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TV review: The Pale Horse and White Horse Farm

14 February 2020

Mammoth Screen 2019

The Pale Horse (BBC1)

The Pale Horse (BBC1)

HAVE you noticed that, even in these godless days, copies of the Bible still appear from time to time on our TV screens? Unfortunately, as far as crime dramas are concerned, instead of indicating the living Word of God, they are employed as damning shorthand, signifying to us viewers that the book’s owner is off his or her rocker.

In the case of The Pale Horse, the new two-part “adaptation” of Agatha Christie’s novel (BBC1, Sunday), it is a relatively minor case of unfortunate religious delusion, on a par with the subject’s teetotalism, bad teeth, and general lower-class persona.

The publicity fanfare that greeted this production is, in my opinion, entirely misplaced. A series of unexpected although apparently entirely natural deaths are named on a list hidden in the shoe of an aged crone (deceased), and linked to a Surrey village, the lair of a trio of female witches endowed with second sight. This village holds an annual Lammas festival that, for concentrated menace, far outdoes The Wicker Man, and is to be found in Surrey’s famous limestone belt (i.e. Gloucestershire).

This is TV made for export, pushing every conventional button of picturesque Little Ole England. In this case, the “ole” is no older than the 1960s; but that still excuses a feast of vintage cars, beautifully tailored clothes, and settings that enable us to recognise, for example, exactly the kind of Formica table that my grandmother owned. It is, in other words, nostalgia porn, the visual frisson papering over the yawning chasms of plot, character, or motive.

Utterly different is ITV’s magnificent White Horse Farm (Wednesdays), a dramatic six-part reconstruction of the appalling 1985 murders of churchwardens Neville and June Bamber, their adopted daughter, Sheila Caffell, and her twin six-year-old sons. Caffell lived with schizophrenia, and it was originally presumed that she had butchered her family and then turned the gun on herself. But there were curious discrepancies in the evidence, and, eventually, the adopted son, Jeremy Bamber, was convicted of the murders.

Here, the Bible was found next to Caffell’s body, proof of her religious mania — or was it planted by the murderer to make it look like that? In this case, the sensationalism rests with the facts of the events themselves; no energy is wasted trying needlessly to rack it up. We are confronted with moral ambiguity, and evidence that may or may not have been tampered with. We are made to judge for ourselves between truth and falsehood.

This is not a puzzle whose solution will bring the matter — as in crime fiction — to a satisfactory conclusion. In real life, the big truth is far less about the clarity with which guilt is established and the perpetrator punished: it is about five human lives brutally ended, a tragedy that will always haunt everyone who cared about them.

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