Crafting The Sixth Commandment

Crafting The Sixth Commandment

By Michael Pickard
April 26, 2024

The Writers Room

Ahead of the Bafta Television Craft Awards, nominated writer Sarah Phelps unpacks the success of true crime drama The Sixth Commandment and explains why audiences are craving shared experiences and how she writes her way out of trouble.

“Sally Wainwright. Jesse Armstrong. Charlie Brooker. Are you fucking kidding me?”

When Sarah Phelps discovered she had been nominated for a Bafta Television Award in the Writer: Drama category for last year’s true crime drama The Sixth Commandment, she admits she was stunned.

The four-parter, which debuted in July, explores the deaths of Peter Farquhar and Ann Moore-Martin in a Buckinghamshire village, and the extraordinary events that unfolded over the following years involving a man they both knew, Ben Field.

Then when Phelps saw who else was in the running for the same award, it was an “incredible feeling” to find herself in their company.

“I’ve been watching their work and been enthralled, crying with laughter and on the edge of my seat. They are masters. Genuinely I am blown away,” she tells DQ ahead of Sunday’s Bafta Television Craft Awards, when the writer prize will be one of 22 awards handed out. A further 26 will be presented at the Bafta Television Awards on May 12.

Sarah Phelps

“I’m very proud and thrilled, but at the same time as I get this nomination, I’m working on new stuff where I have no idea what happens in this scene, why this person said that, why I am writing such shit. They go, ‘You’re nominated for this,’ and I go, ‘What? Are you fucking mad?’ If they could see the dreck I’m turning out now, I’d be put in a gibbet at the edge of town and children would throw sharpened coins at me. That’s a writer’s life.”

Wainwright was recognised for the long-awaited third and final season of the BBC’s Happy Valley, while Armstrong got the nod for the fourth and final season of HBO drama Succession. Brooker, alongside co-writer Bisha K Ali, is nominated for Demon 79, an episode in the sixth season of his dystopian Netflix anthology Black Mirror.

Meanwhile, Phelps is a nominee in one of – appropriately – six categories featuring The Sixth Commandment across the two Bafta events.

Timothy Spall (who played Peter Farquhar) is nominated for leading actor, Anne Reid (Ann Moore-Martin) for leading actress, Éanna Hardwicke (Ben Field) for supporting actor, and cinematographer Rik Zang for photography & lighting: fiction, while Phelps, director Saul Dibb, Derek Wax, Brian Woods and Frances du Pille represent the series in the limited drama category. The show is a Wild Mercury Productions and True Vision series for BBC One.

When it launched last summer, this true crime drama became a word-of-mouth sensation, in part because of Phelps’ approach to dramatising the story through the lives of the victims, rather than the suspected killer, and the standout performances from its trio of leading actors. Hardwicke also recently won the IFTA (Irish Film & Television Academy) award for leading actor: drama for portraying Field.

Phelps admits it was a complex show to write, such were the legal and ethical implications of the real story on which it is based. She also had to learn how to write a police investigation, which is the focus of episode three, and a criminal trial, which takes centre stage in the fourth part.

“I had to do all my compliance work, provide citations and compile spreadsheets, because it was very difficult,” she says. “I also wanted to honour the families and the lives their loved ones had, rather than the deaths they had. You can forget people were alive before they were killed.

“I also thought the story I wanted to tell was about longing; the longing for someone to see you and to tell you that you mattered and to love you and be loved by you. I was really proud of the work I’d done and proud of the cast, proud of the crew and proud of Saul.”

Timothy Spall and his co-stars received acclaim for their performances in The Sixth Commandment

However, she never imagined how popular the show would become, even after the very positive early reviews were published.

“I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled. People would be talking to each other about it, so it was word of mouth as much as anything else. But it touched people,” she says. “Maybe it was especially [powerful] post-Covid, when we were all so cut off from each other and lonely, missing things and missing people and missing touch. But also, it was the loneliness and the trust, and the trust being betrayed and vulnerability being betrayed, that really called to people.

“We move very fast now and we’re beset with news that changes from moment to moment and opinion pieces and think pieces and hit pieces, and everything’s a culture war. People are screaming and we’re told that we are now so atomised we don’t really have this point of connection. I don’t think that’s true, especially not when it comes to that community experience of watching something on TV. We saw that with Mr Bates vs the Post Office, that actually we’re yearning for that community.”

Phelps was particularly touched by the public response to The Sixth Commandment, one she characterises as full of empathy and compassion for the vulnerabilities and longings of the characters portrayed by Spall and Reid.

