The British Airways Killer review: A sensitive look at a strange and harrowing case

The case of Robert Brown, a former pilot, is one of the most extraordinary in recent times, and is still not yet concluded. It is told with brilliant clarity in ITV’s The British Airways Killer, never prurient yet always unblinkingly confronting the audience with the hard facts of a brutal unlawful killing. It is an exemplar of real-life crime storytelling, and done with such quiet, understated competence.

During the early evening of Sunday 31 October 2010, Halloween, Brown killed his estranged wife Joanna Simpson with a hammer while their young children hid in the playroom at the family home in Berkshire. His children then saw, from their window, their father loading his wife’s limp body into the boot of his car. From there, he drove to a remote spot in the woods of Windsor Great Park, where he buried her in a garden box in a pre-dug grave. (He has never disputed these actions took place.) Still more extraordinarily, he then called the police and volunteered to be interviewed.

In a further escalation of strangeness, he talked freely to detectives about the events that preceded the unlawful killing, including the breakdown of the marriage, and acknowledged the fact of his wife’s disappearance, but, for a long time, he refused to say anything about the killing itself.

The most astonishing twist in the story comes when the trial jury delivers its verdict, accepting that Brown had been suffering from “adjustment disorder” and finding him guilty of manslaughter through diminished responsibility, rather than murder. It is something that Simpson’s family have been campaigning to reverse ever since.

Joanna Simpson with her daughter and son (ITV)
Joanna Simpson with her daughter and son (ITV)

Using archive footage, CCTV of the police interrogation, home videos and extensive – incredibly moving – fresh testimony from Simpson’s family, friends and the police, The British Airways Killer explores this harrowing case with sensitivity and a real sense of determination to try to get to the truth. The result is a balanced and as dispassionate account as can be achieved, and the absence of any voiceover narration turns what could have become yet another corny, sensationalist documentary into something much more dramatic and immediate – those concerned are speaking directly about what happened, rather than through any third party. We even, for example, see the statement written by their daughter, which says, “I heard him killing my mummy.”

The most moving account comes from Simpson’s mother, Diana Parkes, now 84. She has basically taken on the role of bringing up the children and has spent years campaigning to reverse what she regards as a miscarriage of justice, and latterly to help all victims of domestic abuse. Her courage and devotion to the memory of her late daughter is rather humbling – grief does not impede her quest for justice but fuels it instead.

She tells us about how her daughter confessed that she’d made a terrible mistake shortly after the marriage to Brown, and of her fears for her safety. And she tells us how she insisted on seeing her daughter’s face when she went to identify her, even when Simpson’s head had been caved in by 14 blows with a claw hammer – brought to Simpson’s house by Brown and hidden in a school bag. Now Parkes is fearful and desperate to stop Brown getting early release on parole: “I just wish he’d come and kill me and then he’d definitely be put away and everybody would feel safe.”

Questions about Brown’s behaviour and motives haunt the programme. His premeditation seems obvious from the grave that had been constructed weeks in advance – the forensic archaeologist calls it “totally 100 per cent carefully pre-planned”; Brown says in court he only wanted to use it to bury documents and memories of “the sham of my marriage”.

Simpson’s mother is fearful and desperate to stop Brown getting early release on parole (ITV)
Simpson’s mother is fearful and desperate to stop Brown getting early release on parole (ITV)

His “adjustment disorder” that gave him a reduced sentence was argued over by experts in court, and apparently disappeared after the killing. How much of Brown’s emotional behaviour in court was genuine, and how much was manipulation?

Under new laws, the justice secretary, Alex Chalk, has recently used his powers to refer Brown’s early release from jail on licence, having served 13 years of his 26 year sentence, to the parole board. Brown has challenged that decision, and those proceedings are continuing. Even if Brown’s appeal fails, the parole board will still need to assess Brown and any threat he poses afresh, and, if they keep him incarcerated, his possible release will come up for periodic review.

For all concerned, then, the story of the British Airways Killer is far from over – and the consequences of his actions never will be.

‘The British Airways Killer’ is out on ITV and ITVX