Commanding drama

Commanding drama

By Michael Pickard
August 17, 2023

The Director’s Chair

The Sixth Commandment director Saul Dibb takes DQ inside the making of the “bold and challenging” BBC four-parter, which he describes as an “anti-true crime” drama owing to its focus on the victims at the centre of the real-life story it dramatises.

At the start of BBC series The Sixth Commandment, the now-familiar title card that accompanies most factual dramas appears on the screen: “This is a true story. What follows is based on extensive research, interviews and published accounts, with some scenes created for dramatic purposes.”

Yet that’s where the four-parter dispenses with the traditional rule book followed by other series in the genre, where the focus falls on the criminal responsible for a series of heinous acts, or the police officers charged with bringing them to justice.

Instead, The Sixth Commandment is an “anti-true crime story,” as director Saul Dibb describes it. In this series, written by Sarah Phelps and based on true events that took place in an English village less than a decade ago, the killer is often a side note in a drama that tells almost an entirely new story in each episode.

“That’s because it’s not about the crime. It’s about the people impacted by the crime,” explains Dibb. “Sarah’s absolutely clear take in the scripts is this is about the victims of Ben Field; it’s about them, the impact on them and the profound ripple effects on their families of this malevolent presence that came into their lives.

Saul Dibb

“Recently there have been quite a lot of instances of things that seem to glamorise the killers, to use it as an excuse to go over the gruesome and grisly details in an exploitative way. What we tried to do is the opposite of that.”

The critically acclaimed series, which debuted on BBC One in July, explores how the meeting of an inspirational teacher, Peter Farquhar (Timothy Spall), and a charismatic student, Ben Field (Éanna Hardwicke), set the stage for one of the most complex and confounding criminal cases in recent memory. It also focuses on how suspicions around Field’s relationship with former headteacher Ann Moore-Martin (Anne Reid), Peter’s deeply religious neighbour, unlocked a series of chilling revelations.

As the story unfolds, it reveals how both Peter and Ann were manipulated by Field, leading to a police investigation and a high-profile court trial for their murders, while also telling the profoundly moving personal stories of isolation and loneliness that enabled Field’s actions. Both are also fondly represented as cherished mentors, much-loved relatives and adored friends.

Notably, episode one focuses on Peter and episode two on Ann, before episode three picks up on the police investigation. As for episode four, Dibb describes it as a courtroom “duel” between Field and Oliver Saxby (Rick Warden), the prosecuting barrister, while the emotional impact of Field’s actions on Peter’s brother and sister-in-law, Ian and Sue (Adrian Rawlins and Amanda Root), and Ann’s niece Anne-Marie (Annabel Scholey) is laid bare.

“In terms of performance, it just brings Éanna, who’s brilliant all the way along, into the spotlight as this person who’s been in control and unknowable,” Dibb says of the finale. “He still remains unknowable at the end to an extent, and that’s deliberate. Will he come unstuck? The way Éanna plays that part, it’s like somebody’s got under his skin for the first time and he starts to feel uncomfortable. It is a difficult performance to give and I think he gives it brilliantly.”

When Dibb joined the project, which comes from Wild Mercury Productions and True Vision Productions, just one script had been written. But it was enough for him to be utterly moved by the love story at the centre of episode one – and the subsequent corruption of love that shatters Peter and Field’s relationship by its end.

BBC series The Sixth Commandment was filmed in Bristol

“I just thought it was a story I’d not seen before,” says Dibb, who previously worked with Phelps on BBC detective drama Dublin Murders. “I’d not seen a story of a 67-year-old gay man who’s fallen in love for the first time, let alone Ben Field stepping into the middle of his life and then everything that went after it.

“Talking to Sarah, she was very clear this was in four parts: you’ve got Peter Farquhar, Ann Moore-Martin and the police investigation while Ben Field’s danger is rising. Then you’ve got a court case where he thinks he’s going to get away with it. It’s an unusual structure in the way that Ben Field is the only person who runs throughout all of them, and it was a really bold and challenging thing to pull off, knowing that we’d have to introduce new sets of characters from scratch in each episode.”

Behind the camera, Dibb utilised many of the techniques he has developed over the course of his career, which began in documentaries and includes films such as Bullet Boy, Journey’s End, Suite Française and feature-length TV drama NW. He favours shooting in real locations over studio sets, and uses the camera as another character in a scene, observing what is unfolding in front of it. He also likes to use as much natural light as possible to create a “very real and intimate” drama.

