ITV1 commissions The Suspicions of Mr Whicher adaptation The Stage
By Matthew Hemley
Published Thursday 26 August 2010 at 09:58
Red Riding actor Paddy Considine is to star in an adaptation of Kate Summerscale's book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher for ITV1.
The two-hour drama is being made by Hat Trick Productions and adapted by Neil McKay, whose credits include Mo and See No Evil - The Moors Murders.
Set in 1860, the true story tells of the investigation into the murder of three-year-old Saville Kent.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher will film on location around London in October.
It is being directed by James Hawes and the executive producer for Hat Trick Productions is Mark Redhead.
Redhead said: "This a very modern story. It gripped the country in the way that the case of Madeleine McCann has done in our day. It became an obsession for the press and was even debated in the House of Commons. Perhaps for the first time, the Rode Hill House murder exposed the darkness that lay behind the solid front door of the respectable English home. As a story it is riveting but also deeply touching."
The production was commissioned by ITV director of drama commissioning Laura Mackie and controller of drama commissioning Sally Haynes.
EXCLUSIVE to mccannfiles.com
By Dr Martin Roberts
02 August 2010
ANOTHER PLACE AND TIME
The place is a solidly middle-class establishment in Victorian Wiltshire. The time, Friday 29 June, 1860. Head of the household, Samuel Kent, is asleep with his second wife in their first-floor bedroom. Three younger children and live-in nursemaid Elizabeth Gough have likewise retired for the night. Several older children from a previous marriage, including a teenage son and daughter, are installed on the floor above. At 5.00 a.m. on the Saturday morning, the nursemaid notices one of the younger children, Saville Kent (3 yrs.,10 months), is not in his cot, but assumes he has been taken by his mother into her own bed. After a couple of hours she is disabused of her supposition and a hunt begins for the missing infant.
With no immediate sign of Saville, attention is drawn to an open window in the downstairs drawing room. The assumption that an intruder had absconded with the child quickly gains widespread support. Until, that is, the young boy's body is found lodged against a 'splash board' in the shaft of an outside 'privy.'
At this point the research and narrative skills of author Kate Summerscale must be fully acknowledged. Her 2008 publication 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Road Hill House Murder' is the complete source for this story as well as the quotes which follow, the first of these taken from The Morning Post of 10 July, 1860:
'...in spite of all these proverbial sanctities, a crime has just been committed which for mystery, complication of probabilities, and ludicrous wickedness, is without parallel in our criminal records...the security of families, and the sacredness of English households demand that this matter should never be allowed to rest till the last shadow in its dark mystery shall have been chased away by the light of unquestionable truth...The secret lies with someone who was within...the household collectively must be responsible for this mysterious and dreadful event. Not one of them ought to be at large till the whole mystery is cleared up...one (or more) of the family is guilty.'
Given the seriousness of the crime and the mysterious circumstances in which it had been committed, local magistrates saw fit to solicit the Home Office for assistance. Despite initial reluctance, come 14 July, Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher of the Metropolitan Police was assigned to the case.
A time-served member of the constabulary and senior representative of the more recently established detective arm, 'Jack' Whicher was not your everyday copper, even for the age in which he lived and worked. As unprepossessing as he may have been physically, his efficacy as a detective was the stuff of legend. Indeed, it formed the basis of later detective fiction. In one of his earliest reports on this case to Commissioner Sir Richard Mayne, Whicher wrote of the drawing room window:
'This window which is about ten feet high, comes down within a few inches of the ground and faces the lawn at the back of the house, and opens by lifting up the bottom sash, which was found up about six inches at the bottom. These shutters were fastened with a Bar inside, consequently no entry could be made from the outside...Therefore it is quite certain that no person came in by that window...I therefore feel quite convinced that the window shutters were merely opened by one of the inmates, to lend to the supposition that the child had been stolen.'
Consistent with Whicher's documented interpretation, Summerscale informs her readers that "At first Samuel (Kent) did his best to point the police away from the rooms of his family and servants. Like Elizabeth Gough, he insisted that a stranger had killed Saville."
D. I. Whicher's 'nose' led him to a fairly swift conclusion. Pursuing both the evidence, such as it was, and the behavioural characteristics of the various members of the Kent household, on 20 July he reported his suspicions to Wiltshire magistrates, who in turn required that he arrest the suspect in question; an act which would inevitably go against the grain of Victorian society with its much vaunted faith in family and the social order.
Through shrewd background enquiries, Whicher had elicited a telling fusion of character references, but more immediate physical evidence, that he knew to have been a feature of the crime, was conspicuous by its absence, namely a nightdress seemingly unaccounted for. "Then as now, many clues were literally made of cloth - criminals could be identified by pieces of fabric."
Frustratingly for Whicher and the watching world, it was this very omission, together with eloquent appeals from the accused's legal representative, Barrister Peter Edlin, which decided the Magistrates against committing the suspect for trial after all. The accused had held out and was unexpectedly well positioned to exploit the situation. Summerscale describes a relevant precedent thus:
"Madeleine Smith had shown that by being cunning and immovable a middle-class murderess could become a figure of glamour and mystery, a kind of heroine. And if she kept her nerve she might never be caught."
The situation rebounded on Whicher directly, as Summerscale again explains:
"On 15 August...Whicher was denounced in Parliament. Sir George Bowyer, the leading Roman Catholic Spokesman in the Commons, complained about the quality of Britain's police inspectors, using Whicher as an example. 'The recent investigation with regard to the Road murder afforded striking proof of the unfitness of some of the present officers', he said."
And it didn't end there.
"Petitions were sent to the Home Secretary asking for a special commission to investigate the Road Murder - a Bath solicitor was appointed to conduct an 'investigation.'"
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is an extraordinary book, dealing with an extraordinary historical event, and it would be inappropriate here to reveal the denouement of the story. Suffice to say however that 'what goes around comes around.' There was a comeuppence, and Summerscale is later able to inform us:
"The Somerset and Wilts Journal reminded its readers of the 'merciless and almost universal...censure' to which this 'able and experienced' officer (Whicher) had been subjected."
Art reflects life - reflects art - and Summerscale repeatedly includes examples of the influence this real-life case had on the development of detective fiction subsequently.
"In 'The Moonstone', as at Road Hill, the original source of the crime was a wrong done in a previous generation: the sins of the father were visited on the children like a curse."
In her postscript to the paperback edition, Summerscale postulates, with some justification, that Samuel Kent, the father, was already 'plotting the first book about the murder of Saville Kent' in the winter of that same year, 1860."