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29 October 2014
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In Denial of Murder - the background to the film by Neil McKay

When Stephen Downing was released from prison in February 2001, having served 27 years for the murder of Wendy Sewell, Tony Blair rose in the House of Commons to offer his personal congratulations to both Downing and Don Hale, the local newspaper editor who had campaigned for his release for six years.

That the event was saluted by no less a figure than the Prime Minister came as no surprise. Thanks to the efforts of Don Hale the Downing case had become a cause celebre; media coverage across the world was extensive.

The list of eminent people who it seemed had watched and saluted the campaign was extraordinary. It included such diverse figures as Auberon Waugh, Ann Widdecombe, Sir Alex Ferguson, Johan Cruyff, Rupert Murdoch, Clive Anderson, Esther Rantzen, Nelson Mandela and Jack Straw... It seemed that anyone who was anyone had been swept up in this case.

Two years later, when Derbyshire police concluded their reinvestigation of the murder of Wendy Sewell, the Bakewell typist who Downing had been convicted of killing in 1974, by stating that he remained the only plausible suspect, things looked rather different.

In addition to the awkward police conclusions, Stephen Downing had apparently confessed to his girlfriend and father that he had in fact murdered Wendy Sewell.

The view of many of those who read and watched media reports of all this inevitably shifted. Was this now another kind of story altogether?

The challenge Mark Redhead and I faced in dramatising this story was to embrace these apparent contradictions; and to try to understand how a story which began almost as small town rumour and gossip could have turned into one which drew national and international interest, which generated and still generates many heated and conflicting opinions.

We had one further challenge, which came to seem more and more important: that of trying to understand the one figure that most people seemed to have forgotten - the murder victim.

At a critical juncture in the campaign to free Stephen Downing, Wendy Sewell had been dubbed 'The Bakewell Tart'. The epithet caught on fast. It was believed that Wendy, although married, had had a number of affairs with local men.

The clear suggestion was that - driven by jealousy or desire - one or more of them had murdered her. The 'Tart' label seemed to give even greater credence to this theory. The implication was that through behaving promiscuously Wendy had in some way been responsible for her own death. Could this have been the case? What kind of person was Wendy really? These became critical questions.

The research process for In Denial of Murder was intensive. It involved reading considerable amounts of legal documents, correspondence and written material, and many visits to Matlock and Bakewell.

Countless hours were spent talking to key figures, including Don Hale, the Downing family, journalists who had worked on the story, serving and retired police officers, witnesses from the original murder enquiry, relatives and friends of Wendy Sewell, and numerous others.

What emerged was a complex and extraordinary picture, not just of the personalities involved, but also of a community. Bakewell may be a picturesque Peak District town, but it is a real place too with a specific character.

Ever since his conviction for the murder of Wendy Sewell, Stephen Downing and his family continued to protest his innocence.

Whilst Stephen served his sentence, his parents and sister continued to live in Bakewell, insisting that they had no reason to feel ashamed - because it was not their son who had killed Wendy.

Numerous attempts were made over the years - via the legal process, the local MP and the press - to overturn the conviction. But it was not until Stephen had served more than 20 years that the Downings approached Don Hale, the editor of the local paper, and asked for help.

Don Hale began an extraordinary and tenacious campaign to free Stephen - using his own paper, the Matlock Mercury, as his main platform.

He faced many obstacles including resistance and even threats of legal action from the police, and a seemingly interminable legal process. But each obstacle proved to be an extra spur.

Gradually, national press and television began to take an interest. Support for Don Hale and the Downings came slowly at first, but in due course turned into an avalanche and this, coupled with parallel work from Stephen Downing's legal representatives, eventually lead to the overturning of his conviction and release from prison.

The film charts the progress of this campaign, but follows it beyond that. It portrays Don Hale's subsequent relationship with the Downing family and covers the police re-investigation of the murder, a gripping enough story in itself.

But the drama also contains a portrayal of the life of the murder victim Wendy Sewell.

As the campaign to free Stephen Downing had grown, there were many in the Bakewell area who had actually known Wendy Sewell who became at first bewildered and then dismayed about the way she was being portrayed. They were simply unable to recognise the portrait that was being painted of her in the media.

And so - intercut with the campaign to free Stephen Downing - is an account of Wendy Sewell's life. It is an equally compelling and moving story of a woman who, although no saint, was not the 'tart' she has been portrayed as but a warm, immensely likeable human being struggling for the kind of fulfilment most women seek.

Some fact-based dramas are hard-hitting campaigning pieces with a clear agenda or message, but In Denial of Murder isn't one of these.

The intention isn't to drive the audience to conclusions, but to portray as truthfully as possible, and without moralising, this complex, multi-sided story and allow the audience to make up their own minds. What we feel sure of is that this drama will make them look at this story in a very new light.


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