s pretending to be innocent – that is, Fox is playing a character playing a character. And if you believe his innocence, Fox has to play a grieving man who appears to be capable of killing his entire family on screen, but who ends up the victim of a three-decades-plus miscarriage of justice.
How do you do all that?
We met Freddie Fox in central London to ask him to break down the building blocks that helped him make a murderer.
1. Consider – carefully – very carefully – the part
“When the audition came in I was doing a play with my dad,” he says of the 2018 London West End production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, in which he shared the stage with Edward Fox, the veteran actor best known for The Day of the Jackal (1973). “We went out for dinner and I told him I was up for this role of Jeremy Bamber. I said I knew the name but I wasn’t sure why… And my dad said: ‘I know the name, and it doesn’t fill me with hope and excitement…’ Once I’d Wikipedia’d it, dad said: ‘Do you still want to do that?’ I said I’d read the scripts first.”
2. Have faith in the scripts
Fox “churned” through the scripts as fast as his dyslexia would allow him, “through the night”. He went back to his dad: “Yes, I do want to do this – it’s clearly fastidiously researched. And what makes me excited about my job is playing strange, elliptical, layered personalities. And Jeremy Bamber at the very least is that.”
Edward Fox still counselled caution: “Mmmm, OK. But see what you think with the director in the room. And be careful: because it’s not the doing of it that’s the problem. It’s the aftermath that’s hard.”
The younger Fox understood that. “People have very strong opinions [about the case] on both sides– and you are the keystone in the middle, who people see once a week on TV, and go: ‘Well, he is the representative of the entire show.’ It’s quite a big yoke. So I have to be careful, and dad was right.”
3. Meet the family
There is a lot of literature around the White House Farm killings. One is a book by Colin Cafell. Fox read In Search of the Rainbow’s End – and also The Murders at White House Farm by Carol Ann Lee – while in the hair and make-up chair at the Vaudeville Theatre during the run of An Ideal Husband.
“I talked to Colin extensively. He’s amazing and has been a linchpin for the production. Without his support and knowledge and advice the show wouldn’t have the same credence as it does. He came to my play a couple of times, and we sat in a hotel and talked over breakfast. I said: ‘Don’t answer anything you don’t want to answer.’ But he answered everything. He’s been on this journey and process of somehow letting the grief settle into something positive.
“Colin said that, at the time, the way Bamber presented himself was very odd. There was a kind of flatness to his aspect. And certainly Colin remembers Jeremy on the day of the funeral being more excited about driving Colin’s new yellow car and taking his friends for a spin – then he burst into tears very dramatically, as we all know [from the TV coverage]. Then Colin says that when Jeremy got round the corner, the cameras are gone and he gave Colin a smile.
“This is, again, one person’s account, and I wasn’t there. But I certainly wanted to make my Jeremy Bamber a much more enigmatic and plausible character.”
4. Meet the experts
“This is the fun bit for me: how do I piece together this jigsaw? So I interviewed a lot of officials connected with the case, who I won’t name because I don’t know if they’d want me to. And I went and talked to a criminal psychologist called David Wilson. He was actually an Assistant Governor of Wormwood Scrubs when Bamber was admitted in the mid-Eighties. We discussed the idea of my meeting Bamber, or at least making the approach. We decided not to.”
“My reasoning is that it’s 34 years on. He’s a different person. He obviously says he didn’t do it. He’s obviously going to be pushing a line that is not necessarily what is being portrayed in the script – and certainly it would be an opportunity for him to find out as much as he could. And I would be giving more than I’d be getting, perhaps.”
5. Boots on the ground
“I went to a lot of the locations on a two-day trip to Essex. I went to the church where the family were buried and saw their graves. Went to an area around Tolleshunt D’Arcy, to the pub where Jeremy and his friends would go all the time. And I went near to the farmhouse – it’s up a private road, it would have been inappropriate to go further. But I mainly wanted to get a feel for what Tolleshunt D’Arcy was like.
“I’ve lived on the south coast most of my life, and that area is about as rural and quiet a place in England as I’ve ever been. It didn’t feel like there was very much there, which was also quite informative. That’s another part of [creating] the psychology that goes into the treasure box, as it were.”
