A crime drama revolving around the murders of young women is hardly new territory for ITV. Missing girls, pale bodies on slabs, crying mothers, dogged detectives and endless line-ups of shifty suspects are all rather familiar sights in the 9-10pm slot over on the third channel. And so it goes with their latest offering, A Confession.
There is one rather significant difference here, however. This six-part series is based on the very real disappearances and murders of Wiltshire natives Sian O’Callaghan and Becky Godden-Edwards, back in 2011. Thankfully for the families, the story is in more than capable hands. On writing duties is Jeff Pope, who won a BAFTA some 13 years ago for his scribing work on the outstanding Ian Brady and Myra Hindley drama, See No Evil: The Moors Murders.
There is a very matter-of-fact and down-to-earth approach to A Confession which brings a tangible gravity and realism to what we see on screen. Even despite our main character Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher being played by Sherlock, The Office and Black Panther star Martin Freeman, complete with all the Martin Freeman acting tics he brings to every role.
What’s strange about the series is that it’s structured in much the same way as other dramas of its kind like Broadchurch or The Bay. The information is drip fed to us all rather slowly. That’s fine with fictional pieces, it builds tension, but here it’s a little counter-intuitive. How much suspense can be built around a real-life case? Red herrings aren’t very convincing when a five second Googling on your phone can reveal every detail of the case, after all.
That said, early signs from A Confession episode 1 seems to suggest that we’re in for some low-key class here. The case is a fascinating one. You’ll find out why if you stick with the next five Monday nights on ITV1. So far we don’t even have a murder case, but it’s no spoiler to say that’s set to change next week. It’s also not a huge reveal to tell you that the case revolves around a confession from someone.
Freeman has chosen to underplay Fulcher, a smart move which allows the drama to unfold naturally and not remind you that you’re watching a show that could just as well be called Detective Bilbo Baggins.
Supporting the lead is an impressive cast that includes Cold Feet, Benidorm and Happy Valley‘s Siobhan Finneran. She plays Sian’s mother Elaine Pickford. This Country‘s Charlie Cooper is impressive in his first major dramatic role, featuring as Sian’s boyfriend Kevin. His Swindon burr would have been helpful during auditions, but this is no stunt casting: Cooper gives a fine performance here. The ever-brilliant Imelda Staunton helps round out the cast as the mother of missing sex worker Becky. Former EastEnder Joe Absolom is yet to appear, but plays Christopher Halliwell, a rather central figure to the story.
One hour in and it’s so far, so good. The camerawork is shaky in that old NYPD Blue kind of way. It’s supposed to convey authenticity, but it really just makes you feel slightly bilious. That’s our only critique so far, though.
This is gritty, serious drama. There’s no flair, there’s no great wit and there are no showy or eye-catching performances. A Confession is pared-down and basic. It’s mature television that may not feature many car chases or gun battles, but it does look set to tell an important and fascinating story with patience and solemnity.
We’ll confess, we’re looking forward to seeing how Pope and Freeman tell the story.
Did you watch A Confession episode 1? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below…
Still catching up on A Confession episode 2? Read Steve’s review of episode 1 here.
Crime dramas about missing young women and the dogged and determined detectives searching for them and – inevitably – their killers, don’t often allow a lot of light in. And you can understand why. So it was a refreshing change to be welcomed by a really quite sweet scene here in this second instalment of A Confession – one featuring Imelda Staunton’s Karen Edwards cuddled up in bed with her missing daughter.
That lightness soon turned back to darkness however when it became clear that the embrace was less a reciprocal show of love and more a forcible imprisonment to (rather unsuccessfully) get young Becky Godden off hard drugs. Not only that, but it was 9 years ago meaning that this wasn’t a reunion for mother and daughter – Becky was still very much missing. We were merely glimpsing a snapshot of the difficult time that Karen, Becky and her entire family experienced before her disappearance.
Becky’s wasn’t the only disappearance in Swindon in 2011, of course. Sian O’Callaghan becoming a ‘MisPer’ has been the focal point of A Confession so far. Her whereabouts are as yet unknown, but the driver of the green Toyota Avensis has now been identified. He’s local taxi driver Christopher Halliwell, played by Joe Absolom who soap fans will recognise as EastEnders‘ Matthew Rose from back in the day.
Under lead investigator Steve Fulcher’s instruction, Halliwell is tailed and his behaviour is regarded as more than a little suspicious. Binning car seat covers, burning handbags and buying suicidal amounts of painkillers from a pharmacy are all enough to force Fulcher and his team to put Halliwell in handcuffs sooner rather than later.
