This article contains spoilers for all episodes, and discusses depictions of domestic physical and psychological violence and elder abuse.
The Sixth Commandment on BritBox is a 4 part limited series that dramatizes the real-life investigation into the murders of two British senior citizens Peter Farquhar (Timothy Spall) and Ann Moore-Martin (Anne Reid) and the search for the primary suspect Ben Field (Éanna Hardwicke). The story is told from the viewpoint of the victims and their families raising their concerns to the police.
GBH Drama spoke to The Sixth Commandment creator and writer Sarah Phelps and director Saul Gibb about their creative process, their approach to responsibly handling and depicting trauma, and why the story resonates with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GBH Drama: How did The Sixth Commandment come to be?
Sarah Phelps: Well, it came about because there was a documentary film company in the United Kingdom called True Vision which makes films for Channel Four. One of them was “A Diary from the Grave” which was about how Peter Farquhar's diary had helped to convict the primary suspect. True Vision followed the Thames Valley Police major crimes investigation for over two years and compacted it down to a long documentary. After the documentary, Derek Wax, who owns the film production company Wild Mercury and was a former student of Farquar, called up True Vision to explore dramatizing the documentary. They took the idea to the BBC and spoke to Piers Wenger who was at the BBC at the time. Piers remembered the case and felt that there was a really important story to be told. Then the BBC rang me up and said, would I be interested in looking at some of the initial research, watching the documentary and reading some of the early material, and then pitching them with what I would like to do with this story? So I did.
I suppose the BBC approached me because I'd written a lot of fictional crime dramas such as the Agatha Christie miniseries and others. It was very clear to me very early on that I thought, “I know what I want to do with this, and I want it to feel like a Grimm Brothers fairy story.” I didn't want it to be about Ben, I wanted it to be about Peter and Ann and their families and the police and then the trial. The families and Ben's victims formed the absolute backbone that we never took our eyes off of; they'd had these complete lives of great value that had been robbed by this man, and we [the audience] never got glamoured by Ben. That was my pitch and they went for it. Then all this material started arriving like court transcripts and police investigation files. The volume of material was overwhelming, but I had to work through it and commit it to memory so that I could write. I had lots of access to the police and to the prosecuting barrister, but also Peter and Ann's families. And they had to trust me that I was the right person to tell their loved one's stories. It was a lot but I'm very proud of it, it took a lot of doing.
GBH Drama: What attracted you to join The Sixth Commandment as a director?
Saul Gibb: I was aware of the documentary because I watched it when it came out, but for the adaptation I read Sarah's first script. I've worked with Sarah before, and I'm obviously a massive massive fan of her work. When I started reading it, I realized that the true story was being told in a completely unexpected way, I found it completely engrossing and engaging. Unlike Sarah, I had previous experience making documentaries or projects based on real stories. I felt that there was an opportunity to make something that was, as Sarah says, this kind of extraordinary fairytale, but also full of a kind of low-key ordinary quality, that there was a shocking horror film in a sense, a horror story happening in these people's lives. I always tend to choose things because I find that I've got a strong emotional connection to it. The script was written with heart; with integrity. I knew the whole team just wanted to tell this very difficult story unflinchingly but truthfully and with heart.
GBH Drama: Both of you worked closely on developing the series, can you describe the process and the division of labor?
Sarah Phelps: I think Saul and I collaborate well and complement each other, but we have distinct roles. I wouldn't dream of breathing down Saul's neck when he's directing. I mean we talk about the work we do, but I write the scripts and Saul directs the scripts, and he reads drafts and talks to me about the drafts and I watch rushes and assemblies and the cuts. I'll look at the stuff in the edit and we talk about the placement.
Saul Gibb: I think a team works well when people are doing the job they are brilliant, or good at — I mean, look, I'll say brilliant for Sarah. I won't say that about myself, but let's just say I think we share absolutely a common sensibility and a common goal for what we want to achieve here. Beyond that, we each did our own thing, and as Sarah said, I think hopefully had useful things to say to help us.
GBH Drama: Casting actors who resemble the real people involved is a bit different than casting fictional characters. What was the process for finding the right fit for each character?
Sarah Phelps: I never think about casting when I'm writing. I always think about the characters and then talk to Saul about it and say, "Well who do you think for this?" And he says a name and you go, "Oh my God, of course." For example, Timothy Spall. When Saul said “Tim Spall” suddenly it felt like the room was full of oxygen, it felt really electric. And the same for the casting of Éanna Hardwicke as Ben Field. There were quite a few options for us to look at. I really listened to how Saul thinks about the kind of performance, because he can fill that depth in an actor, where I can sometimes still be in the character, what the character's like, but Saul can go that little bit further. So it's an open conversation between us and I think that's how it should be creatively between directors and writers.
Saul Gibb: When it comes to things like casting and you're kind of between two roles and you want to get it right, I want to know what Sarah's feeling about it. Does she feel like you're capturing the essence of that character? All of those kinds of things.
GBH Drama: Although The Sixth Commandment is often described as a true crime series, how does the series subvert the common storytelling tropes in the genre?