6. Ear to the ground
“I listened to Jeremy’s voice a lot, on the internet. There’s very little video – the researcher on the show found as much as there was, which is all him going in and out of police stations and the court. No interviews to camera, obviously. But I listened to his audio interviews online – there’s a few on The Guardian, a few on Essex Live, ones he did much later on. This is a man in his fifties. But I wanted to hear him, not to imitate him but so I could get the idiosyncrasies of his voice right and didn’t feel self-conscious when I got onset.
7. Get the look
Bamber was 24 at the time of the killings; Fox was 28 when he played him. “But I look so baby-faced anyway!”
For the shoot, the pale and fair Fox had his blonde locks and eyebrows died Bamber-black, and his hair was cut into a moppy Eighties fringe. The clobber helped, too.
“The moment I think people thought was most comparable, the main facsimile scene, is the funeral in episode four. The costume department found almost an exact match to the double-breasted Hugo Boss suit he wore. It’s the most photographed moment, and the most infamous image – and the one that makes people ask the most questions. And when we were doing that, it was very nice to hear people say: ‘You look right.’ In the pursuit of trying to lose yourself in the character as much as you can, that was great. It feels like a compliment to know that, at least on the surface level, you’re in the ballpark.”
8. Reach your own verdict, internally at least
“You have to make a decision. You can’t go [to viewers]: ‘Did I do this? Didn’t I do this? Did I do this? Didn’t I do this?’ So I did make a decision.”
And what was that decision?
“Ahhh… I don’t know if I can say that! Look, I can go as far as saying – and I say this purely as an actor, not as an official connected with the case; I’m just a person with an opinion – but as yet: I don’t see any evidence in the public domain at the moment that would warrant overturning that conviction.
“However: one has to remain open. I think he’s about to attempt to launch another appeal, and things may emerge. But that is the case as it stands now.”
9. But also, finally: serve the drama
“You are juggling: how convincing are you? How much real grief is in there for certain members of the family? How able are you to lie – how convincing are you? How much do you want to leave the viewer asking questions still? How enigmatic do you want that character to be? And certainly for the first three or four episodes, his enigmatic qualities are fascinating.”
Yes, this is an TV drama – one that, on the basis of viewing three episodes, is quietly gripping, anchored by a chillingly compelling performance from Fox-as-Bamber. And, necessarily, it features invented scenes and characters. Ultimately, though, White House Farm is about real people, living and dead.
“I don’t feel a duty of care to Jeremy Bamber per se,” reflects Fox, nor that it’s his place “to soapbox the argument” whether he should or shouldn’t be in prison. “But I particularly felt a duty of care to the twins. The boys would have been older than I am now, but not much. And there are certainly some difficult scenes – like when he hears the news of the deaths of his family.”
In that scene, Fox-as-Bamber’s reaction is, figuratively and literally, visceral: he vomits.
“Which supposedly he did. Although it was behind a hedge, so no one knows how much truth there was in that.
“It sounds odd,” he continues, “because, of course, if you’re of the opinion that Jeremy Bamber did kill these people, he’s inventing emotion to make people believe him. And that’s what I was doing: I was finding something to make people believe that I was grieving. But I was doing it for the kids.
“I don’t mean to sound like Bob Geldof,” Fox adds with a smile. “But I was doing it for the boys, to try and do the best job I could for this story that I think does good justice for them.”
What, finally, does White House Farm’s leading man want people to take away from his depiction of Jeremy Bamber, convicted murderer?
“Well, rather than my depiction of him, I would like people to take away from the show an extraordinary story, told well, which raises fascinating issues that are still relevant – the treatment of mental health, scene of crime officiation, police procedures, how we’ve come on exponentially from that time. And clearing away some of the salacious clutter that has surrounded a story that is at essence about the victims and how they were lost, tragically, and how those connected to them have suffered and come through that.”
Is Bamber a victim as well?
“Ha ha,” Freddie Fox replies with a dry laugh. “Depends who you ask. If you asked him, he would certainly say yes. If you asked others they would say no. And if you asked me, I’m an actor, and I’ll step back at that moment.”
White House Farm is on ITV from Wednesday 8th January at 9pm.