Published on: 14 August 2023 in Longform

“It felt like such a heart-breaking and extraordinary story”: Saul Dibb on directing BBC One’s The Sixth Commandment

Reading time: 17 minutes and 15 seconds

A four-part BBC One crime drama now available on BBC iPlayer, The Sixth Commandment explores how the meeting of an inspirational teacher, Peter Farquhar, and a charismatic student, Ben Field, led to one of the most complex and confounding criminal cases in recent memory. 

We spoke to director Saul Dibb to learn more about what interested him in telling Peter Farquhar’s story, as well as how he approached portraying real people on screen. 

Read our conversation with Saul below. 

The Sixth Commandment is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.

Director Saul Dibb
Director Saul Dibb

How did you first become attached to The Sixth Commandment as a project?  

I’d seen the documentary (Catching a Killer) that executive producer, Brian Woods, had made for Channel 4, and I was fascinated by it. I thought it was extraordinary to be there while this story played out in real time. I had also worked with Sarah Phelps previously, and I’m a massive fan of her writing.  

When the first episode came through from Derek Wax (Executive Producer at Wild Mercury), I was so moved by it, initially by the “love story” at its core, or by what Peter Farquhar (played by Timothy Spall) believed was the love story – here was a 67-year-old gay man, who’d never had a relationship before, never been in love before. That alone felt extraordinary, and then for it to develop into a completely different kind of narrative, when you begin to realise what Ben Field (played by Éanna Hardwicke) is doing to him - it felt unique to be looking at it from a very different and very human perspective.

I love that what was being established was a story about the people at the receiving end of Ben Field’s horrific gaslighting and manipulation, and that it dedicated a whole episode to each of them, rather than just some cursory characterisation. I also loved that it evolved over time, bringing in a whole new set of characters throughout its arc, meaning there were different elements to the story within each episode. It felt very unusual and exciting, as well as having a lot of meaning; it felt like it was really about something which, as a director, I’m always looking for.  

Image credit: BBC/Wild Mercury/Amanda Searle
Image credit: BBC/Wild Mercury/Amanda Searle

Once you’re attached to a project, what happens next? Tell us how you went about reaching out to your Heads of Department and choosing your crew. 

I’d previously filmed The Salisbury Poisonings (BBC, 2018) in Bristol, and we returned to film this series there, so I initially tried to work with the same Heads of Department again, as I’d had a great experience before. If they weren’t available, we went out and got recommendations, we talked to people... I don’t always feel like I need somebody who is necessarily the most experienced person or who has really proved themselves already. What I love is finding people who are yet to prove themselves, seeing extraordinary talent in their work, their pitches, or their conversations, and knowing that they get it.  

I think it creates a brilliant atmosphere when everybody is hungry and keen, when you’re exploring new territory, and you see great talent plus great potential working together. Ultimately, what I’m looking for is people I feel I can work with, who will in turn work in the way that I like - I’m looking for a shared sensibility more than anything else.

Image credit: BBC/Wild Mercury/Amanda Searle; Timothy Spall as Peter Farquhar
Image credit: BBC/Wild Mercury/Amanda Searle; Timothy Spall as Peter Farquhar

The performances in this programme are fantastic. Tell us about the casting, and how you found your actors? 

I think sometimes people are surprised that directors are involved with casting, particularly when working in television, whereas this is one of our essential jobs. As a director, you bring your taste and your choice of actors to a project, but you also bring your ability to hopefully create an environment where they can do their best work. 

We worked with two brilliant casting directors, Julie Harkin and Nathan Toll, and very early on, we discussed the idea of Timothy Spall as Peter Farquhar, which felt like an obvious choice. Talking to him about Peter Farquhar, I felt he could bring something special. Timothy is very sensitive, knowledgeable, artistic, and he shares so many of those qualities that Peter Farquhar had. He also said he was slightly terrified about playing the role, which is always a good sign.  

My feeling was that the older people should be played by great, recognisable actors. For example, in casting Timothy Spall, Anne Reid (Ann Moore-Martin), Sheila Hancock (Liz Zettl); this would hopefully allow us the “freedom” to have an emerging talent to play Ben Field. I wanted the audience to have no preconceptions about this young man who was walking into the midst of the lives of these older people, so that they would take him on face value, much like Peter Farquhar did. As an approach, I think that’s something that worked really well for us - Éanna Hardwicke, who was in Normal People but is not necessarily well known, blew us all away with his performance. 

The programme looks really striking. How did you settle on finding a visual identity for the series?  

