Episode 6: The FalloutThe Murders at White House Farm: The Podcast
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- 29 Oct 2020
For the sixth and final episode of the companion podcast to HBO Max’s The Murders At White House Farm, host Lauren Bright Pacheco talks to series Executive Producer Willow Grylls about the fallout of the case. Not only was it one of the most shocking events of the time, but the murders and their investigation had far-reaching and long-lasting consequences, the effects of which can still be seen and felt today. Among many other things, Willow explains the impact that the case had on the surviving members of the family, the way police investigations are conducted -- especially in terms of how forensic evidence is handled -- and how the widespread attitude towards mental health colored the investigation at the time and has shifted in the years since.
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Mr. Foreman, please stand. Will the defendant please stand to the question I'm about to ask? Please answer yes or no. Have the jury reached a verdict in respect of each count on which at least ten of you are agreed? Yes. Few cases have shocked Britain, like the one that occurred in the early hours of August 7th, 1985 at White House Farm in Essex, that night saw a family, including two six year old twin boys, brutally killed in one of the most notorious murder cases in British history.
Police initially thought it was Sheila Cofell diagnosed with schizophrenia who attacked her adoptive parents and children before shooting herself in an apparent murder suicide. But as further evidence was uncovered, it was her brother, Jeremy Bamber, who was eventually charged with and convicted for the murders. The grim events of that night. The ensuing trial and the media frenzy surrounding it have been recreated some 35 years later in the gripping new Biomax true crime series, the murders at White House Farm across six episodes.
The series, based on Carolyn Lees book of the same name, tells the devastating story of what happened, not just retracing events as they unfolded, but also highlighting how the aftershocks of that terrible evening would last for years. I'm Lauren Pacheco, and welcome to the sixth and final episode of the official companion podcast to the HBO series The Murders at White House Farm. Over the past five episodes, I've spoken with individuals who were either instrumental in the making of the series or close to the case itself.
Colin Cofell, ex-husband of Sheila Cofell and the father to the youngest victims of the murders, Carolyn Leigh, the author of the book. The series was based on series director Paul Whitington and series writer Chris Mirza. Today for this last episode, I'll be talking with the executive producer of the show, Willo Grillz, to examine the fallout of the events that night, both the harrowing immediate effects and the long term consequences of what happened.
We'll find out what Willo, who had never taken on the true crime genre before, found so compelling about the case that it made her want to get involved in the series and why the shocking and tragic events still resonate profoundly today. More than three decades after the event took place will also learn how the show delicately balanced the line between its dramatized version of events and the reality they were depicting, but really will be exploring in depth the ramifications that the murders, the investigation and the trial had on the family, as well as the wider implications that they had on police conduct and attitudes towards mental health down the line and how all of this was portrayed in the television series.
Here now is my conversation with Willo Girls. What personally drew you to the story of the murders at White House Farm? I had never made a true crime show before, and although Chris Murchú and I had worked together before, that was on a fictional drama and he bought me, Carol, and meticulously researched book, it goes without saying that this was an unbelievably shocking crime. But in addition, it is a crime that has been mired in controversy for decades, not least because of the failings of the initial police investigation.
And finally, it was also a tragedy that went straight to the heart of a family.
There have been attempts to dramatize this story before in the UK, but I didn't think anyone had done justice to the human story that I was so struck by in Carol's book, but also in Colin's book.
And I know you've spoken to Colin as well as Carol. Once we had Colin's blessing, I felt that we had an opportunity here to do justice to a human story in a way that felt possibly cathartic.
I know you've referred to it as a story of family and an unimaginable human tragedy that affected many people. I can't imagine that didn't place extra pressure on you in terms of making the series.
That's so true, you feel a great way of responsibility when making a program about a true story, and it's so important to get that right. I think through the whole process, through the development, the production and the post-production process, we were constantly having discussions about where the line should be drawn to ensure that we made this with the utmost integrity and authenticity, really.
Had you heard of the story, how familiar were you with the story before you read Carol Annelies book?
I was a teenager when this happened and I had a bit of an awareness of it because my grandparents come from a similar area in the UK, but I didn't know the detail.
And once I got into the detail, there were so many different aspects to this story that are really fascinating, but also really affecting, you know, Brits are known for their aggressive tabloids, but the press almost plays this role of malevolent force that's kind of unfolding during the series in the course of the investigation. How accurate is that portrayal of the press when compared to what happened in real life?
I think that's very true. I mean, was certainly the case is right from the beginning, the tabloid press in the UK amplified and distorted the police's initial presumptions about the case in a way that has taken years to challenge and reframe.
