On 7th November 1974, 29 year old nanny, Sandra Rivett, was bludgeoned to death with a piece of bandaged lead pipe in the basement kitchen of the Lucan family home in Belgravia. Shortly afterwards John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan, disappeared. Almost four decades later, ITV is set to shine a light on the crime that shook the 20th century with a hard-hitting new drama about the life and crimes of flamboyant aristocrat Lord Lucan.
Based heavily on John Pearson’s 2005 book The Gamblers, the two part drama is written by award-winning writer Jeff Pope and stars Rory Kinnear as Lucan, Christopher Eccleston as John Aspinall and features acclaimed actor Michael Gambon. Crucially (and rather boldly), the drama attempts to answer the riddle of what ultimately happened to Lord Lucan.
Earlier this month, The History Vault was granted permission to interview to one of the show’s creators, veteran drama producer Chris Clough, about history, crime and what drama can add to our understanding of the past. Here is what he had to say…
So I guess everything must be pretty much finished now?
No it’s not. It was quite a late commission so we’re still cutting, in fact we’ve just locked episode one. We won’t get that dubbed and the music all recorded until the end of November.
Originally Warner Brothers had optioned the rights to make a film of John Pearson’s book The Gamblers, how did it come to be made by ITV?
Well what happened was, the guy who bought the rights was finding a bit difficult to get Warner Bros to get it off the ground as a feature film project. So he brought it to ITV and Francis Hopkinson, who’s an executive producer here, found out about it and thought it was pretty good, she figured that with the fortieth anniversary coming up the ITV audience would be interested, and the advantage of doing something on television is that you can make two ninety-minute programmes as opposed to one feature film. It gave our story some more space to work it through.
There does seem to be a shift in the way people view things now…
Yeah, yeah, box sets and the American dramas. ‘Long-form’ is the new buzz word, so coming from television that’s great!
The story of Lucan is obviously fascinating, what does drama add to it that we wouldn’t get with a documentary or a book?
Drama can fill in the blanks. I mean what you are getting is the characters and you’re seeing the life that they led, the Lucan’s led. We spent a lot of time in the Lucan household to examine how Lucan was at home and how he was in the club. There were two distinct facets to his life really. He loved being in the club because it was a boy’s club and everything else, at the expense of his home life. This therefore has a detrimental effect on Lady Lucan and the marriage kind of collapses and that has a detrimental effect on Lucan and forces him into taking this extreme action. You know, he thought the only way he was going to get custody of his children was to murder and make his wife disappear. So that’s a fascinating question in itself – how do you get to that mind-set when you are a peer of the realm, a member of the House of Lords and seemingly have all the advantages that birth and upbringing can give you?
Do you think the Lucan crime worked towards dismantling the idealised view of the elite?
I think it was happening anyway… he murdered the nanny in 1974 and the sixties were obviously quite a revolutionary sort of decade but as with all revolutions, it takes time to filter through. So by the mid-seventies there was much more of an anti-establishment feeling and what you were dealing with was large swathes of aristocracy all still running the country from there little Mayfair cliques. Gambling had just been allowed, therefore that was quite romantic. You had the whole James Bond factor. But I think essentially it held the aristocracy up in a very bad light…that they could behave, or a member of their set could behave so badly… it was quite shocking really.
Before you came to this project what were your views on Lucan?
Well, he was fascinating because I was around at the time so, you know, I followed the case assiduously and then every time ‘LUCAN SIGHTED’ comes on a broadsheet you think ‘oh god, where is he? What’s happened to him?’ And it has been one of those great unanswered questions and it’s endlessly fascinating. This guy murders the nanny by mistake, attacks his wife, and then goes on the run and nothing is heard of him for forty years. It’s extraordinary because, you know, you see with Biggs or any of the other characters going on the run, eventually they surface somewhere or there are some clues. Not a peep.
Have you changed your views on Lucan throughout the process of making the drama?
Yes I have. Originally I would think, what a silly arse, and then having looked at the way he was brought up and the fact that he was brought up through the war. He was then hoiked off to America and then brought up by strangers for some of his formative early years. Then brought back again then had the whole Eton and the guards stuff and then he wasn’t the brightest person in the world so he had a very short sort of career in the city and at that time he had a very lucky win at Le Touquet casino – hence his nickname ‘Lucky’. He thought, I know what I’m going to do, I’m going to be a professional gambler. It was the absolute ruination of him, and then when he came across Aspinall (who was sort of master manipulator of how to separate these inherited fortunes from their recipients) it was downhill from there on. So I feel quite sorry for him because he was what we would call a gambler-holic and had severe alcohol problems as well and went into a downward spiral and there was no one there to really help in the way that you might do now.
What did you think of Pearson’s book?
I thought it was great. I liked his approach. It was a very open account.
John Pearson used to be Ian Fleming’s assistant on Atticus so he comes from a journalistic background. He knows that sort of world and he wanted to just investigate the Clermont set. Every time you get involved with the Clermont set, the inevitable question that comes up is Lucan? Which has been a stain on all of them. I like the way he used the interviews and tickled out the story.
It’s quite clear from the promo that Pearson is part of the story, what made you decide to do it that way… to have a kind of time-slip?
It’s a stylistic thing. It’s quite a nice way of opening a story because you’ve got it in two times slips… so we have got leading up to 1974 and then Pearson’s investigation in 2005. We then intercut between the characters as they were at the time and as they are in 2005 when they are older and looking back on it. It’s just a bit of a dramatic device really, but he’s a good character. Then you can jump across and through the story to introduce new characters.
