Simon Heath Executive Producer

Posted by ac555 at Mar 31, 2015 11:05 AM |
The Executive Producer of Code of a Killer discusses making the ITV drama
Simon Heath Executive Producer

Source: ITV Press Centre

How did Code of a Killer come to the screen?

The director James Strong and I have worked together on two other projects. A film called United for BBC2 and then The Great Train Robbery for BBC1. James had directed a documentary about the discovery of DNA fingerprinting and how it was used to catch the killer. He mentioned it to me, sent a couple of pages and a link to the documentary. I watched it and I was open mouthed at the story and the way it evolved. It was something no script writer could make up. I immediately said, ‘I think it would make a fantastic drama.’ It had been in James’s head for a while because he had made the documentary 12 years ago. We teamed up with a writer James had worked with previously, Michael Crompton, and took it to ITV.

It is surprising this story has not been made into a TV drama before?

Yes. Which was always the thing people said about United, about the Munich Air Disaster.  You know you’re on to something then. Because there’s all kinds of reasons why stories don’t get to the screen. In the development of Code of a Killer we discovered there were a couple of previous attempts to bring the story to the screen. But there’s timing and research and access and, ultimately, delivering a script the broadcaster feels confidence in.

An extraordinary story?

I love the fact it has these two disparate elements. A science story - science stories always fascinate me. That ability of one man to break through the barrier of knowledge. But then a classic crime investigation with a dogged detective who’s prepared to take a massive leap of faith. They almost sound like feature films in and of themselves. And then to actually weave them together and create a unique DNA in themselves, it just feels to me like a no-brainer.

What approach did you decide to take?

We realised there was quite a lot of story before our two heroes - David Baker and Alec Jeffreys - met each other. So there was a discussion of where was the best point to start? Michael, James and I agreed it was fine to watch those stories happening in parallel. As long as you were suggesting to the audience that at some point these two strands were going to come together in a very potent way. In some ways they meet quite late in film one. And then film two is about how the science and the police really do come together to catch a killer.

DNA testing is commonplace today. But the world of policing and science was a very different place in the 1980s?

It was. It’s interesting not just being on the cusp of DNA fingerprinting when our story is set but also on the cusp of PACE (The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984). So all of the regulations we’ve come to see as standard in terms of police procedure, having a solicitor present, recording interviews and so on, they just weren’t around.

Even the use of computers was relatively new in investigations and that’s acknowledged by David Baker’s senior officer early in the first film. David was very much a pioneer of computers as well and sat on a central committee. So we’re talking about almost the last days of an old era of policing. DNA fingerprinting, computing and PACE ushered in a brand new era that started at the end of the 80s.

This is, of course, a heartbreaking and sensitive story for the family and friends of both victims, Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth. You liaised with the families?

Initially we approached both the mothers. Dawn’s mother Barbara spoke to us straight away and was fantastically supportive and open and shared with Michael a huge amount of stuff. And it’s through her we’ve contacted Lynda’s mother Kath. She’s read the scripts and is very happy with the approach we’re taking. I think to have the blessing of both mothers was hugely reassuring. We’re trying to portray that aspect of the story as sensitively as possible. You see very little, if anything, of the attacks. It’s just the sense that they did happen. Because, in essence, this is about how Alec and David came together and achieved justice for those two mothers and the rest of the families.

Barbara, who we have more direct communication with, is very pleased because it keeps the memory of her daughter alive. She said to us that she wants as many people as possible to watch the films.

The focus of the drama is not on the killer?

No. That is a deliberate choice. We’re not interested in his point of view. We’re interested in how David and Alec’s work flushed him out, effectively.

I worried about period science equipment but the University of Leicester has been fantastic and we’ve shipped down lorry loads of props to flesh out our ‘Alec’s laboratory’.


Simon Heath

Can you tell us about Alec Jeffreys and David Baker as characters and the casting of John Simm and David Threlfall?

Alec Jeffreys was very young when he made the discovery. So we were looking at a younger actor and John Simm is youthful for his age and seemed to fit the spirit of Alec, who is not a toff. And I think John plays that rather well, that mix of someone who is an academic but he’s also a bloke from Luton.

 With David Baker, who was 15 years older than Alec, he’s a classic old school copper in the sense of being quite lugubrious, doesn’t get easily flustered, doesn’t get overly-excited when the breakthroughs come. And David Threlfall delivers that perfect’s a Midlands thing. If something’s fine, that’s brilliant. People don’t get over-excited.”

What sort of relationship did Alec and David have in the 1980s?