This was a terrible tragedy that created a tabloid frenzy. It was a massacre of a family in bucolic English countryside. You know, you had Sheila, who was portrayed as solely a glamorous model who'd gone crazy with the gun. They distorted her mental illness and used it to justify their own narratives. And then, of course, Jeremy, it's so interesting, the role Jeremy played in the press. He was initially the grieving matinee idol. And then as the case turned, he became someone quite different and he became someone who was courting the press.
In fact, there's a moment in the show where you see him trying to record his own television appearance at the funeral. There's many layers to this and the tabloid press don't come off very well.
I actually went back to look at the actual footage and you very much stuck to the reality of how he preened for the cameras.
I mean, one of the other challenges of this program was we needed to stay true to the spirit of the truth. But so many aspects of this were really unbelievable and so many aspects of Jeremy's behavior were really hard to fathom and understand. But in that instance, all we needed was to stay. We didn't need to put that up in any way. You can see it for yourself as you have done.
Did you feel or remember at the time, the tide of the press's support and empathy for Jeremy turn as the investigation turned?
Absolutely. I mean, I don't remember it, but through all our research, you can see that clearly happening. And of course, it then really turns when he tries to sell the photographs of Sheila to the press later on. And I think that was a real turning point. It's impossible to understand the motivation, whether or not you believe that he is an innocent victim or a cold hearted killer, why anybody would try to sell inflammatory pictures of a deceased loved one is beyond.
I think that's so true. And I think one of the hardest legacies in all of this are the way that the press characterized Schiller, even after the verdict exonerated her, has taken years to reframe and indeed the way that the press amplified divisions within the family. It's cast a very long shadow. It's not something that's gone away quickly. And in fact, in many ways, it's still present for the surviving family within the UK.
When we spoke to Colin, his disdain for the way in which the press treated the grieving family members is just palpable.
It was very, very unpleasant. My father tried to jam his phone open so that if you tried to pick up a phone or leave it off the hook, they were listening, trying to eavesdrop on a conversation. They tried to push their way into my flat when my girlfriend came to let herself in.
That was actually awful because we had to draw the curtains. They're all outside the house screaming, just terrible aggression. And they behaved like a pack of hyenas outside of every house. They were trying to break the news to people who didn't know very close friends of mine were approached by people who are very close to the twins. And they broke the news to them because they wanted to photograph the reactions of people if they managed to actually break the news to them.
They're just hungry for tragedy and blood and guts and all of that sort of stuff.
They tried to break the news to Sheila's ninety six year old grandmother, who hadn't been told there was one distracting the housekeeper at the front door and one was trying to sneak in the back door of the farmhouse to go up and tell the old lady it was absolutely appalling. I think the British tabloid press were probably some of the worst in the world, and I don't mind saying so. I I'd love an apology from them.
One day, as you can hear from him, it's still so raw and I can. And of course, it's completely understandable. It was already a shocking tragedy, but the press just amplified it in a way that made it so difficult to move beyond it in terms of the impact it had on the family and people close to the family.
Do you think that that is realistically depicted in the series in terms of hounding them?
Yes, I do think it's realistically depicted. I mean, one of the real challenges of making any dramatization of a true story is you're confined by the amount of time on screen. We only had six hours and actually we didn't even have six full hours. And it's an incredibly complex case and there are so many aspects to this.
So, I mean, what's certainly true is that the family were all hounded in different ways by the press. And there have been many investigations in the UK about the way that the tabloid press have dealt with things subsequently.
So I do think we very accurately portrayed that. But of course, the other thing I was talking about was how hard it is to include everything in a story like this.
You know, one of the challenges of making a program like this is to distill everything so that you're true to the spirit of the truth, even if you can't feature every single detail.
By the time we get to the verdict and the impact that it had on all the key players, you grew close to Colin and you were a huge part of his agreeing to even take part in the series. But what do you think the verdict meant to Colin in terms of vindicating Sheila? And just personally?
Colin is a remarkable, remarkable man, and I feel really honoured to know him and his family. There's no question that the verdict exonerated Sheila. It cleared Sheila's name, and that was very important. And that was the first step on Colin's journey to transcend this awful tragedy. And it's something he's done, which is truly remarkable and and hopeful and positive in the face of unimaginable grief, really. But what's frustrating is, although the verdict did clear Sheila's name, there is a difference between the verdict and closure.
And it took Colin many years to achieve some kind of closure, I think. And also that verdict, although exonerated Sheila.
