It is an indicator of almost everything that was wrong with the Rachel Nickell murder investigation that I could not, on hearing of a drama being made about the case, remember if anyone had ever been found guilty. But I remembered the name and face of Colin Stagg as clearly as I remembered that of Nickell. He was the lonely oddball who fitted the profile drawn up by forensic psychologist Paul Britton, and whom the police relentlessly pursued as their prime suspect. An undercover female officer, codenamed “Lizzie James”, was sent to befriend Stagg (or entrap him, as was the view of the judge who threw out the case when it reached trial). Despite the absence of evidence against him, he was found guilty in the court of public opinion and treated accordingly for the next 16 years, until a cold case review led to Robert Napper being convicted of the manslaughter of Nickell.
Deceit (Channel 4), written by Emilia di Girolamo, and based on extensive research and interviews, tells the story of the honeytrap operation and the officer at the centre of it. Niamh Algar gives a phenomenal performance as Lizzie James/Sadie Byrne (not the officer’s real name, as her identity is still protected by court order), a performance layered with certainty and doubt as the officer’s aptitude is stretched to its limit on the most daunting of assignments. Algar shows Byrne’s desire to prove herself in a casually and systemically sexist workplace, which both complements and complicates her desire for justice. You believe and understand her character entirely as, following a plan designed by Britton (Eddie Marsan), Byrne befriends Stagg and inches along the line between encouragement and entrapment. Sion Daniel Young as Stagg does an equally remarkable job – letting all of the man’s unsettling unsavouriness show but never losing touch with his humanity. Our sympathies – or at least enough of them – stay with him to the end.
The problem the drama struggles to overcome is that it is dealing with events that are stranger than fiction. Put simply, it beggars belief that the police relied so unhesitatingly and unquestioningly on a ridiculously vague psychological profile (white man, considered strange by neighbours, probably lives alone or with his mother), and a profiler who believed the odds of two men being on Wimbledon Common at the same time, who both had the kind of sexual fantasies that could have been slaked in such a way, were incalculable. I know the internet was in its infancy back then and we’ve all learned a lot since, but did professors of psychology really exist in quite such a state of prelapsarian innocence in 1992? The only doubt cast on the operation at any point is in a throwaway line or two from Byrne’s colleague Lucy (a woefully underused Rochenda Sandall). Was Britton’s profile really so universally accepted? Surely more of the story lies there?
Deceit is magnificently and stylishly directed by Niall MacCormick, whether in the claustrophobic exchanges between Byrne and Stagg, the profoundly moving moments of revelation or the horror. But another obstacle for the drama is that the professor is at least as creepy as the two murderers we meet. Whether this was a character choice by Marsan or a simple reflection of real events, the effect is the same: another layer of disbelief.
Perhaps it is just that he was a man. Deceit is a study of the wrongs done to women. This ranges from harassment in pubs to professional harms and the greatest outrage of them all. It touches at the end on Napper’s murder of Samantha Bisset and her four-year-old daughter Jazmine, 18 months after he killed Nickell, when the police were still focused on Stagg, and notes the estimated 100 rapes and assaults Napper committed on women in the years before that. The litany of errors by the police that left him free to do so is another story that would defy belief. And that, I suppose, is why they must be told.