I wanted this to feel both real and beautiful. It felt like there was a journey across the four episodes - much of the first two are about falling in love, and love and romance. It was important to catch the natural light by shooting at very particular times of day, creating sense of romance and beauty around what’s happening initially to Peter, and then to Ann. That feeling changes over the course of the four episodes; we end in the sickly, fluorescent yellow lights of a courtroom, in contrast to starting in the beautiful sunshine of an English summer. 

Something that I’ve done progressively in my work and have leaned into even more recently, is to pull back on traditional film lighting - The Sixth Commandment was shot with almost no film lights. I’m inspired by the brilliant late film-maker Jean-Marc Vallée in this, who shot Big Little Lies, Sharp Objects, Wild and Dallas Buyers Club without any film lights. Everything in this series is shot either with natural light, or using a lot of negative fill to give contrast inside, or using practicals. I like to be able to move around and have plenty of time with the actors, and I found that working this way gives everything a natural, photorealist feel that I love. It also gives me the freedom to spend a lot of time shooting, or to change things that don’t work, without having to wait just to turn the camera around.

Tell us about working with the actors – did you have much time to rehearse or workshop ideas beforehand, or discuss ideas for their performances and characters? 

Once you have a brilliant script, the most important thing is to get brilliant performances. If you’ve cast well, you’re mostly trying to create an environment where the actors feel able to give their best performances, offering guidance at moments when you feel they need it.  

I try to spend as much time as possible with the actors. There’s always an extensive conversation with the lead actors about their part, about the script, about what is and isn’t working, and generally asking questions. Where possible, I’ll also try to be in auditions to talk about the roles with those actors that I’m less familiar with.  

I also try and ensure that we spend time together during table reads before the shoot when it’s relaxed, to try and avoid having “big picture” questions come up during filming – anything from getting the actors together, getting them on their own, bringing them together with individual actors to talk about specific relationship dynamics; to talking about the script and what they feel works really well, sharing different ideas, and exploring anything they’re unsure about.

For anyone I haven’t been able to spend time with before a shoot, I try as much as possible to give those actors time on set, however big or small their role. It is so important for them, and for me, to ensure that everybody’s acting in the same piece - the very natural way that I would like people to appear on camera comes from having a dialogue with actors.  

Image credit: BBC/Wild Mercury/Amanda Searle; Anne Reid as Ann Moore-Martin
Image credit: BBC/Wild Mercury/Amanda Searle; Anne Reid as Ann Moore-Martin

What was the most challenging part to direct and how did you navigate this? 

There’s a micro versus macro level of challenge, I think. In the big picture, the challenge is that you’re working with extraordinary actors, some of whom are older actors who potentially might get more tired than the younger actors, and yet you’re on a TV schedule that is very unforgiving, and means that you have to move at pace. To help with this, I try to limit as many obstacles as possible, so that anything that might take longer hopefully has more time and space.

The most difficult thing for this show specifically was the poisonings and hallucinations that both Timothy and Anne had to replicate. They had to make that leap of imagination about what it would be like to experience that, and, on a practical level, I wanted to realise the very specific visions that Sarah had written in the script, which in Peter Farquhar’s case was swarms of black insects. 

I wanted to make it look as real as possible. I persuaded the producers to hire an insect wrangler, who would provide loads of crawling insects and worms, which we then brought onto the set to use for these hallucinogenic visions... and it was a disaster. They were the same colour as the set, meaning you couldn’t see them on camera. I had to adapt very quickly, and what I realised in amongst the panic was that I had Timothy Spall, who’s a brilliant actor. I didn’t need to try and create what he was seeing, I just needed to observe him in the throes of these horrible hallucinations, which ended up being much more powerful. 

In one scene, Peter has been poisoned while he’s giving a lecture to his university class, and while his students are working, he is seeing swarms of buzzing flies. I think he looks terrifying, because we’re not seeing what he sees, we’re just seeing his reaction. It was stripped back from any effects, and instead relied on the script, the performance, and the scene itself, which I think made it much stronger.

How did you approach telling a real story, and doing justice to the people that you were portraying on screen?  

I think you can only do it if the people, if they’re still alive, or the relatives of the people if they’ve passed away, are on board. This was true of The Sixth Commandment, where the Executive Producers, Derek Wax and Brian Woods, plus Sarah Phelps as the writer, spent a lot of time with the families of the people who had been affected, explaining what we wanted to do and the story we wanted to try and tell. We wanted to do justice to the people who were affected. It is not just about bearing witness to an awful thing that happened to them, but about portraying them as fully-rounded, complex, layered people. I think this is partly why it’s been received so well; audiences respect that level of consideration. 

We took a lot of care, too. The scripts were shown to the families before shooting, and they saw the films before they were transmitted - not to avoid the difficult subject matter, but out of respect for them and their feelings. It really is a massive undertaking.  