It was highly contested and continues to be highly contested by Jeremy himself, and that means that it hasn't been a clear exoneration for Sheila. And I think that's one of the important things that I hope that we've managed to do in making this program is to really draw a line under that and to make that clear and explicit.
Do you find the defendant guilty or not guilty of the murder of Neville Bambam guilty on the second count? Do you find the defendant guilty or not guilty of the murder of June Bamber?
Guilty on the third count, the murder of Sheila Cofell, guilty. Fourth count Nicholas Cofell guilty. Fifth count Daniel Cofell guilty.
In many ways, the fact that it continues to be such a polarizing verdict in the UK must make it almost like a scab that keeps getting torn for Colin.
I think that's completely right. And not just for Colin, but the other surviving and extended family members who have all been affected by this and continue to be affected by it. Also as a pure crime. There are so many grey areas in this case that were really amplified by the botched police job that happened. And as a consequence, Jeremy Bamber and his supporters have been able to exploit those grey areas. And that just kind of prolongs the agony. And so a very important part for us in making this program was to bring some light to those grey areas.
I know we've touched a little bit upon the fact that Colin had a tremendous comfort level with you and that's why he agreed to even take part in the series. Did that create a certain amount of responsibility on your end in terms of safeguarding him from the kind of trauma that this could trigger, reliving it for the show? Unquestionably.
And so we took things very carefully all the way through. But what was incredible about Colin was I mean, even I think on the day that I sat down with him and showed him the first two episodes, I think I was more nervous than he was.
And this is a big part of his life, but he is not defined by this. And so, yes, we were unbelievably careful. Yes, I felt a huge weight of responsibility. And yes, in every step that we took through this, I wanted to make sure that his care and the care of the wider family was always at the forefront of our minds. But Colin is a remarkable man and he made that possible for us, which was very generous of him.
I can't imagine sitting beside him as you see the police officers going through the house and identifying the bodies, particularly his sons.
Exactly. It was really hard. Not that my emotions have any place in this at all, but I obviously felt really confident of the decisions that we'd made in terms of every small detail. And I'd spent a long time through the process describing to Colin and talking him through every single choice we'd made. So there were no surprises for him. And yet, of course, it was a huge moment to show him those first two episodes and then to show him the rest of the program equally.
I know that it was also incredibly important to him that Sheila be portrayed in an accurate manner. And you didn't have a lot of screen time with her character. What decisions went into the way in which you handled the depiction of her mental struggles and also her portrayal in the press?
That's completely right. And it's one of the biggest challenges of the show as a whole, because we really only have a small amount of time when we get to know Sheila as an audience. And that's about half of episode one if that and a third of Episode five. And in that we need to communicate to the audience. Yes, she was an incredible, loving mother, but we also need to not shy away from her mental health struggles. And we also need to characterise a little of her relationships within that family, her relationship with her mother and her father, her relationship with her brother, and obviously the relationship with Colin.
My only regret is that we didn't have more time to see more detail of Sheila's story before she was cruelly murdered. I'm very pleased that Colin feels that we've ultimately done justice to her, and that's a great comfort to me. But. I know there are so many moments that I would have loved to have included if we'd have been able to. Colin tells me you've got a job. Just housecleaning, not modeling any than no. I really appreciate you inviting me here tonight.
Oh, come inside, let's have a housewarming gift to the inmates, not me. Can I get you anything else? Sheila, can I get you anything? I'm fine, Carol and Lee said that Sheila was murdered twice, once in the farmhouse and again by the press. Do you think that the damage that the tabloids did to her was beyond salvage in terms of the series? In other words, will she not be remembered the way in which you and Colin would like to see her remembered?
I would hate to be arrogant enough to think that we're responsible for overturning that, but I do think that attitudes towards mental health have changed. There have been four appeals that have been turned down by Jeremy. I think that people understand the choices that we made in the way that we characterize Sheila. And I would hope that cumulatively all of those things have started the process of reversal. If not reversed it, it would be so heartbreaking to think that it wouldn't be possible to redeem Sheila.
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Moving on to Jeremy, there is a very vocal, very active campaign on his behalf, he has a tremendous amount of supporters still. Did they reach out to you during or after the production? Yes, Jeremy supporters did reach out to us at one stage during production, and we just wanted to make sure that this is the product of years of meticulous research, and we felt that we had covered every single angle. And we obviously looked at all the literature that they've created as well, because we needed to test every aspect of that for ourselves, especially in terms of the aspects of the crime that are still so contested.
