Caught in a honeytrap
The cast and creative team behind Channel 4 true crime drama Deceit reveal their approach to dramatising the story of a controversial honeytrap operation at the centre of a high-profile murder investigation.
Based on real events, four-part Channel 4 series Deceit examines a police honeytrap scheme aimed at catching a murderer. But this true crime drama also blends a feminist perspective with a claustrophobic, film noir sensibility to tell a story reflective of 1990s ‘lad culture’ and the workplace sexual politics of the era.
Deceit opens in the aftermath of the real-life murder of Rachel Nickell, who was killed on Wimbledon Common, South London, in 1992. The subsequent Metropolitan Police investigation came under intense pressure from the press and public to catch the killer.
Five months later, Detective Inspector Keith Pedder (played by Harry Treadaway) is no closer to securing the evidence needed to apprehend the chief suspect, a man named Colin Stagg (Sion Daniel Young), who was first identified by a BBC Crimewatch appeal. Pedder then brings in criminal profiler Paul Britton (Eddie Marsan), who devises a bold undercover operation that will see an attractive, young female officer start a relationship with Stagg in the hope of throwing up the evidence that will see him convicted of Nickell’s murder.
That officer is Sadie Byrne (Niamh Algar), who is tasked with infiltrating Stagg’s world as a woman named Lizzie James.
Also starring Rochenda Sandall as Sadie’s friend and colleague Lucy and Nathaniel Martello-White as Sadie’s sometime confidant Baz, Deceit was written by Emilia di Girolamo (The Tunnel), who used previously unreleased audio, video and written material relating to the case to create this fictionalised retelling of one of the UK’s most controversial police investigations. Launching on C4 this Friday, with all four episodes available on OTT platform All4, Deceit was directed by Niall MacCormick (The Victim) and produced by Story Films, with All3Media International distributing.
Here, DQ hears from the cast and creative team behind the series about creating a fictionalised version of Lizzie James, the extensive research involved and why the producers wanted to tell this story through drama rather than documentary.
For writer Emila di Girolamo, there must to be a “good reason” to create a true crime series that trawls through people’s lives and examines their darkest moments, and Deceit feels “hugely relevant” today.
Di Girolamo: It gives us this opportunity to look at Lizzie James’s role in Operation Edzell [the name given to the police investigation] from a feminist perspective, at a really crucial moment in history, both in terms of our cultural reappraisal and of how we treat women post-Me Too, but also in terms of the ongoing public inquiry into undercover policing and questionable tactics used in the past.
We’ve put Lizzie James right at the heart of this drama so we can ask those really important questions about the way she was treated, but also the way she was perceived both within the investigation and more widely by the press and the public. I worked in prison for eight years and wrote a PhD about rehabilitative techniques, so I have a real obsession with the psychology of offending behaviour. That makes me look at cases in quite an academic way, and this case is a real opportunity to learn lessons.
The writer was paired with producer Story Films, which has a history of taking a fresh approach to real-life stories.
Di Girolamo: There was a bit of matchmaking from a Channel 4 commissioner, who knew us both really well and thought I’d be a good fit for the project and to work with [executive producers] Dave Nath and Pete Beard. I already had a really good understanding of the case, having read everything about that in the 90s, and I was also a huge fan of Story Films and their really intelligent, forensic approach to documentaries and crime dramas. It just felt like a of meeting of minds and a really good fit when I met them.
Dave Nath, executive producer: Through factual and documentary, we’re quite used to dealing with really difficult stories. From inception to this hitting the screen, it’s taken more or less five years. A lot of it is about the groundwork that needed to be done before the cameras started rolling. There are a lot of sensitivities that are unique to this project. There’s the central character that Niamh plays, Lizzie James. There’s a lifetime anonymity order that protects her [in real life], so we have to be very careful about how we respect that court order and continue to protect her, which involves some fictionalisation around the character.
Secondly, we have to be very sensitive in terms of how we treat this story because it’s real people involved and people who have lived the last 25 years with the impact of this.
Deliberately set several months after Rachel’s murder in order to focus on the investigation rather than the crime, the series also needed to be sensitive in its treatment of Colin Stagg, who spent 16 years under suspicion until the actual killer, Robert Napper, was identified and then convicted in 2008.
Nath: You talk to people now and you mention the name Colin Stagg and a lot of people will still say, ‘He was the person who was convicted of the murder of Rachel Nickell,’ and you say, ‘No, he wasn’t.’ We had to be very mindful that we’re not reinforcing some of the misinformation that exists about Colin already. It’s one of the reasons Colin collaborated with us – he wanted the definitive story out there that tells the rest of the world he is and was an innocent man.
Niamh Algar (The Virtues), who plays Sadie/Lizzie, didn’t know about the real-life case until she read the script at home in Ireland.
Algar: What Emilia had put down on the page is something I hadn’t seen done before. To have a female officer as a central character and this unique perspective was incredibly exciting, but then you also have in the back of your mind that this is a real woman.
Safeguarding her [new] identity was the biggest priority. I was given the opportunity to speak with real-life detectives and interview them. One woman told me that building a backstory for somebody you’re going to go undercover for is like being an actor. ‘The difference is if you [as an actor] drop a line, you get to go for another take. I slip up and I could potentially die.’
