The Curious Case of the Ex-Model Accused of Murdering an Entire British Family
The HBO miniseries “The Murders at White House Farm,” premiering Sept. 24 on HBO Max, dramatizes the real-life 1985 killing of a family in rural England.
There’d be no true crime genre without law enforcement sloppiness, laziness, and obstinance. While some murderous mysteries are confounding simply due to their highly particular circumstances, a large number of such stories prove open-ended puzzles because detectives failed to secure a crime scene, properly examine evidence, interview the correct suspects, chase down all relevant leads, or do some other bit of basic police work that would have provided the information needed to identify and apprehend the culprit. For so many of the tales that become binge-watchable series, the answer would never have been in doubt had the men and women tasked with handling the case simply followed fundamental protocols, made common-sense assumptions, and taken all necessary precautions.
Yet another example of that reality comes via The Murders at White House Farm, a six-part drama—premiering Thursday, Sept. 24 on HBO Max, after debuting in the U.K. this past January (as simply White House Farm)—that’s based on a real-life tragedy that took place in England’s Essex county on August 7, 1985. That evening, local cops received a call from Jeremy Bamber (Freddie Fox), stating that he’d been phoned by his father Nevill (Nicholas Farrell), who claimed that his schizophrenic ex-model daughter Sheila (Cressida Bonas) had “gone berserk” with a gun. When two responding officers rendezvoused with Jeremy at his family’s White House Farm, they learned that Sheila had experience with a gun; consequently, they waited to act until reinforcements arrived.
In the early morning, a heavily-armed squad stormed the residence, only to discover that they were too late. Inside, they found the bodies of Nevill and his devout wife June (Amanda Burton) beaten and riddled with bullets, Sheila’s young twin sons Daniel (Nate Barrowcliffe) and Nicholas (Jude Barrowcliffe) executed in their beds, and Sheila dead, the victim of a seemingly self-inflicted gunshot wound.
To Detective Chief Inspector Taff Jones (Stephen Graham), this appears to be an open-and-shut murder-suicide, with Sheila—who was just released from a psychiatric hospital for long-standing issues—the shooter responsible for the slaughter. Reinforcing this theory is corroborating testimony from both the distraught Jeremy and Sheila’s ex-husband Colin (Mark Stanley), who dropped Sheila and the boys at her parents’ home a few days earlier, and who blamed strictly pious June with warping Sheila’s mind. Also bolstering this notion is the discovery that the house was locked from the inside, and that it exhibits no signs of forced entry or exit. At first glance, there’s scant reason to suspect that Sheila—found holding the rifle used in the attack, beside an open Bible—wasn’t the perpetrator of this atrocity.
Yet from the get-go, things seem fishy to Detective Sergeant Stan Jones (Mark Addy), who notices a variety of details that don’t add up, like the fact that 25 shots were fired in the massacre (all hitting their mark), meaning Sheila would have needed to reload the ten-shot rifle twice during the course of this melee—a task that would have been tough given that she was wearing a pocket-less nightgown, and that her family was spread out around the house. That her fingernails aren’t chipped and she doesn’t have any gunpowder residue on her hands is additionally strange, as is the discovery that she has two gunshot wounds to her neck, the second of which was fatal. Her slight frame also doesn’t jibe with the severe rifle-butt wounds found on Nevill. Thus, Stan begins snooping around, much to the infuriated frustration of Jones, the sort of arrogant officious dolt who cares more about quickly and definitively closing cases—thus pleasing his superiors—than getting to the heart of the matter.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that suspicions quickly turn to Jeremy, who as embodied by Fox is a duplicitous little weasel with slicked-back hair, posh attire, and eyes that are cold and calculating even when they’re welling up with crocodile tears. Based in part on books by Carol Ann Lee (The Murders at White House Farm) and Colin Caffell (In Search of the Rainbow’s End), The Murders at White House Farm makes no bones about who it really thinks did this dirty deed. Still, as directed by Paul Whittington, it treads a fine line between pointing an accusatory finger and creating ambiguity via a variety of small elements that suggest Sheila might have pulled the trigger. That said, it’s hard to imagine anyone coming away from the miniseries thinking Jeremy wasn’t culpable, if only because the evidence against him—both concrete and circumstantial, including eventual revelations about his love life with girlfriend Julie (Alexa Davies) and old friend Brett (Alfie Allen)—is so persuasive, and Fox’s performance is so creepily repugnant.
Fox is ably complemented by a stout Stanley, stubborn Graham, and furious Gemma Whelan as Jeremy’s skeptical cousin Ann, although ultimately, The Murders at White House Farm is energized by the stewardship of Whittington. To an almost obsessive degree, the director visualizes his action through doorways, window frames, and in narrow passageways, generally at a remove. It’s a formal template that makes it feel as if his characters are trapped in the coffin-like frame, not to mention suggests the limited vantage point that they—and we—have on the truth. Whittington’s alienating and constricting aesthetic device creates taut tension, and his employment of diagonal lines (especially in aerial views of the rural region, crisscrossed by roads) only further enhances the material’s sense of anxiety, foreboding, and dread.
As any Google search will reveal, there’s a definitive legal resolution to The Murders at White House Farm, no matter the continuing objections of some of the individuals involved in the story. In a certain respect, then, the series is a case study of the value of dogged police work, even in the face of bureaucratic obstacles. Yet the lingering impression left by this equally sad and sinister saga is that there never should have been a mystery to begin with, if only law enforcement had followed through on a real and thorough investigation from the start. It’s proof that jumping to conclusions, especially in instances of murder, usually only lands you in a hole out of which you later have to climb.