But we did take the decision not to reach out to Jeremy. It wasn't something we felt the need to do.
Did he ever try to reach out to you directly? No, he didn't. That's interesting because just in terms of his need for attention, but I guess he has other people who are willing to do it on his behalf.
Jeremy has a huge group of very active supporters.
Was there one thing in the series that really triggered them? Was there one thing that they latched on to? Carolyn Lee mentioned putting Crispi down, of all things.
The irony is that actually Jeremy and this is the subject of records, did many things that were quite hard to fathom. And if we chosen to dramatize them, would have looked relatively negative.
And actually, I think we were very careful in our minds. To be fair to Jeremy, we needed to reflect the truth of the story, but we also needed to be fair. And some of the things that happened, we just chose not to show.
That's interesting because I did feel that there was a very balanced and very intentional decision to leave some doubt at the end, I think in my view, anyone watching the show will come to the conclusion that we all came to.
But we obviously in some way needed to reflect the fact that there are people that don't agree with that.
Do you think there will ever really be any true closure as to what happened that night? I think legally there has been true closure in that there have been four appeals and they've all reinforced the verdict of the initial trial and those appeals have been bought on different grounds and on all grounds. They have again reinforced the findings of the initial trial. And, of course, Jeremy Bamber and his supporters have always talk about the fact that there's something that they're about to come out with that will change things.
But in order to really change things, they need to come up with new material evidence. And the idea that they would come up with that at this point I think is unlikely.
Also, I think that a case like this really pushes the realms or the definition of the word justice.
I don't know if there is any such thing as justice when you're dealing with a crime of this magnitude. It's a question even that I was left with after I read Colin's book. He has had this incredible resilience.
And the positivity that he's taken from this horror is truly inspirational. But there really isn't any way to right this wrong.
I think that's right. And I think Colin, I'm sure, would say the same. And so then it's about each individual trying to work out how they will make sense and move on from it.
And what is truly remarkable about Colin is the fact that he resolutely didn't want to be a victim of this. He didn't want this to define his life.
And although this is absolutely and always will be a part of his life, he has managed to transcend it in so many different ways. He he is not just the man who's this unbelievable tragedy happened to. He's also an amazing artist, an amazing father and amazing husband.
And so the court case gives us a verdict, but it doesn't bring justice and it doesn't bring closure.
That's something much harder. One.
In terms of the long term impact of this case on many different areas of not only the judicial system of the tabloid press, but it was such a high profile case and so many eyes were on it, particularly in terms of the police bungling, did that lead to any sort of reform in terms of the way in which the police conduct their investigations?
The trial and the whole investigation obviously laid bare the failings of the police on so many different levels. And the reputation of the police in the UK was damaged for years afterwards. And even now, there are still cries of corruption from Jeremy Bemba and his followers that continue to taint reputations. However, the case was a real turning point in how crime scenes subsequently were handled. And it was a real turning point. And it meant that things that happened in respect to this crime just didn't happen again.
So, for instance, all crime scenes that involved gunshots were then treated as homicides until proven otherwise. That's just one example of the many changes that came about as a result of the things that happened in relation to this case.
We've got a media circus, Warmerdam out there, so I want this wrapped up quick. Right. You're saying it's murder suicide then? I'm not just saying that's what happened. They killed them all and she shot herself.
How the other long term impact of this case is the way that Sheila was characterized in the way her mental illness was characterized. And it would be great to say that this case was a turning point in the perception of mental illness. But the reality, as we all know, is that it wasn't the perceptions of mental illness. They have changed a huge amount in the last three to four decades. But there is still some way to go.
Well, I always point out that mental illness is one of the few illnesses that people actually define an entire person by. You'd never look at a person and say, oh, she's breast cancer or, oh, he's leukemia.
But people will say she's schizophrenic, he's bipolar, as if the illness becomes the entirety of the person.
Yeah, that's so right. And it's the danger of the single story, isn't it? And for too long, a single story about Sheila was that she was a mad model, went crazy with a gun, and that's just not the case. And none of us should be defined by those single stories.
Was that also a challenge for you, too? You just touched upon the MADD model, but because Jeremy and Sheila were so incredibly telegenic, it was a story on many levels made for television.
But I didn't feel that you ever sensationalized that with either character.
There is no question that one of the other most important things to us in making this program was to avoid any kind of sensationalism or gratuitous nurse, both in the depiction of the crime, but also, as you say, in the depiction of children, Jeremy, who are both very good looking and photogenic. And we deliberately didn't want to exploit that in a way that would feel uncomfortable.