I just had so much admiration for these women because it was a time when you would be under an incredible amount of pressure. Just reading this character, I so I had so much admiration for how brave she was. To be given the opportunity to portray someone who is this dichotomy of both strength and vulnerability is a massive opportunity. I researched the role as best I could, but also keeping in mind to protect the real Lizzy James.
Di Girolamo conducted extensive research into the case and spent time with the show’s consultants, notably Colin Stagg and Keith Pedder, who spoke about their actual experiences with Lizzie.
Di Girolamo: I got a good idea of who she was at work and within the operation, but upholding Lizzie’s lifetime anonymity order became an absolute priority. We made a decision quite early on in the process to fictionalise her personal life to protect her, so Sadie essentially became a fictional character.
I spoke to undercover officers about their experiences working in the 90s to try to build a picture of who Sadie might be, knowing she was affected psychologically by the operation and traumatised. I talked to police officers and other trauma survivors about their experiences and got an understanding of how trauma impacted their lives, because I wanted the PTSD that Sadie suffers and how that manifested in the drama to be absolutely rooted in truth. I was also really lucky to have Niamh attached to the project very early on – we had a lot of conversations about who Lizzie and Sadie were.
Sion Daniel Young (Keeping Faith), who plays Colin Stagg, held back from researching too much about the case until after he’d read the script.
Young: The amazing thing was I had such a clear idea of who Colin was after reading Emilia’s scripts, because they were just so detailed in a way that I hadn’t really seen before. There was such clarity and such specificity that when I watched footage of Colin and learned more about the story, it didn’t really change much about what I thought from having read Emilia’s dialogue, because it was just so on point.
Young leaned on Stagg’s book, Who Really Killed Rachel, which he wrote with David Kessler. Similarly, Harry Treadaway (The Crown) used a book written by Pedder, Murder on the Common, to find his way into playing the detective.
Treadaway: It was a love-hate relationship [with Pedder], if I’m honest. I started the process reading the script, knowing it had gone disastrously wrong. But you’ve got to put all that aside and try to figure out who Keith was at the moment that he’s going through in each scene. He was very recently promoted to a position where he would be involved as a head of this case with incredibly high media coverage and the pressures of that.
I was empathising with him deeply, but also aware that, with hindsight, you can see where the markers were where choices were made that potentially led them in the wrong direction. He sees [criminal profiling] as potentially the golden ticket, which is maybe the key to opening up the case, and he clings on to it. While it’s not a story about Keith, I had to be aware of the pressures he was under to try to feed that into the bigger picture
Despite ultimately being cleared of any wrongdoing, Colin is under the spotlight for Rachel’s murder from the off, with Sadie – and viewers – left in no doubt who the police believe is responsible.
Di Girolamo: I wanted the audience to experience what Lizzie experienced in that moment, giving them the same information she had, so there’s this presumption that Colin’s guilty and we see how that made her feel, believing she’s communicating with and meeting a man who had the ability to commit this horrendous act of violence and the danger that put her in. But we do see that belief in his guilt began to unravel in episode three until we get to a point where we know with absolute certainty that Colin’s innocent. It’s really key to mention that Colin was absolutely on board with our approach and that he supported it fully.
The series was shot just after the UK’s initial coronavirus lockdown in 2020, meaning cast and crew were left alone in their hotel rooms at night as part of the production’s health and safety restrictions.
Algar: We were sitting [there at night] with the material you’re going to be shooting the next day. To be honest, I leaned in towards that because it allowed me to really live in that character’s headspace and the idea there was no actual escape for this character we created, that it’s all-consuming for her.
At the same time, I was blessed to have such an incredible cast to work with. There was a trust there with Niall [MacCormick, director], Emilia and Dave, our producers, and Sion, Harry and Eddie. I really felt like this was such a collaborative process. I was very lucky [to have that support].
There was never a question of producing a documentary about the police’s honeytrap plot, as the producers wanted to take viewers inside the story.
Nath: The amount of pressure and risk Lizzie James is under, you can’t do that in a retrospective documentary. You have to see it. When she goes to [London’s] Hyde Park for the first time to meet Colin Stagg, you’ve got to be with her feeling it. When Keith Pedder is getting squeezed by bosses and getting journalists turning up at the police station, you’ve got to feel that. You need the context of the pressure he’s under to know why certain decisions have been made. We know it was a failure, but we’re trying to understand why certain things happened. A documentary can’t do that 25 years later.
Through the story’s 1990s setting, which channels the institutional sexism and ‘lad culture’ of the era, di Girolamo and Nath believe there are lessons to be learned about why certain victims receive more press and police attention than others.
Nath: We talk about the impact on Colin Stagg, the impact on Lizzie James and her mental health, what she’s being asked to do and whether it’s appropriate. Then there is the obsession with and concentration on one suspect. The other thing about this case is it’s not only about the failings around the Rachel Nickell enquiry. There’s a systematic failure going on here because there were umpteen opportunities for the police to have been on Robert Napper that were missed. Looking back at it with the benefit of 25 years’ experience is very different from the reporting of this story that went on in the two years after Colin Stagg was formally acquitted.
tagged in: All3Media Internationa, Channel 4, Deceit, Eddie Marsan, Emilia Di Girolamo, Harry Treadaway, Nathaniel Martello-White, Niall MacCormick, Niamh Algar, Rochenda Sandall, Sion Daniel Young, Story Films