Denial of Murder - the background to the film by Neil McKay
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.
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
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.
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.
addition to the awkward police conclusions, Stephen Downing had
apparently confessed to his girlfriend and father that he had in
fact murdered Wendy Sewell.
view of many of those who read and watched media reports of all
this inevitably shifted. Was this now another kind of story altogether?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
since his conviction for the murder of Wendy Sewell, Stephen Downing
and his family continued to protest his innocence.
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.
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.
Hale began an extraordinary and tenacious campaign to free Stephen
- using his own paper, the Matlock Mercury, as his main platform.
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.
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.
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.
the drama also contains a portrayal of the life of the murder victim
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.
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.
fact-based dramas are hard-hitting campaigning pieces with a clear
agenda or message, but In Denial of Murder isn't one of these.
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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