The real life story behind Channel 4's new crime show Deceit

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Photo credit: KEVIN BAKER - Getty Images
Photo credit: KEVIN BAKER - Getty Images

Cast your mind back and you may remember the news being dominated by the tragic murder of Rachel Nickell, a young British woman who was killed while walking her dog, with her two-year-old son, Alex, on Wimbledon Common on 15 July 1992. Heartbreakingly, the search to find her true killer would span almost sixteen years and initially see the wrong man, Colin Stagg, charged with her murder (and later acquitted).

Now, almost two decades after that fateful day in the park, Channel 4 is streaming a gripping new series, Deceit, based on the controversial honeytrap murder investigation that attempted to catch Rachel's killer – and in the process, pinned the crime on the wrong man.

In total, it took almost sixteen years for the authorities to correctly find and charge the real killer, Robert Napper, who by that point was living in Broadmoor Hospital, a high security psychiatric spot (having been previously caught for two other murders and hundreds of sexual offences).

Here, we breakdown everything you need to know about the series:

What is Deceit about?

Based on one of the UK’s biggest and most controversial police operations, the series follows the perspective of a female police officer codenamed 'Lizzie James' (actual name Sadie Byrne) who took part in the murder investigation of Rachel Nickell.

Lizzie goes undercover in a honeytrap style operation, striking up a relationship with the main suspect Colin Stagg, in order to get enough evidence to convict him, something which at the time referred to as 'Operation Edzell'.

Writer of the series, Emilia di Girolamo, recently explained in an interview with Radio Times that the show is "depicted from a unique female viewpoint, that of the undercover officer Lizzie."

She added, "Deceit examines the complicated and toxic sexual politics of the early 1990s, the police's obsession with the wrong man and the devastating impact on all involved. With the long running ongoing public enquiry into the tactics used by undercover officers in the past, it felt both timely and important to get under the skin of one of the most controversial undercover operations in British history."

Who stars in Deceit?

Irish actress Niamh Algar (Mother Father Son) plays female officer Lizzie James, while Sion Daniel Young takes on the role of the main suspect, Colin Stagg.

Line of Duty star Rochenda Sandall also appears as a fellow police officer named Lucy, and Eddie Marsan (Happy-Go-Lucky) takes a turn as the nation’s most famous criminal profiler, Paul Britton.

The character of Robert Napper is depicted by Jack Riddiford.

Photo credit: Channel 4  - Channel 4
Photo credit: Channel 4 - Channel 4

What really happened to Rachel Nickell?

On 15 July 1992, mother-of-one Rachel Nickell was brutally killed in broad daylight at Wimbledon Common in London, while she was walking her dog, Molly, with her two-year-old son, Alexander Louis Hanscombe in tow.

The 23-year-old's body, which was stabbed 40 times, was found by a passer-by slightly off the beaten track, and her young son Alex was reportedly clinging to his mother's corpse, begging her repeatedly to wake up.

"To me, my mother just looked like she was lying there, ready to wake any moment like in the imaginary games we used to play," Alex later recalled in an interview with The Guardian. "That feeling of losing someone you love, how everything can change in a matter of seconds... It’s not like it happens in the movies."

Heartbreakingly, he added, "It was so quick, and everything was silent. There was this strange polarity – even though it was hectic and violent and there was blood, at the same time, there was this big feeling of peace and tranquillity."

According to the report from 2017, Alex lives in Barcelona, along with his father André (Rachel's partner). The pair moved to Spain together a few years after Rachel's incredibly sad passing, following a brief stint in rural France a few months after her death.

Who is 'Lizzie James' and what happened in the honeytrap investigation?

The whole nation became obsessed with Rachel's case, which led to high pressure from the public for the police to find and prosecute the killer. Despite interviewing 32 men, officers weren't making much progress with the case. They began to target a local man named Colin Stagg, who was known for walking his dog in the same park, after he was identified via a Crimewatch phone-in.

This led police officer Lizzie James to go undercover to befriend Colin, with the intention of coercing him into confessing to the murder.

As Emilia di Girolamo says, "Lizzie James was asked to become sexual bait, and was styled, coached and given a bizarre satanic backstory specifically designed… to appeal to what the police believed Rachel Nickell’s killer desired."

However, despite Colin's violent instincts, he later admitted to Lizzie that he didn't commit the crime, which was unveiled in secret police recordings between the pair. When trying to coerce him into admitting the murder, Lizzie said, "If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder, if only you had killed her, it would be all right", to which he replied, "I’m terribly sorry, but I haven’t."

Even though Colin proved his innocence, he was falsely charged with murdering Rachel and spent over a year in custody. The real killer, Robert Napper, wasn't found until 2004 (following advancements in DNA technology), which meant up until that point, Colin was left to live a life shrouded in suspicion.

The show's Executive Producer David Nath revealed to RadioTimes that the real-life Colin collaborated on the Channel 4 series "because he wanted the definitive story… that tells the rest of the world he is and was an innocent man."

Photo credit: Deceit / Kevin Baker - Channel 4
Photo credit: Deceit / Kevin Baker - Channel 4

Where are Rachel Nickell's son and partner now?

Rachel was survived by her partner André and son Alex Hanscombe, who went on to write a book about his mother's tragic passing entitled Letting Go: A True Story of Murder, Loss and Survival by Rachel Nickell's Son, which the show's creators may have looked to for inspiration for the Channel 4 series.

When speaking to The Guardian in 2017, André explained that he has since been able to work towards forgiving Napper for murdering Rachel. "I’d been very angry for a very long time," he said. "But reading the psychiatric report and seeing what Robert Napper had been through, he’d had a violent home-life, he'd been sexually abused...

"I'd always told Alex that nobody's better than anybody else. You have to try to understand why they do things. Forgiveness is a process and over the years, almost without knowing it, I'd been through mine and Alex had been through his."

Deceit is streaming now on Channel 4.

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