One of the things the film has done is to extrapolate that relationship in film two. Because in some ways their relationship was at arm’s length. But as a way of capturing the way the science worked alongside the police, for the purpose of the drama it seemed much better to expand that relationship. Because what’s interesting now, with the film being made, is they are seeing even more of each other 30 years on. There was a dinner while filming which was delightful. David and Alec and their wives came along and various other people connected to the University of Leicester. It was wonderful to be able to host it and thank everyone for allowing us to tell the story.

The interview is taking place in the very same laboratory where that ‘Eureka Moment’ happened in 1984. It’s quite an astonishing thing to contemplate?

It is. When DNA testing was used firstly in immigration and paternity cases, Alec was called away on lecture tours and he went on a couple of tours of America. He was on a chat show in America and the first question was, ‘Well, if this DNA fingerprinting test is so important, why wasn’t it invented in the States?’ I think that sums up the arrogance of a broader world. That they couldn’t believe this research scientist working in a slightly unfashionable British university had the major breakthrough in criminal investigation in the 20th century.

David Baker was a visionary in terms of making that leap in policing?

He was. David is a very traditional, solid man. If you were writing this character in a drama you might get some brand new young detective coming in. David had done his time but he was someone who was prepared to use any tool available to make an investigation work. That started with things like computers. He was a pioneer of taping suspects’ interviews, which was incredibly important. But then also when he heard about the science of DNA fingerprinting. Bear in mind all the articles were saying at that time was that it was applicable to immigration and paternity cases. Alec hadn’t envisaged it being used, initially, as a tool of police investigation. Partly because there were questions over whether DNA would get contaminated or degrade at crime scenes. So David was taking a big leap when he approached him.

The very first result of a criminal DNA test actually cleared an innocent young man who may have otherwise spent his life behind bars?

It’s one of the amazing things that it saved somebody’s life, really. A local teenager had confessed to the murder of the second girl. It was only his denial of the first murder, and I think David’s own genuine concerns about the validity of the confession, that led David to Alec. But it was almost the only piece of evidence the rest of the world would have believed to reverse the direction it had gone in. It needed something as categoric and scientific as DNA fingerprinting for people to believe the confession was a false one.

A younger audience might be surprised it was only discovered some 30 years ago?

I think they will be surprised. There are lots of people who assume DNA fingerprinting has been around since the Second World War. And so to know it’s only 30 years old - in America it was only first used or allowed in court in the 1990s. This is very recent stuff. It will be surprising.

What locations have you used for filming?

We’ve been all over, including the University in Leicester. There is a disused science park at Dagenham in east London which has been fantastic. Both to recreate Alec’s laboratory, because we can’t get under everyone’s feet at Leicester Uni while they’re still trying to do their work. Also Aldermaston, which is where all the actual mass screening results went. So we created a big scale laboratory there. We also built Enderby Police Station there.

Then in terms of the villages and the houses that are period correct, we’ve gone right out into Surrey and found places around there that match very closely the locations we need to get. There was never any question of filming in the real villages. It did not feel right to be shooting there. That was an easy decision to make.

The geography of those three neighbouring Leicestershire villages - Narborough, Enderby and Littlethorpe - is important. These crimes had a big impact on those communities?

Yes, absolutely. Visually we’ve tried to find locations that link the houses with the Black Pad and the Ten Pound Lane. So you really aware of the fact this is a very small area. So that when the mass screening comes about you understand if you go round a five mile area, there are only 5000 men that were of the correct age. It was still an extraordinary endeavour. And that those men came forward voluntarily because of the tight-knit community spirit that had been ruptured by these terrible crimes.

While this is relatively recent history, it is a period drama. What were the challenges of depicting this era?

It is always difficult sourcing period cars. But I think the art department have done wonderfully. I worried about period science equipment but the University of Leicester has been fantastic and we’ve shipped down lorry loads of props to flesh out our ‘Alec’s laboratory’ and our Aldermaston. When you’ve got such a fantastic team they can access this stuff. I have no idea where some of it comes from but it just looks brilliant.

This was a time before mobile phones when many homes also did not have telephone landlines. Dawn Ashworth was attacked having called on a friend to tell her she could not go out that night - because her friend did not have a landline to call?

It is extraordinary. It was not uncommon for people not to have a telephone in the house. It was the age of the phone box. But if two houses didn’t have a phone and you were living in the villages, you just flitted backwards and forwards. Those places had been very safe places to live and then these terrible murders happened.

How does it feel on a personal level to bring a story as important as this to a wide audience?

I always feel I’m very privileged to have this job because you get to explore other worlds. You’re making a drama but you get to learn so much. Learning about DNA fingerprinting has been a real privilege. It’s something I got very excited about. Then being able to make a matter of record this brilliant historical moment where David Baker and Alec Jeffreys came together. As a producer you’re privileged. I’m curious about the world and drama is a good way of accessing those different worlds.

Source: ITV Press Centre

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