I think there’s a responsibility to be authentic and truthful, and not to duck difficult things, but to also do that in a subtle and nuanced way. We were also very aware of the fact that, while this series might go out and have incredibly kind reviews, it’s difficult for Ann-Marie and Ian Farquhar and Sue Farquhar to live through this again.

Image credit: BBC/Wild Mercury
Image credit: BBC/Wild Mercury

Moving into post-production, how did you decide what the sound and score would be for this series, and how it would help tell the story? 

I think sound is so important generally, but particularly here, as I wanted this to work on a number of different levels. Firstly, there’s the music the characters listen to which, in the first episode, is mostly Peter Farquhar’s classical music. I tried to make it feel personal and like it existed in a particular world which, for Peter Farquhar, was almost a spiritual place. This meant that when Ben Field appears and claims to love the same music, it was a way to bring the characters together. At the same time, I knew a huge juxtaposition was coming later in the music that Ben Field listens to alone, which is rap and battle raps - a massive contrast to the classical music in order to tell us something about what he had hidden about himself.  

I tried, as much as possible, to create an atmosphere using the music that exists in the world of the characters, and to then merge that with score. This often meant that we would underscore a choral piece within the classical tracks, working with Rael Jones, who is a brilliant composer. Rael also created his own score, so that we had two sides to the sound in the piece. There’s a romantic element, for instance when Peter and Ann being lured in by Ben Field’s love bombing, but with an air of darkness underneath. For me, whether it’s source music used within a piece or it’s the score, it’s important to always contain the light and dark within both.

Tell us how the story found its shape in the edit? 

The story is brilliantly written by Sarah, with a clear structural approach to whose story we’re foregrounding, so I think shooting and editing was primarily a process of refinement, to hone everything into its purest essence.  

Equally, Sarah writes superb dialogue, but she also writes amazing scenes where nothing is said – they are hugely charged, and yet they’re long periods of visual storytelling too. It’s about trying to create the spaces around the words so that it feels real, as well as atmospheric, weird, haunting and tense.

The show has been brilliantly received – what do you make of the reaction it has had? 

I think everyone involved in making the series felt that it really worked. I felt very confident about the strength of the performances, the storytelling. However, I think none of us were quite prepared for how overwhelming the reaction was. If you’re lucky, you do something that somehow catches a zeitgeist, or touches a nerve, whatever the audience’s age or political persuasion, and I think people have really connected with the series. I think audiences have understood that it was about a type of loneliness that I think a lot of older people experience, and that was so horrifically exploited in this story. People have connected with the extraordinary performances from the cast, but I think they’ve really responded not only to their yearning and their need for love and then their falling in love, but to how ruthlessly and cruelly that was exploited, and how that impacted the families around them in such a profound way.  

I think the public have also responded to the fact that it is the people who are affected by that crime whose stories are being told. It’s not looking to glamourise or fetishise the world of the killer. It’s shining a spotlight on the impact on seemingly ordinary people, in an ordinary, English village, where nothing ever happens, who have profound and deep feelings.  

I think the brilliant writing, the extraordinary performances, the way that we’ve all collaboratively told this story in a very particular way, have all helped. As a director, you feel a sense of responsibility to the people you bring on board, both cast and crew. They commit to your idea or vision, so there’s an immense sense of satisfaction personally, but also for everyone involved, as their work has been applauded too.  

Frances du Pille, the producer, and I set out to make the series in the way that we wanted to make it, which was an independent film that just happens to be shown on television in four parts, as we thought it would strike a chord with people. That independent film sensibility is what we love and, if you love something, other people will.

Image credit: BBC/Wild Mercury/Amanda Searle
Image credit: BBC/Wild Mercury/Amanda Searle

Is this the type of story that typically interests you or the kind of genre that you find yourself gravitating towards, or is it story-dependent?  

I once went to a brilliant talk by Pawel Pawlikowski and he said, “everyone’s always talking about how, and not enough people talk about why”. This has really stayed with me – asking “why are you telling this story? What are you trying to achieve? How will it connect to people?” is so important. I’m always looking for projects or stories that feel like they have a strong meaning to them and have a love for people in them - that’s what I’ve tried to find throughout the work I’ve directed, rather than a particular genre.

Finally, what will you be exploring in your next project? Will it be completely different, or something similar?  

I’d love to make another film. It’s fantastic, knowing that a huge number of people are watching this series on television, but it’s wonderful to get that cinema experience too. With The Sixth Commandment, we were lucky enough to have two screenings - we had a big launch screening, which was an extraordinary experience, and then we watched it again on television. With film, the great thing is that you get that “cinema experience” twice.  

Ultimately, I’m interested in fascinating stories that I find thoughtful and moving, and then thinking; “why tell this story? Why share it in this way?”.

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