Here’s the rub, though, and the basis for the controversy that surrounds this real-life case. Instead of formally arresting the cabbie and taking him back to the station – and risking him ‘hiding behind no comment’ – Fulcher decides to question him on his own at a nearby site that he believes that Halliwell is keeping (or has disposed of) Sian. It’s a move that isn’t exactly by the book. Unless that book happens to be The Big Book of Renegade and Borderline Illegal Police Strategy.
Of course, we’re yet to actually experience any confessions in A Confession, but anyone familiar with the case in real life will know that the confessing part is coming up. In fact, next week’s episode will feature it really quite prominently, we imagine.
Despite being rather finely drawn, Martin Freeman’s performance as Steve Fulcher here is worthy of note. While the actor struggles to shake off the tics he’s carried throughout all of his roles, from The Office’s Tim to Sherlock’s sidekick Watson, this is impressive work. Commanding, yet realistic, Freeman lets the story and the script do the work here, giving an admirably unshowy and restrained performance. It’s the smart move too, given that we’re dealing with a very real story and very real people here.
Freeman’s almost opaque work allows Imelda Staunton to express her character’s despair, anger, grief and hope in a fully expressive and entirely heart-rending way that can’t help but move you. Her work here reminds us all that these kinds of crimes aren’t just cases for the police to solve. They produce real victims and shatter real lives.
Episode 2 is an improvement on last week’s very nearly quite dull opener. The debut hour was good, but suffered somewhat for its subtlety and overly patient approach. Here, though? We’re fully up and running. This is well-paced, patient and serious drama that is – so far, at least – perfectly balancing delivering a tight thriller to its audience and simultaneously telling a true story with the utmost respect and accuracy.
Next week is where the drama really unfolds. It’ll keep you glued to the screen, but remember – this is all based on true events. Because, as the only saying goes, the truth is often stranger than fiction.
Did you watch A Confession episode 2? What did you make of it? Let us know in the comments below!
Still catching up on A Confession episode 3? Read Steve’s review of episode 2 here.
A confession has finally been made in A Confession. During an intentionally slow and creeping first fifteen minutes here, Martin Freeman’s DS Steve Fulcher patiently and expertly teased an admission of guilt from Sian O’Callaghan’s killer Christopher Halliwell (Joe Absolom). It was as tense and claustrophobic as opening scenes come.
Concerned that Halliwell was keeping Sian alive somewhere and not wanting him to ‘hide behind No Comment’, Fulcher took a risk and decided to speak to the handcuffed suspect without his legal representation present. His decision led to Halliwell confessing not only to Sian’s murder, but to that of missing woman Becky Godden’s too. It was a risk that paid off in the short term for the police but – as we’ll learn in the coming weeks – had serious consequences on the case and Steve Fulcher’s career. A Confession is, don’t forget, based very closely on a real-life case.
Although it’s much more realistic – and set in rural Wiltshire, not a baking American desert – there are shades of the final scene of David Fincher’s classic serial killer movie Se7en here. A killer confessing to his crimes in the backseat of a police car, leading detectives to remains… There’s even the odd shot eerie aerial shot, complete with faint helicopter rotor blade noise.
Absolom isn’t gifted to ability to ham things up in quite the same way that Kevin Spacey was in the 1995 film. Yet he still manages to put in a restrained, reserved and cautious performance as Halliwell that’s almost as chilling. He plays the killer as matter of fact, even a little nonplussed. There’s a noticeable lack of remorse for his actions; Halliwell’s only real concern is for his own mental wellbeing.
Of course, by the time the killer is finally sat down in a police station next to a solicitor, he clams up and realises it may be in his best interests to stop talking. The strength and validity of the initial confession now in doubt, Fulcher and his team realise they need solid, tangible evidence of the cab driver’s guilt. Especially given how inadmissible the original confession may well turn out to be… Therein lies the rub.
As the credits rolled at the end of the episode, we were left to recover from an incredibly affecting and profoundly sad and jarring final scene. The remains of Halliwell’s second victim were confirmed as Becky’s, so Fulcher and his colleagues had the unenviable task of informing the family. Not that they needed to exactly. Becky’s mum only needed to see the figures of three smartly-dressed people at her front door to know what was coming.
Imelda Staunton’s simultaneous scream-and-collapse reaction was nothing short of harrowing. It’s a shattering few seconds that gives real insight into the speed and effect of total devastation. And it is utterly heartbreaking.
The moment comes not long after similar scenes are shown from Sian’s house. Her mother, played up to now with an unblinking resilience by Siobhan Finneran (Clocking Off), finally cracks here as confirmation of Sian’s death reaches the house. As her young son returns home from school to the terrible news, sadness and desolation fills the room and screen. It’s so real it’s devastating.