I thought the casting was brilliant for both of them because they're both obviously wonderful looking actors. But you never really relied heavily on their looks. It was their acting. Cresta bonus in such a small amount of screen time bought Shela so vividly to life, she really did an incredible job and Fredi such a difficult part because it would be so easy to have played the part of Jeremy in one way.
But actually, Freddy just imbued him with so much subtext. And it's really a delight to watch that performance and deeply uncomfortable.
Of course, you talked about what drew you to doing the series initially, and I know that the human component of it was very compelling for you. What do you want the legacy of the series to be? I would love the legacy of this series to draw the line under this case so no one needs to make another program about it.
I'd love the legacy to be that, again, we've shone a light in some of the grey areas of the case, the more contested areas, so that actually we brought some clarity where previously areas were mired in controversy and therefore vulnerable to being interpreted in certain ways. But ultimately, I think the most important thing for me would be that it goes towards exonerating Sheila and reflects the wider impact of this tragedy, not just on Colin, but also on the wider family who were so heroic in their pursuit of finding the truth and, of course, the impact on some of the police investigators who were involved in the case.
I would hope that that is one of the most important legacies of the program.
I also like the fact that it doesn't tie up with a perfect bow at the end, but Colin's final statement really embodies all of the goals that you've just expressed.
Yeah, that was really important to us. I mean, that's a kind of dramatic license because Colin didn't actually make a statement at that time. But I think by dramatizing that what we were trying to do was to show a glimpse to Colin's journey and actually another way of building Colin's book into the into the program.
He refers to that speech when he spoke to us as a tremendous gift.
Oh, that's right.
Again, that's hugely generous of him having now completed. When you take the chance to go back and look at the six episodes in their entirety, is there any moment that you felt we got that just right or just one of the episodes that you are particularly fond of?
It's really hard to choose one episode over another. I feel that we were so rigorous in our decision making.
I feel ultimately really confident and comfortable with all the decisions we made all the way through. And I don't mean that in any arrogant way at all, but it's such a complicated case that I think it's too easy to kind of fetishize one part of it. And I hope that over the whole arc of the series that we've done justice to this story in a way that is both authentic and stands as a kind of tribute to the people who were most touched and suffered by it.
I know that Stan Jones obviously passed away long before the series, but I can only hope that his extended family takes some comfort in the fact that he really is portrayed as a hero in this.
There are some positives to be taken from this story. There are many, but there's the heroism of Stan Jones and the other police officers like him who didn't toe the line and challenge the status quo. That's equally the heroism and the persistence of Jeremy's wider family, like additon, who again were dogged in their pursuit of the truth in the face of their own grief and tragedy at losing their family members. And then, of course, there's also Colin and I know I've touched on Colin a lot today, but Colin's story and the way that he has managed to transcend this tragedy is an incredible and inspiring positive.
It really is. And you are kind of providing a glimmer of hope in that, even in the worst of human experiences, that we can find some kind of higher purpose in our humanity, whether it's the pursuit of justice or the defense of those unable to defend themselves. I think that's really beautifully put. And I think if people get a sense of that at the end, I think that would be wonderful. And that brings the sixth and final episode of the podcast to a close, I'd like to thank Willow for joining me to discuss the fallout of the crime and all the far reaching effects that it had and as we've seen, still has to this day.
I'd also like to thank again all the guests who appeared on the previous episodes, Paul Whitington, Colin Cofell, Carolyn Lee and Chris Merza, for helping me to really dig deep into the heart of this case and the series itself.
Finally, I'd like to thank you, the listener, for joining me on this journey beyond the series. And for all of your feedback along the way, I should also note that because of this podcast, I was actually contacted by a member of the official, Jeremy Bamber Innocence Campaign team, who claimed there is new exculpatory evidence that they say will clear Jeremy Bambas name and prove his innocence. Whether you're part of this minority faction or amongst the majority of those who believe justice was indeed served, the one inarguable truth about this case is that the aftermath of the murders at White House Farm remains a living, breathing entity.
The murders at White House Farm, the podcast is a production of Biomax and I Heart Radio hosted by me Lauren Bright Pachuco. The podcast is produced by Ethan Fix, well written and researched by Mischa Perlman and engineered, edited and mixed by James Foster. If you haven't already subscribed, rated or reviewed the murders at White House Farm, the podcast, please do so at the I Heart radio app, Biomax, Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
And of course you can watch all the episodes of the series itself available to stream now on HBO, Max.