The Sherlock actor on his new role as a real life police officer who broke the law to bring a double murderer to justice in A Confession
No one who learns how the police got the killer Christopher Halliwell to confess can help but wonder what they would have done: break the law and face the consequences? Or toe the line? Actor Martin Freeman was no different when he watched interviews with the controversial investigating officer Det Supt Steve Fulcher back in 2011.
“Before you even realise it you are thinking, how would I have acted?” says Freeman ahead of the broadcast next month of A Confession, an ITV drama series in which he plays Fulcher. “I was hit by what a very high price Steve paid, and is still paying, for doing something, although not legal by every letter of the law, that you would be hard pushed to find anyone to say was terribly wrong.”
From the moment Fulcher arrested Halliwell on suspicion of kidnapping 22-year-old Sian O’Callaghan the clock was ticking. The detective believed the missing woman might still be alive and so he did not wait for the suspect to have access to a lawyer, even though this would inevitably damage his career and any future court case.
“Certainly this drama makes you wonder if you could have been so brave, because who, with a life at stake, would really wish Halliwell had been given the opportunity to clam up?” asks Freeman.
O’Callaghan’s short walk home from a Swindon night club in the early hours of Saturday 19 March 2011 should have taken her less than 15 minutes. But she never made it back. The police’s first evidence that an abduction had taken place came when a text from her worried boyfriend was shown to have been received on her phone 12 miles away near the Savernake Forest at 3.24am. How had she travelled so far?
On the following Wednesday, Fulcher and his police team suddenly called off a volunteer search of the area. They had tracked down the driver of a green minicab seen pulling up next to O’Callaghan. He was Halliwell, a 47-year-old father of three.
Halliwell was arrested in an Asda carpark as he attempted to buy a large number of paracetemol tablets. The next step should have been to caution the suspect during the short drive to Gablecross police station. Instead, Fulcher took Halliwell to Barbary Castle, an iron age hill fort, for hours of personal questioning.
The strategy worked, although it did not save a life. Halliwell eventually revealed that O’Callaghan’s body was buried near Uffington. The killer went on to reveal that another body, belonging to Becky Godden-Edwards, a 20-year-old missing for nearly a decade, was in a Gloucestershire field.
Later Fulcher was accused of breaching the guidelines of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (Pace) and both Halliwell’s confessions were deemed inadmissible as evidence. In January 2014 the detective was found guilty of “gross misconduct”. He resigned from Wiltshire police that spring.
“The biggest tragedy is the women who died and their families. But this is an awful thing that happened to him,” says Freeman. It was the wider implications of the policeman’s dilemma that drew him to the screenplay. Scriptwriter Jeff Pope agrees: “This is not just about how the bodies were found. It is beyond that. It is about what we want our police to do.”
The detective’s actions were largely supported by the family of O’Callaghan and by Godden’s mother, Karen Edwards, who is played by Imelda Staunton in Pope’s drama and who campaigned to change procedure laws, Pace, to give more protection to the police.
Freeman and Pope admit there is no shortage of police procedurals on television but they argue this story is unique. “There may be a disproportionate amount of cop stuff, but by sticking close to a true story you avoid cliches,” Freeman says. “We’re living in a society where bad things happen and we all want bad people to be brought to justice – whether they are cops or robbers. Fulcher was deemed to be a bad guy by some people because he did not dot every i.” It is the first time Freeman has played someone he has actually met and he found it an interesting prospect. Impersonation was never the plan, the actor says: “I did put in a few mannerisms that were helpful and germane, but not if it meant railroading a scene just so I can show what research I’ve done. The story is moving at such a pace, I can’t stop to show people another thing I gleaned about Steve.”
Freeman was gratified, though, “from an ego point of view”, by the reaction of Fulcher’s family, who felt he had captured the man they know. There is a proviso, though. “By Fulcher’s own admission, the man I met was not the man I would have met in 2010. I do know he was never fantastic at suffering fools. And that may, or may not, have been instrumental in what happened to him afterwards, since if I have rubbed you up the wrong way and you later see an opportunity to kick me in the nuts, you might take it. It is pretty beyond question he was a very good copper. And when people are very good at their job, sometimes people resent it.”
For Freeman, the role was a fresh chance to underline his versatility. Since his breakthrough lead role in The Office in 2001, he has dodged typecasting. “When I was 30, I did have a fear of being locked in. I could easily have made a career of just doing lovable schmucks next door,” he says.
Freeman’s subsequent portrayal of Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit films and his high-profile stints playing opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock have also loomed large. “Although Watson is an intermittent long-runner, on the whole I have managed to keep moving,” he says.
He hopes A Confession will give viewers a version of Fulcher’s story that stays “near the truth”: “We haven’t made anyone into a demon or an evil idiot.” Pope also wants his screen version to offer some cartharsis for the former detective, who has complained to him of the continued trauma of feeling that he is shouting out, but that no one can hear him.
Halliwell was eventually convicted for both murders and is unlikely to ever be released from prison, but the case was deeply damaging for the detective. With luck, Pope feels, his series can provide a neater conclusion.
There is “no question” of a second series and this finality is something Pope knows that Freeman values. “I like things being finite,” the actor agrees. “With a cultural thing, I am always glad things end. They are supposed to end.”
A Confession will be on ITV in September