A Confession is not a fun watch. It’s not fast-paced, it’s not exciting, it’s not funny. What it is is necessary and important storytelling. This is mature and sobering television that delivers drama while handling a real-life story expertly and delicately.
Expect BAFTA attention. And our rapt attention over the next three weeks.
Did you watch A Confession episode 3? What did you make of it? Let us know in the comments below!
Still catching up on A Confession episode 4? Read Steve’s review of episode 3 here.
This fourth episode of A Confession takes us from custody suite to the judge’s gavel, with a courtroom-heavy 50-odd minutes of mature and worthy drama. Of course, it’s Joe Absolom’s Christopher Halliwell that’s technically in the dock here. After all, he did viciously and senselessly murder Sian O’Callaghan and Becky Godden. But it’s Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher that’s as much on trial here as Halliwell.
Unlike a lot of crime dramas, this one cares not for the psychology of the killer. This is a story of the victims’ families and the bureaucracy that ruined a fine policeman’s career. Fulcher’s decision to delay cautioning the killer resulted in a confession that led to the discovery of a second body, even though that confession was ultimately deemed to be inadmissible in court. It was something for which Fulcher would be – many people may argue rather unfairly, not least those behind the camera here – chastised for.
There’s a unique pace and tone to A Confession which seems intentional. Writer Jeff Pope (Appropriate Adult, Little Boy Blue) seems to have gone to almost painstaking lengths to put realism at the very forefront of his work here. There’s nothing showy here. Quite the opposite, in fact. From the very basic opening titles, to the lean script and measured performances, this is substance over style at its purest.
It’s this patience and calm that allows everyone’s stories to be fully told and heard. There are enough examinations of the drivers of psychopaths out there in TV Land. A Confession is much more concerned with telling the stories of how these heinous crimes actually affect the innocent: the bereaved and those in authority trying their best to repair the damage done.
Again, Imelda Staunton shines in this fourth episode as the mother of Becky, but it’s Freeman who really stands out. This is some of the 48-year-old’s finest dramatic work to date. Subtle, understated and believable, it really is a fine performance from the Sherlock actor.
Staunton and Siobhan Flannery – as Sian’s mum – are superb in communicating grief through vividly different characters. Clever use of brief but telling flashbacks also help to paint an illuminating picture of the victims, their families and their lives.
The only justifiable criticism that can really be levelled at this mature and sobering crime drama stems from the handheld camerawork. Shaky throughout, we can only presume that this NYPD Blue-style approach is designed to portray a feeling of gritty reality, of ‘being there’, almost. The only reality though is that it can leave the audience feeling really quite seasick. It’s often quite distracting and enough to make us consider stirring some scopolamine into our hot chocolate to combat the motion sickness.
As this fourth episode draws to a close, it seems as though there is a natural end. Halliwell has been convicted and a resolution to the case has been found – at least for Sian’s family, anyway. This is not the end of the story, though. The truth, as we all know, has a habit of being far stranger and infinitely more complex than fiction.
Those viewers with inquiring minds and an interest in true crime will no doubt have already read up on the case. There are plenty more twists and turns to come…
We’ll be there for all of them. We trust you will be too.
Did you watch A Confession episode 4? What did you make of it? Let us know in the comments below!
Still catching up on A Confession episode 5? Read Steve’s review of episode 4 here.
When we think of maverick TV cops hellbent on ‘getting the job done’ no matter what, we think of the likes of Gene Hunt from Life on Mars, Vic Mackey from The Shield and John Luther from – you’ve got it – Luther. Renegades that break the rules to crack the case. Their punishment for going rogue to apprehend the killer? Usually a dressing down from the boss and a couple of weeks’ suspension.
Real life, however, doesn’t quite work like that. Intentionally flouting the law is never really tolerated and – even when the greater good is the intended target – it rarely goes unpunished. As our lead character discoverers here.
Wiltshire Police’s Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher, played with impressive restraint here by Fargo’s Martin Freeman, is hardly what you might call a hotheaded cowboy cop. But, as we’re discovering in Jeff Pope’s patient and engrossing six-part ITV crime drama A Confession, he’s probably about as close as you can get to a real-life maverick.
Foregoing bureaucracy for a result, Fulcher made a decision not to caution killer Christopher Halliwell when squeezing him for information back in March 2011. It was a decision which led to the discovery of Sian O’Callaghan’s body and an admission from Halliwell that he had killed another woman – Becky Godden-Edwards. It was to be an extremely brave decision which would ultimately cost Fulcher very dear.
