In the late 70s Margaret Thatcher was begining to develop one of the most well known tennants of Thatcherisim the often quoted “there is not such thing as society,” which like many quotes, think Marx and religion being the opium of the massess, has become unmoored from it’s context. However the impact of the quote wether moored or not, is still important. It came to symbolise the 1980s, the rise of the individual, the end of conformisim, and the begining of the errosion of the social saftey net which continues forty years on.
While crime, and specifically murder has always happened no matter the political atmosphere, some crimes can end up becoming lodged in the memory, because they somehow tipyfy either the spirit or the fears of the age in which they are committed. So it was when it comes to the WhiteHouse Farm Murders, a family anihilation.
The murders were not named after the family, the Bambers, as is often the case. Instead they were named after the family home. Homes in literature, and particularily English literature have always been symbolic of class. The gothic novel often set in castles, symbolised the collapse of the aristocracy. The golden age of crime was often set in country houses which symbolised the post-war collapse of the upper middle classes. The current renting and housing crisis, which started long before the pandemic with the sell off of social housing (another Thathcher policy) may produce another set of interesting writing about our fears and what homes and houses mean.
In the White House Farm we see a similar threat to the middle class residing and working in rural areas, active in their community and conforming to increasingly outdated religious expectations which are typafied by Neville and June Bamber. The glamours new age of individualisim is symbolised by their adoptive children, model Sheilah and want-to-be playboy sometimes drug dealer and theif, Jeremy. Their grandchildren, who were also murdered, of course symbolise as all children do no matter the genre, hope for the future.
The murders were committed by Jeremy who rejected his parents ethos of hard work, and wanted instead easy money to fund the lifestyle he felt entitled to. However all the money was locked up in the farm, and his parents, sister and nephews all stood in the way of inheriting.
Once the murders took place the police were quick, not to point the finger at Jeremy with his obvious motive, but Sheila. Sheila had been previously hospitalised for schitzophrenia, and a combination of stigma and prejudice meant that for some time she was seen as the only obviouse culprit.
The six part drama series White House Farm, follows the investigation into the case from the death of the Bambers to Jeremy’s arest, including the internal politics of the police. Ironically for a murder which embodies the tension between conformity and individualisim, it is within the ranks of the police that we see this tension play out in reverse. The consensous that Sheliah unable to cope with her mental health problems commited the murders on a break from reality was shattered by the tenacity of DI Stan Jones who rather than conforming to the view of his superiors doggedly persued his individual theory and helped family members who also shared suspicions about Jeremy and his behaviour.
While Jeremy his crime and targets typified the tension around the rise of the yuppie with all the superficiality it entailed, the story of the investigation shows how necessery individualisim is to avoid group think, and encourage flexibility and adaptation. Leaving the series as a whole to show how absolutes at either end of this scale are undesirable and instead we can expect that culture, society, communities and individuals will swing between both of them over time. It would be foolish to try and stop such swings, as they are the natural order of things, but rather it is possible to maybe make sure such swings are less extream and therefore less distressing, allowing ourselves to approach society, and that which is emerging as alien to us, with a more curious kindness than violent fear.
The drama gives a good overview on the case and the people involved. However where it really comes alive is in the accompanying podcast, also called The White House Farm Murders. The ability to dive into interviews with those who were involved in the case, and especially Colin Caffell, ex-husband to Sheilah and father to her twin boys. Caffell has spent much of his life working in pshycotherapy with others who have dealt with trauma and now lives quietly in Cornwall persuing his artistic ambitions. He is a man who has been through much, but it is also possible to see that he has come to a place where he is able to be incredibly thoughtful about his experience, and to have to a certain extent made a peace with it. On the podcast we are told this is the last time that Caffell will be talking publicly about the murders, and while listening it is easy to hear how his involvemnt with the drama series helped underpin it with authenticity as well as respect.
There is always a tension in true crime dramas between telling the truth but also creating a drama that actully works on screen. The ethics of how people are portrayed when they have been real people, with all the complexitites and paradoxs that we contain, especially when they are no longer able to speak for themselves is very tricky. The podcast of White House Farm Murders goes some way to aliaying any fears viewers might have surrounding the ethics of this particular drama.
Considering recent controverseys around dramas about Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer it might improve recepetion of this type of drama if they were all to take the same approach and be transparent about their decision making, thoughtfully discussing the case in greater detail on an accompanying podcast. It is also a fascinating glimpse into how producers, writers, consultants and actors work to make a series. Anyone who is interested in the portrayal of true crime and where it mets drama will find watching the TV show, and then listening to the podcast a rewarding experience.