“It’s a real moral conundrum. What do we want police officers to do?” - Writer Jeff Pope talks creating new drama A Confession
The complex business of police procedure and protocol goes under the microscope in new ITV drama A Confession.
Based around the real-life hunt to catch the killer of 22-year-old Sian O’Callaghan in 2011, we follow Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher, who takes charge of the case.
Quickly, police arrest local taxi driver Christopher Halliwell, and, with time running out, Fulcher still hopes to find Sian alive – which is why he makes the unusual decision to question Halliwell before he cautions him or gives him access to a solicitor.
It is a decision that pays off in the short-term, but has disastrous consequences in the long-term…
Martin Freeman plays Fulcher, with Imelda Staunton, Daniel Betts, Charlie Cooper, Siobhan Finneran, Joe Absolom and Florence Howard in supporting roles.
Jeff Pope, the man behind The Moorside and Little Boy Blue, is in charge of this series, which will go out over six parts.
As the series hits DVD shelves, we spoke to Pope about why he felt the case was made for TV drama...
How did the series come about? Did the real-life story catch your eye immediately?
“I heard about the story at the time in 2014. That was a story about a police officer being disciplined, he’d got a confession from a serial killer, but he hadn’t cautioned him first and the confessions were thrown out in court and the police officer lost his career. Straight away, I thought that was really interesting.”
Why was that?
“Fulcher was hoping that Sian O’Callaghan was still alive and he had her rights as a victim and the rights of Halliwell as a suspect. Those were colliding and he had to make a call. He took a tactical decision not to caution him, which had massive ramifications.”
“He was hoping Sian that is still alive and his rationale is that her right to life is more important than Haliwell's rights as a suspect. He knows if he reads him his rights, the first of those is ‘You have the right to remain silent’ and he doesn’t want him to do that. His calculation is that saying to Haliwell ‘Tell me where she is, tell me where she is’, will work. And it does. He gets through to him.”
“He admits to the murder and takes him to the body. Then Halliwell says to Fulcher, 'Do you want another one?' and he has to take the same decision. His judgement is that if he cautions him, it shuts a door that is only open ajar. Then all hell breaks loose, he loses his career and his reputation.”
Which is where you get the drama...
“It’s a real moral conundrum. What do we want police officers to do? How do we want them to be motivated? But there's the law. Something went wrong between those things and could go wrong again. It’s not like it’s resolved. Fulcher told me about officers being in a similar situation and erring on the side of caution so they don’t lose their careers, like he did.”
Do you hope this drama might spark a debate about the way the law works? Does the Police and Criminal Evidence Act need reviewing?
“I don’t want to go back to the 70s and 80s when you had suspects being shut in rooms and confessions being beaten out of them. But since the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, there are now more solicitors in the UK than police officers. You can see that those scales are tipped that way.”
“Interview evidence is also hard for police now. They use DNA and other physical evidence almost exclusively because every solicitor will advise their clients to not incriminate themselves. All you get is ‘No comment’. Is that what the act was brought in to achieve?”
You said you wanted to make sure that both sides of the argument were put across. Was that a challenge?
“I’ve tried to set out what happened. This drama isn’t a plea for Steve Fulcher. I want to start a debate, but I’ve not come down on one side of it. I’ve had lots of people say to me, 'Why didn’t Fulcher just lie and say that he did caution him?'. It would have been Halliwell’s word against his, but Fulcher didn’t. He was unapologetic. He didn’t do what he did in bad faith. He had nothing to hide. He took a decision tactically in the hope he could preserve life.”
Did you always have Martin Freeman in mind for the role of Fulcher?
“It came after I met Fulcher and he was the first person I thought of. Then it got serious when I started working with Paul Andrew Williams as director. He’d worked with Martin on a drama called The Eichmann Show and so it was easier to get a line of communication open. That was the only other real-life character he’s played before and he’d never met someone he’d played, so it was a really interesting experience for him.”
What was it about him that you liked for the role?
“Martin has an everyman quality to him. From the outside, Fulcher would be easy to portray as a maverick cop. A guy who works outside the law and says ‘I’m doing it my way’. Actually, Steve Fulcher is quite an unassuming person and the opposite of that Jack Regan type. He’s had a model career up until that moment. Fulcher’s ordinariness makes him interesting and I knew Martin could inhabit that.”
You’ve had the support of Steve Fulcher’s family, which must have been important...
“The project wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t want to do it. The projects I do only happen that way. For every project you see on screen, there are four or five where we’ve made enquiries and the family didn’t want to do it. If the family were in the press speaking out about the drama, the series would be dead. I took both families through every page of the script before we started.”
But it’s not a documentary, it has to work as a thriller…
“People say to me, ‘Why did you make it as a drama? Why not just do a documentary?’. The key reason is emotion. You can do that in a drama, you can show what people are going through, rather than just sticking to the facts of what happened. The task is to ride both horses. You have to be accurate, I don’t make up things to make it work as a drama, but you do have to make allowances. That case probably had 60 officers working on it and you have to boil that down to half a dozen. An audience can understand that.”
Finally, what’s next for you? What’s lined up?
“I’m doing the story of the woman you found the body of Richard III in a car park in Leicester. That’ll be a movie. The next thing for ITV is The Barking Murders, which we’re filming now.”