On August 6-7, 1985, an entire family was shot to death in a remote farmhouse in the British county of Essex. At first, a woman named Sheila Caffell was implicated, as she was suffering from schizophrenia and she was found with a rifle pointed toward her head, supposedly having killed herself. But the case took a turn as police continued to investigate. The Murders At White House Farm is a fictionalization of that case, but one that tries to stay as close to the true story as possible.
Opening Shot: After a disclaimer saying that the story about to be told is true, adapted through research and a couple of non-fiction books about the case, bit some character names were changed and scenes added to help dramatization, we see a farm house in the dead of night. It’s August 7, 1985.
The Gist: We then see the darkened interior of the house, almost deadly silent. Then the phone loudly rings at a local police station. A man named Jeremy Bamber (Freddie Fox) tells them that he got a distressful call from his dad that his sister had “going crazy” and was shooting off a gun.
We flash to four days earlier, at a housewarming party for Colin Caffell (Mark Stanley) and his new wife Heather (Grace Calder), we see Sheila Caffell (Cressida Bonas), who seems to be in distress. She’s on new meds for an unspecified mental illness that’s making her a bit mushy and tired, and she spaces out when Heather tries to talk to her. She seems alarmed that her brother, the aforementioned Jeremy Bamber, is there, but is delighted to see her twin 6-year-old boys Nicholas (Jude Barrowcliffe) and Daniel (Nate Barrowcliffe). Jeremy ensures Colin that he’ll look after his sister after he drives them out to their family farm the next day.
On the drive out, Sheila is distant and troubled. Her parents, Nevill (Nicholas Farrell) and June (Amanda Burton) are an old-fashioned, religious family who don’t quite understand their daughter’s illness. During dinner, Colin makes waves by asking that June not make the boys get on their knees to pray. At the same time, Sheila begs Colin to tell her parents that she needs to change her meds, because the ones they have her on have her in a bad way. He promises to tell them when he comes back at the end of the weekend to get the boys.
After Jeremy calls the cops about his father’s phone call, two officers meet him at the White House Farm. The farmhouse is not only eerily silent, but no one is answering the phone. The cops call for backup, and a SWAT team arrives, led by DCI Taff Jones (Stephen Graham), who tells DC Mick Clark (Scott Reid) that “Either there’s four hostages and a nutter with a gun, or there’s four murders and a nutter with a gun.”
The SWAT team forces their way in and, indeed, everyone inside is dead, including Sheila and, sadly, her twin sons. Sheila is holding a rifle and appears to have killed herself. At least that’s the conclusion Taff makes. When Jeremy is told that everyone inside is dead, he throws up, almost passes out, then is in denial that any of them is dead.
A veteran officer, DS Stan Jones (Mark Addy) arrives on the scene to make sure Jeremy and, later, Colin are OK. After he talked to Jeremy, though, he goes back to the crime scene and notices a few anomalies that would indicate that Sheila didn’t kill herself, but rather she was murdered along with the rest of her family. He tries to tell Taff to not break up the crime scene, and that things don’t add up. Taff, no fan of Stan’s, tells him that the press is swarming the farm, there’s governmental pressure to keep the case low-key, and it seems that a murder-suicide is the conclusion they’re going with.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? The Murders At White House Farm (original title: White House Farm) could fit right in with any recent true-crime fictionalizations, like the two seasons of Dirty John, The Act, Unbelievable, and others.
Our Take: We didn’t know anything about the White House Farm murders that took place in August 1985 before we sat down to watch The Murders At White House Farm. But we didn’t need to know about the murders to know that things were not going to be what they seem to be on first glance. And that’s the problem we have with this British miniseries, written by Kris Mrksa and Giula Sandler. Even though we don’t know the case, we could see where the show was going, and were dreading spending the five additional episodes it was going to take to get there.
The first episode moves a little slowly, and it doesn’t particularly give much of any backstory to Sheila, her mental illness (supposedly she suffered from schizophrenia) or her relationship with her family. All we know is that she was in a bad way, she and her sons went to her parents’ farm, and by the end of the weekend, everyone was dead.
But, it feels like Stan and Mick, whom Stan has been partnered with, will keep pursuing the angle that Sheila didn’t do it and Jeremy did, while we learn more about Jeremy as the series goes along. There’s the matter of his girlfriend Julie Mugford (Alexa Davies) and what the two of them were discussing when Jeremy’s cousin Ann Eaton (Gemma Whelan) accidentally overheard them, and there’s also the improbable phone call that Jeremy claims his father made to tell Jeremy that Sheila had “gone berserk.”
It doesn’t feel like a spoiler to say that Jeremy is likely the one who did it, and we wonder why the show is going to need so much time to reach that conclusion.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: Stan has a smoke and looks distressingly as the bodies are led away down the long country road leading to the farmhouse.
Sleeper Star: Stephen Graham is a veteran character actor, and he plays Stan’s dickish boss Taff quite well. He’s the guy who would just rather close the case than find the truth, and those characters can sometimes be cartoonish. Taff is not one of those characters.
Most Pilot-y Line: “Your job’s a nice and easy one: Lookin’ after the family. So are we all right?” Taff to Stan, in one of his most dickish lines.
Our Call: SKIP IT. Despite good performances from Fox, Addy and Graham, The Murders At White House Farm feels like it wants to tell a deeper story about these notorious murders from the ’80s but just can’t bring itself to do it.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.