This penultimate episode divided up its fifty-odd minute running time equally for perhaps the first time. We followed the IPCC investigation into Fulcher’s supposed ‘misconduct’, discovering that the misconduct charge was upheld and that he was given a final written warning – effectively halting any real career progression. We also continued to follow Karen Edwards as she fought for justice for Becky, and Sian’s mother Elaine Pickford as she attempted to put her and her family’s lives back together again.
In truth, this week’s slice of A Confession lacked some of the tension and gravity of previous weeks. But episode 5 wasn’t really supposed to convey any of those things. So while it may not have been quite as dramatic as past instalments, it was still more than effective at showing the emotional toll that the case had on everyone involved.
The triumvirate of Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton and Siobhan Finneran stood particularly firm here. A Confession has a fascinating and important story to tell. It also has clever writers. Yet it’s the cast that raises the piece from worthy drama to essential viewing.
Elaine Pickford and Karen Edwards – through fate – are on diametrically opposed pathways. Both are grieving a daughter murdered by the same callous individual. But due to circumstance, one has to scrap for justice and the other can put her efforts into mending her shattered life. We see the true impact and devastation of both paths here. Neither women will ever be the same again.
This has been patient and in-depth storytelling and a vital tale to tell. That said, with next Monday’s final hour of the six on the horizon, it is tempting to consider that A Confession was perhaps one or two episodes longer than it needed to be.
Then again, maybe Steve Fulcher’s rule-breaking rubbed off on Pope and his team here.
Next week sees the conclusion to the story and while we’re not exactly on tenterhooks, with no cliffhanger to tempt us into watching, we’ll be tuning in regardless. After all, it’s a story which deserves our full attention. Let’s just hope that lessons can be learned from the whole sorry mess.
Did you watch A Confession episode 5? What did you make of it? Let us know in the comments below!
Still catching up on A Confession episode 6? Read Steve’s review of episode 5 here.
It was a little long, the camerawork was a little shaky and the odd accent was a little off. Other than that, it’s extremely difficult to fault what has been perhaps ITV’s finest drama of the year so far. Not that we really want to criticise A Confession, you understand. After all, it’s been a truly excellent addition to Monday night schedules this past month and a half.
Telling the incredible true story of the aftermath of the murders of Swindon natives Sian O’Callaghan and Becky Godden-Edwards, Jeff Pope’s sobering and impeccably conceived six-parter gallantly brought police and judicial incompetence and bureaucracy to light. It also gave us a glimpse into just how devastating losing a child to murder can be. And what the true price of sacrifice can be for anyone who believes in doing the right thing.
This sixth and final episode saw about as satisfying a resolution to the case as we could have hoped for. This is a serious ITV crime drama, not a Liam Neeson action thriller, so we had to make do with Christopher Halliwell (Joe Absolom) getting his comeuppance in a courtroom. Though there are no doubt plenty of viewers who may have enjoyed a final scene involving Martin Freeman’s former DS Steve Fulcher bouncing Halliwell’s head off the wall.
This last episode opens some three years after the events of episode five. Having quit the force, Steve is contracting as a security consultant over in Benghazi. A change in command at Wiltshire Police sees Becky Godden’s case reopened and the imprisoned Christopher Halliwell arrested for her murder. A court date is then set. All that’s needed is for Steve to return to England and take the stand in front of a new judge and – with his previously inadmissible confession now admissible – help send Halliwell down even further…
The most admirable thing about this final episode of A Confession – and perhaps the entire series – has been its ability to create tension where there isn’t a great deal of it. This is a true story, one which is hardly obscure or hidden. Yet it’s remained dramatic and edge-of-the-seat stuff throughout.
There was never any real doubt that Halliwell, arrogant and naive enough to decide to represent himself in court, was going to get away with Becky’s murder once the case began. Yet there was something gladiatorial between him and Fulcher here. It was a battle that Halliwell would lose and one which the audience at home could revel in. His sentencing was our Liam Neeson bouncing his head off the wall moment.
Christopher John Halliwell will spend the rest of his life in prison for the callous and brutal murders of Sian O’Callaghan and Becky Godden-Edwards. And rightly so.
Of course, Martin Freeman, Joe Absolom, Imelda Staunton and Siobhan Finneran were faultless to the end. The latter two’s ability to portray the different kinds of pain, sorrow and heartbreak was truly outstanding. At least one of them should clear a little space at home for a BAFTA next year.
Mature, thoughtful, patient, sobering, brave and vital, A Confession appeared in our living rooms with little fanfare. As an examination of how sometimes you have to do the wrong thing in order to do the right thing, as well as a portrait of grief and resilience, it leaves as one of the year’s best dramas.
Did you watch A Confession episode 6? What did you make of it? Let us know in the comments below!