Home » The Pembrokeshire Murders: The story behind the drama

The Pembrokeshire Murders: The story behind the drama

JOHN COOPER cast a long shadow over Pembrokeshire from 1985 until he was eventually caught and sentenced to life in prison for his horrendous, violent crimes in 2011.

Back in 1996 I was 11, it was my first year in Milford Comp and I can vividly remember being warned to stay out of Mount Woods after the serious sexual assault that was carried out nearby.

Those warnings felt, to an 11-year-old me, very serious, even if I wasn’t given the full facts at the time, it was clear that these warnings were coming from a place of genuine concern or even fear.

Fear was a weapon that, according to the new ITV drama ‘The Pembrokeshire Murders’, Cooper, being played by Keith Allen, wielded not only against his victims, but also against his family in order to guarantee their silence and loyalty.

The new drama series, coming to ITV early next year, not only focuses on Cooper’s deplorable crimes, but also on the effects that he had on those closest to him, like his son Andrew.

I got the chance to have a chat with members of the cast and crew over Zoom. Talking to The Herald, ‘The Pembrokeshire Murders’ writer Nick Stevens said: “Andrew Cooper was left a fragile, damaged and broken man after his father’s spree.

“Andrew had lost everything and had no happiness in his life because of his bully of a father, who, of course, blamed his son for his crimes.”

Caroline Berry as Pat Cooper (L) and Oliver Ryan as Andrew Cooper (R)

His son wasn’t the only one who felt the full wrath of John Cooper’s anger though, Nick went on to speak of Cooper’s wife Pat who also lived in fear of her husband.
“One of the key moments in the series is when Andrew reaches out to his mum, he goes to see her only for her to bring up those Khaki Shorts. At that moment it becomes clear to Andrew that Pat was still a part of Cooper’s agenda.”

That agenda of fear, of lies and of violent outbursts over the years, ensured his family’s silence, but how is it possible to bring a character as intricate and as predatory as Cooper to the screen?
Executive Producer Simon Heath told me “People remember Keith from years ago but people don’t know his Welsh roots.

“There’s a specific accent that Keith delivers perfectly that gives him the quiet menace that Cooper needed. When he unleashes his anger you can see the terror he inflicted on those around him.”

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I asked Keith what worried him the most about taking on the role of Cooper: “I was worried about my accent” said Keith “I used to work in Tenby running boats during the summer, so I went back there on a Sunday and just sat in pubs listening to people talk but they were full of Mancs, Scousers and people from Birmingham watching Sky Sports!”

Keith Allen as John Cooper

“So what I did was drive out to Cooper’s village and walk around the area, then I went back to Tenby and that got me in the groove.”

“My trigger (for getting into character) was how he says ‘scuba diving’ from the Bullseye footage.

“I saw that and I thought ‘Oh my god, there’s a guy who will kill a couple one month later’ and you can see he’s not a very nice person, he imposes himself on his playing partner and he doesn’t enjoy being on that show.

“When he misses you can see the fury in his eyes and I’ve often thought that if he scored 180 on Bullseye that maybe they (the Dixons) would still be alive.”

Putting yourself in the mindset of a psychopath must be one of the weirdest experiences possible, Keith told me: “When you’re playing a real person, you can’t take your eye off the ball. But I’m a bone idle actor, I’m not the type of actor to be affected, but when you’re playing a real person, who did these terrible things, you do end up taking that character home with you.

“I’ve never met him but I think I’ve seen enough of him, when you know what he did you can watch him lying on the police tapes and it’s fascinating.”

Operation Ottawa: the team that cracked the case in the new ITV drama

But Cooper isn’t the sole focus of the new ITV series, we’re also going to see the herculean efforts put in by members of Dyfed-Powys Police to secure a conviction, leading the investigation at the time was Steve Wilkins who is being played by ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ star Luke Evans who relished the chance to work on home soil with ‘The Pembrokeshire Murders’.

Luke told The Herald: “It was wonderful, I miss being home very much. I have such a close connection to Wales and it was lovely to be surrounded by authentic Welsh people, rich accents and wonderful characters.”
When asked about working around the stunning Pembrokeshire coast, Luke told The Herald “It’s just a magnificent place to be at anytime of the year, the juxtaposition of these terrible things alongside the dramatic coastline is incredible.”

‘The Pembrokeshire Murders’ finished production just days before the first COVID-19 lockdown was announced, Luke told me: “We finished production on March 13th 2020 and within 4 days we were in lockdown. We were lucky to get the chance to make this and even luckier to get it finished before lockdown.”

My last question for them was about the victims, did they feel a responsibility to those that were so awfully affected by Cooper’s reign of fear, to which Alexandria Riley, who’s playing Ella Richards, said: “We never forgot that this drama is based on real life, we were so aware that we had a responsibility to do it right. Everyone involved took that responsibility on their shoulders, to be sensitive to those affected by Cooper.
“We filmed close to where those events took place and it kept you focussed on being respectful.”

Keith Allen summed it up too, saying: “I think the program itself answers that question, I’ve seen it and what I like about it is there’s no weird lighting or effects, it’s realistic and in your face.
“It makes you think ‘God, is that what these people went through?’. When the people involved see this, hopefully they’ll think ‘good, now the world knows what we went through’.”
‘The Pembrokeshire Murders’ will air on three consecutive nights (January 11, 12 and 13) on ITV and we’ll definitely be tuning in.