How did you go about capturing the essence of that period?
That period is difficult because its forty years ago… its almost easier to go back a hundred years because you just go to costume houses and they have all the stuff – the Downton Abbey sort of stuff – there’s tonnes of that, and you go to grand houses and it’s all kind of still there, so it’s very difficult to do that sort of period because the whole design – or lack of design as we look at it now – and people did different things with their houses. They didn’t do renovation makeovers and paint everything beige, they just left them, you know, especially Lucan! He moved into his house and I don’t think he would have touched anything, and especially not the kitchen. He would have just put up with it and maybe bought a new stove if needed and that would be it. So we had to recreate that so we took over a Georgian house and luckily the family were going to be away on holiday. We redecorated the whole thing from top to toe and built a basement kitchen.
How long did it actually take you to film the majority of the action?
It took seven weeks so in order to redo a house up, that takes about ten days, then we had ten days to shoot it, then you have to restore it to the state it was before! It’s quite a big undertaking.
Similarly, we tried to recreate the Clermont Club and all those other grand places and the cars were difficult. The street scenes are difficult because at the time there was a dustman strike so the streets were full of rubbish. Leicester Square was absolutely piled high with rubbish. Staggeringly huge mounds of rubbish. And then there was a miners strike and power cuts so what you had was the beginnings of the union power which heralded the arrival of Thatcher who put a stop to all that sort of thing.
We cannot seem to get enough of period dramas at the moment. With Breathless on ITV as well, there seems to be a shift towards more recent periods of history…
It’s interesting, isn’t it? I don’t know what the answer is to that. It’s just fashion and what the commissioners take a fancy to and what people are coming up with. I don’t think there is any plot to say everything is going to be thirty odd years in the past.
What do you think it is about the period drama in general that attracts the attention of the audience? Is there an extra level of escapism…?
I think there is and I think there is an interest because if you’ve gone to school you’ve probably only studied the Nazis and the Tudors because that is the curriculum. A lot of kids don’t know who the hell Lucan is so suddenly there’s a good story there, and obviously the past is a fantastic cupboard to raid for good stories because people are very odd and do very odd things. It’s very nice to be able to go and re-examine what happened. There is an endless fascination with that, plus looking at the way people lived in different eras is interesting. You can see that on the tours that people go on like the Jane Austen tour or the Dickens tour and all that sort of stuff. I think television makes people interested in how we used to live. It gets them interested in history, it gives a glamorised view but, you know…
Are there any characters or periods from history that you would like to see dramatized or you would like to work on?
I’d love to do Wellington. It would be fantastically expensive, but something like that – the whole rise of the British Empire and that period – is just fascinating and happened in such a small time zone. So I think that is fascinating, but I wouldn’t know how to dramatise it efficiently.
Tell me about the characters in Lucan
Goldsmith comes into it because he was obviously a member of the Clermont set. He was certainly the most powerful and the richest; again another buccaneering character. A fascinating man who again was an out and out gambler – even as a sixteen year old, you know, he left Eton and became a gambler. He’d been brought up in these hotels in Paris and god knows where and then he fell in love with the daughter of the richest man in the world who was Bolivian and he didn’t want Goldsmith to marry her so they ran off to Golders Green and all that sort of stuff… got married, the world’s press went after them… she was pregnant and then she died in childbirth!
They were quite an interesting bunch of guys who wanted to grab a piece of the action. Aspinall himself was the illegitimate son of the woman who became Lady Osborne, who is the putative grandmother, or step-grandmother, of Osborne our chancellor so, you know, it’s all very interesting.
Researching ahead of this interview I was struck by how much the characters within the story feed into lots of different areas of life, you mentioned yourself how Pearson was assistant to Ian Fleming, it’s strange how the web has expanded…
And they are still around now! The Goldsmiths clan are still very much in evidence, Aspinall’s son is still very much in evidence – runs a zoo and he’s still got a casino, and the Lucan children keep their heads down a bit but it’s the same characters around. And even some of the side characters – Dominic Elwes’ children are doing very well in LA and all the rest of it.
Did you have any contact with the Lucan children?
Francis and Jeff met with George Bingham, yes. When you are doing a factual drama like this and it affects people personally you have to be very careful that they know about it in advance and that you are not treading on toes. But if your family has been effected by some tragedy then we owe it to them to let them know we are doing it and being responsible.
How much research into the characters did the actors do?
They did a lot of research. There’s quite a number of books dealing with it – all the policemen wrote books – so there’s a huge amount of research that can be done and they all read avidly.
Just from a visual point of view, seeing the promo and seeing Rory as Lucan is quite eerie actually…
Well it’s tricky because his medical records disappeared so nobody has access to those. There are no recordings of him and there are very few photos of him, apart from the archetypal one. Which, again, I think is another reason for the case being so archetypal; you have this branding of this stiff upper-lip character with a very out-of-date moustache and hair-do. And he was such an odd man. He had twelve identical suits; every lunch he ate the same thing – lamb cutlets and smoked salmon, he had these funny routines… his hair-do all slicked down and moustache was kind of very weird.
Final question, what do you think happened to Lucan?[Laughter] The million dollar question! I think we’ve probably got it right – to me, it makes total logical sense – but you’ll have to watch and see!
And with that the interview ends.
Lucan will be broadcast on the 11th December on ITV1.