Saul Gibb: When I first read the script, it started out as this love story of this closeted late 60s man; a gay man who believes he's falling in love for the first time. That is a story arc on its own. And yet it then becomes a very different story as we understand what Ben Fields' real motives are, and he starts to manipulate Peter Farquhar and then obviously his neighbor Ann Moore-Martin. That was a story that everybody could relate to, and everyone who can relate to who's got older relatives who are more vulnerable than we sometimes want to think they are. I realized that it was just so much more than a telling of a true story, because the motivation behind the murders are difficult to define.
Now, some people might pigeonhole it because they'll say "it's a true crime," but it's much more than that. It's a love story. It does have a crime story in it. It has a police investigation, but it also has an investigation that comes from a woman's niece rather than the police, like you might find in say, kind of like a Hitchcock film. Then there's also a courtroom drama. The minute you think you know what the story will be, it becomes something else. As director, that's just a really exciting and challenging prospect, how to maintain a tone throughout something that is forever changing.
Sarah Phelps: I think sometimes in true crime there is a tendency to view — and it comes from our fascination with fictional killers such as Hannibal Lecter — that they seem to have a vision of the world, which is somehow more true, more real, more thrilling. These killers in reality are haunted, horrible people who have done a terrible, terrible thing. I think that there can be a situation when you're doing a true-crime story that the people who lost their lives can be reduced to the violations that were done to them. I wanted to make sure that Peter and Ann, who had lived such incredible lives, full lives, intellectual lives, aesthetic lives, lives as teachers, lives as members of the family, people who had cared for their own relatives and who had great curiosity about the world, that they got their grace.
GBH Drama: What was the most difficult scene or sequence to write?
Sarah Phelps: I mean, just coming from my perspective as writer, one of the things that was really taxing was managing the sheer weight of the material, and also having to make sure that all the time you were observing the strictures of legal compliance, because the murderer is in prison and he's serving a long life sentence. But he would be watching, and if there was anything where he could say, "Well, that didn't happen, or that's a lie, or that's a misrepresentation," then he could raise a vexatious complaint, and then everybody would be duty bound to investigate it, and I wasn't going to give him that pleasure.
The stuff that was the most difficult for me was making sure that if any question came up about, “Well, that detail, where does that come from,” that I could absolutely pinpoint where I got it. That I had numerous citations, so that there'd been no opportunity for either the murderer or his family or anybody connected with him to be able to say, "This writer has misrepresented the facts," and now that is going to lessen the impact of the drama. We did have a situation where somebody did try and say, "Well, the writer's got it wrong." Unfortunately for those people we had evidence, so they had to print a retraction and apology.
It was a meta process where I wasn't just writing a script, I had to write a rebuttal simultaneously to anybody invested in basically saying, "Well, he's innocent," or "He didn't really do this," or whatever. I had to also observe what we have a need for in the BBC, which is extremely strict restrictions about how we present this information. So I was quite confident I would always do the right thing for the families and for the characters. There was just the extra layer, which you don't always get as a writer of drama, which is now you've got to have the mind of a lawyer. It was a baptism by fire, but I learned very quickly and I'm now a demon at it. I felt confident in most other areas, but that was a thing which took up a huge amount of time, and which was really important to get right.
GBH Drama: What was the most difficult scene or sequence to direct or show on screen?
Saul Gibb: It's probably all the scenes that featured cruelty. What you show, what you don't show, how you show it, how you show the impact of it. That was something I thought a lot about. Sarah and I talked a lot about it. I talked a lot about it with the cast, how to represent that so you are not ducking what actually happened, but also not ever making it about the cruelty. There are filmmakers who want to make an audience squirm and experience it, and I didn't want that. I wanted us to see it and understand it and the impact it was having on the people, but for that never to be gratuitous and it always be respectful and prudent.
Sarah Phelps: Everybody involved really agreed that the last thing, because obviously so much of this is involved with sexual crimes as well and seduction and sexual manipulation — what you cannot be at any time is prurient. It has to be about the emotions, and it has to be about the door that is open ajar so that somebody like Ben can slither in.
Saul Gibb: I think a lot of the older classic films are really brilliant at this through things are stronger often by what you don't see; what you suggest, and the questions you leave an audience with. And it was also difficult to potentially ask the actors who are also senior citizens to act out characters who are poisoned and hallucinating. Not only is it difficult for them to find the right level, but it's very exposing to behave that way in front of everybody. In the end I
thought their performances were so strong, it was enough simply to observe, to be a witness to what they were going through.
GBH Drama: What do you want American audiences to take away from The Sixth Commandment?
Sarah Phelps: Obviously there's a real Englishness to it. It's in a little village and they go to bible study, they go to book group, poetry readings, and they're very polite to each other. It's very English, but I do think there's a universality to it because the case is so specific.
What I've been really bowled over by from British audiences is how people have responded with such compassion and such love and tenderness towards the characters, towards the families and towards Peter and Ann. It is a brutal tale, but there are people there lifting the lantern high and that love, the love of the families, got diligent prosecutors, diligent police officers. The families’ love for Peter and Ann blazes, it absolutely blazes and lights up the dark world.
Saul Gibb: What was amazing about the reaction in Britain is it touched all classes, all races, all regions, ages, and political affiliations. I think it's why we watch anything. It's about a shared humanity. You can step into other people's shoes, and if you are detailed and specific enough…. We all can put ourselves in a kitchen in Chicago and watch The Bear. We don't know these people, but we know what it's like to have aspirations and dreams and pain and hardship and all of those things. These things are replicated across the world. It's about shared humanity.