“That made me really proud of us as a television audience and an audience who wants and needs and loves drama and stories and reacts in a very passionate and empathic way to vulnerability,” she continues. “That made me really happy, especially when all the time, it’s, ‘Oh we’re going to cut creative courses at university,’ and, ‘Creative arts don’t contribute that much to the nation.’ Oh fuck off do they. They really do. You can see that craving for stories and that need for it and what it gives people.

Spall played Peter Farquhar, while Anne Reid portrayed Ann Moore-Martin

“It was really important to me when I was telling the story that I didn’t want it ever to be [about] Ben. I only wanted it to be the people who came into contact with Ben. I wanted it to be about Peter and Ann and the richness of the people they were. Sometimes it can happen in true crime where the body on the floor is just the body on the floor, and they’re a composite of the things that were done to them. But that’s not true. You’ve got to do the richness and the complexity and the variations of the lives they lived before this person came in and stole it. Seeing how people reacted to that made me really proud of the work we’ve done.”

Despite the show’s clutch of Bafta nominations, Phelps laments the fact Dibb didn’t get one in his own right. The director: fiction category includes Joseph Bullman (Partygate), Lewis Arnold (The Long Shadow), Peter Hoar (The Last of Us) and William Stefan Smith (Top Boy).

“His work was outstanding. I love him, I love working with him and he’s so special,” she says. “He lets you look at the face and feel the texture and breathe the air of the world. When I’m writing and thinking about those things, Saul really gets that and understands it. He can just sit with a moment. He’s in no hurry to do something shocking.”

Phelps and Dibbs’ approach to telling the story also chimes with another series nominated in the limited series category, The Long Shadow, which similarly focused on the victims in dramatising the police hunt for serial killer Peter Sutcliffe in the 1970s.

“You look at people who are elderly and live alone and you see them as elderly people who live alone, but you’ve got to remember there’s an entire history leading up to this moment,” Phelps says.

The true crime drama focused on two people who fell prey to Ben Field (Éanna Hardwicke)

“I also wanted to write about their faith. My recently departed mum was a devout Catholic lady, and Ann and Peter’s faith was absolutely central to who they were and how they acted upon the world. It was quite interesting to me when some commentators said, ‘Oh, she [Phelps] didn’t ridicule the faith as you’d expect.’ But why would you expect that? If I ridiculed their faith, I’d have been ridiculing them. I’d never have dreamed of doing anything like that.”

Phelps made her name working on BBC Radio dramas and on the pubcaster’s flagship soap EastEnders, for which she wrote more than 90 episodes over a 14-year period. She has since become known for her adaptations of novels such as Great Expectations, The Casual Vacancy and a quintet of bold Agatha Christie works – And Then There Were None, The Witness for the Prosecution, Ordeal by Innocence, The ABC Murders and The Pale Horse.

More recently, she penned Dublin Murders and A Very British Scandal.

“Can I just give an absolutely massive shout-out to BBC Radio and EastEnders, because that’s where I cut my teeth. That’s where I learned how hard you have to work, how hard you would need to work, and how much it matters, and what storytelling actually means,” Phelps says.

“You put a story out into the world, people are going to give you their attention. Work at it and love it. Love it with all your heart. EastEnders and BBC Radio drama is where I got those opportunities to learn, and they need to be highlighted – not just as brilliant things in their own right but as important training grounds for the people who are the storytellers of next year and the year after that and the year after that.”

Phelps’ multiple Agatha Christie adaptations include And Then There Were None

The value of those training grounds has never been higher in the wake of the cancellation of shows such as BBC medical dramas Doctors and Holby City, which provided vital opportunities for writers, directors, actors and other members of crew to get their important first credits.

“That kind of breaks my heart,” Phelps adds. “It’s where another huge amount of incredible people were learning the trade, were learning the craft of how to make the very best TV and tell the very best stories in the medium that we all adore.”

Phelps now has several new projects in development, but against the backdrop of a challenging economic landscape facing everyone in television, the difficult part is getting shows financed.

“That’s proving to be trickier than it was, but any time you see a bubble, you know it’s going to burst. You know it’s not sustainable,” she says, noting the end of ‘Peak TV’ as streaming platforms in particular have cooled on the rampant drama commissioning strategies that saw the genre boom over the last decade.

“I’ve got greenlights that are planning for [shooting] next year, and some that are smaller budget, some bigger budget and some more complex in a way they might not have been two years ago or even pre-Covid. We’ll see,” she says, “but I’m not getting in a panic about it. You just sit tight and write your way out of it.

“That massive battlefield scene, perhaps do it in a cupboard under the stairs with half a glass of lemon squash and three straws. That’s where I specialise. I’m a BBC baby. I’m used to working with broken biscuits.”

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