“I felt like the light [in the series] was on a journey from the opening episode, which is all about romance and love – Peter is falling in love for the first time, tea in an English garden – but by the end, Ben Field is in a dungeon underneath the court in sickly yellow light,” Dibb says. “It’s claustrophobic. It’s the complete opposite of where we’ve begun, and I really like the idea of being able to tell the idea that we’re progressively getting darker with more unnatural light by the end, when all we’ve done to begin with is be flooded by natural light.”

Dibb also uses lots of visual references to inspire his work, but doesn’t storyboard scenes or create an extensive shot list before he arrives on set. His work, he says, is often instinctive, which led to shots in The Sixth Commandment that are often framed by windows or showing the audience what the character in shot is seeing at the same time.

It tells the story of Ben Field’s crimes, but with a particular focus on his victims

“I try to stay as organic as possible. I like to be free,” he says. “I like to think, ‘Well, if this isn’t working, I’m going to change it and that’s not going to cause everyone a massive headache and be impossible.’ It just means we’ve got to keep refining everything all the time until we feel we’ve got the essence of what the scene is.”

One of his favourite moments in the series, which is distributed by Banijay Rights, is a scene inside Ian and Sue’s car as they leave Peter’s house, with Field appearing in the rear-view mirror. Another is when the deeply religious Peter goes to hospital for a brain scan and is covered in blue light, until red lasers create the image of a cross on his forehead.

Then there are the numerous scenes of different characters making tea, standing at a window waiting for the kettle to boil or pouring the water into a favourite mug.

“All kettles take on huge significance through the story,” Dibb notes. “Essentially that’s what Ben starts doing, he starts making tea for everyone. Certainly the theory is that the vehicles for the poisons [Field uses] were tea and toast.”

Spall, Reid and Hardwicke have all won praise for their performances in the series, and Dibb says casting the lead roles was key to the show and the way he conducted his own work. He also ensured pairs of actors – such as Hardwicke and Spall, Hardwicke and Conor MacNeil (as Field’s friend Martyn) and Reid and Scholey – spent a lot of time together to create the bond he wanted to see on set.

“There are lots of brilliant actors who are at Tim’s level who could do it, but I didn’t think anyone could do it as well as him,” he says. “And it’s the same with Anne, Sheila [Hancock, who plays Peter and Ann’s friend Liz], Éanna and Annabel. The first thing is you pick really carefully – and not just them, but every single role.

Anne Reid stars alongside Timothy Spall and Éanna Hardwicke

“Once you’ve done that, then you are guiding them much more when you’re shooting, not pushing for a particular kind of performance, because they’re already in the right arena. You’re simply there to talk to them about it, and for them to know that the most important thing on that set is the performances, and everything around what we’re doing is geared to getting the best performances.”

Dibb believes Normal People actor Hardwicke had the hardest role of all. “I’m just so pleased we were given the freedom to cast somebody who was, for all intents and purposes, pretty much unknown, and then to take such a difficult, nuanced, complex role and play it as brilliantly as Éanna did,” he says.

With filming taking place in Bristol, finding the location of Peter and Ann’s homes proved to be one of the biggest challenges facing the series, with Dibb “insistent” they needed a road with two houses two doors apart so that the geography of the true story could be replicated. The director also sought to push the BBC budget as far as possible, so viewers would not be able to tell the difference between this show and one made for more money by a streaming platform.

“I don’t want the audience watching it to think this has been any less well-resourced,” he says. “That’s a real challenge. But I just try to take all the money I’ve saved in the lighting department, and from all the tracks, dollies, cranes, drones and things I don’t use, and put it into production time.”

The production was also “ravaged” by Covid. “There was one day when 20 people were out with Covid,” he reveals. “We shot one scene three or four different times with different actors and stand-ins because, each time we shot it, one of the actors who was in the scene was ill. It was kind of insane.”

But like his previous project, BBC factual drama The Salisbury Poisonings, Dibb wanted authenticity at every turn – from the characters and their actions to the world around them.

“Everything I’ve done has always hovered over reality, pretty closely one way or another. Whether it’s a true story or it’s inspired by a true story or not, it feels very much like it exists in the real world,” he says. “The work of drama is always to put the audience in the shoes of the protagonists, either directly or through people we can connect with and empathise with.

“We all know older people and we all worry about loneliness in old age, particularly for people who live alone, so we can connect with that. There’s also the sense that, regardless of their age or the fact they live in a little English village, they are no less capable of deep love and yearning than anyone else.”

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