They said it was fiction: the true story behind a BBC abuse drama
In October 2000 the BBC transmitted a horrifying drama, Care, about child abuse in a Welsh children's home. The film went on to win a series of international awards including the Cologne International film festival gold for the best single drama, a BAFTA award and the Prix Italia in Bologna in 2001. The film was the product of strong cooperation between the news and drama departments of BBC Wales. What the BBC did not reveal, however, was that the the characters in the drama were based on real people. Even more importantly they refrained from mentioning detailed evidence which indicates that the episodes of abuse at the heart of the drama never in fact happened.
In the end, however, Prospect decided against running it on the grounds that they did not publish 'exposées', or journalistic investigations. It seemed almost as though, since the article was not a 'thinkpiece' and was sullied with facts, it meant they did not feel it was elevated enough for their readers. It has languished in a drawer - or rather in a file on my computer - ever since.
ON SUNDAY 8 OCTOBER at 9pm, BBC1 transmitted a sensational play, Care, about abuse in a children’s home. Presented as a fictional drama, and described by Polly Toynbee, as ‘a fine film in the great old BBC tradition of Cathy Come Home’, it was written by former That’s Life presenter, Kieran Prendiville. Unusually for a programme of this kind it attracted an audience of 4 million and resulted in 6,000 phone calls.
Prendiville’s gruelling ninety-minute drama followed the fate of a young man, Davey Younger, who finds that a police investigation in North Wales brings back memories of the abuse he suffered while in care as a young teenager. In a series of nightmarish scenes the residential workers entrusted with the care of Davey at a home called Glenavon, are shown both physically abusing him and subjecting him to a series of sexual assaults.
At the heart of the story is a nightly ritual referred to as ‘the flat list’ in which groups of young boys are summoned to the head’s flat. Here, clad only in pyjamas, they watch television or play games. One night, as the other boys leave, the head asks Davey to stay behind to help him wash-up. He then puts his arm around the boy and, in one of the most horrific scenes which has ever been shown on television, Davey’s agonised face fills the screen while he is being anally raped. After the boy has stumbled out of the flat in pain, the camera cuts to a close-up of a toilet bowl. Slowly it fills with blood-soaked tissues which are then flushed away.
This is by no means the end of the boy’s torments. For the head of Glenavon now passes Davey on to a friend – a local magistrate – who himself brutally rapes him. Some time after this the boy tries to complain. But a detective constable, who appears to be in league with the paedophiles, fixes him with an angry stare. ‘What is it then Davey?’ he asks. The boy is terrified into silence. ‘It’s nothing, sir,’ he says.
Davey now locks his terrible memories away as he grows into manhood. In the film he moves in with his girl-friend and her three children and tries to lead a normal life. But his old nightmares begin to haunt him when he hears on the television news that an investigation has been launched into allegations of abuse at Glenavon. He is visited by two police officers but he sends them away. It is only when he is approached by a sympathetic freelance journalist that he tells, for the first time, the story of how he was abused by the head and, even more shockingly, by the magistrate. The head has already been charged with sexual abuse. But Davey’s claims about the magistrate are met with official disbelief. A guilty man, it would seem, is about to go free.
The journalist, however, embarks on a crusade to bring the evil magistrate to justice. She persuades Davey to appear on a television programme alongside another young man who had also been in care at Glenavon. With their identities electronically disguised both men give graphic accounts of being sexually abused by the magistrate.
Davey is almost immediately accosted by his mother who accuses him of making up the allegations. ‘You wicked little shit,’ she says. ‘Liar!’. Soon afterwards the freelance journalist who wrote and presented the programme receives a libel writ from solicitors acting for the magistrate. Davey agrees to appear as a witness at the trial. Together with his girl-friend and her children he travels to Manchester. They are all put up at a plush hotel and Davey takes the kids to see the Manchester United ground. Together they look forward to their own triumph in the court case which is just about to start.
But it is not to be. After Davey and the other witness have told their story they are cross-examined by a weasel-faced barrister acting for the magistrate. The barrister ridicules the allegations. If the same thing had happened to him, he says, ‘it would be so burned into my memory that I would remember every detail . . . Mr Younger, you can’t even remember how old you were.’
He claims that trying to follow Davey’s vague, half-remembered account is like ‘knitting fog’. The other witness, a drug addict, is attacked in similar terms. The judge sums up and the jury retire to consider their verdict. When they return they find in favour of the plaintiff. The camera cuts to a shot of the magistrate who is sitting in court alongside his blonde-haired wife. The couple smile with uneasy relief. The message of the drama is clear. The courts have failed yet again. Another paedophile has gone free.
Davey returns home a broken man. He has told his terrible story but nobody – except the journalist, his girl-friend and a few others – believes him. Even his own mother rejects his claims. His behaviour becomes increasingly disturbed and violent. He drinks heavily, and at one point he attempts to attack his mother with a kitchen-knife. That same evening he goes alone to the beach near his home. From a plastic shopping bag he takes a bottle of vodka and a stash of sleeping-pills. He downs the vodka, crams the pills into his mouth and gulps them down. The camera lingers on him as he sits at the sea’s edge. Slowly his consciousness drains away, he lies down and, as gentle waves lap around his body, he dies.
KIERAN PRENDIVILLE'S DRAMA was based on the horrifying allegations which have emerged about children’s homes in North Wales. These allegations were first made in 1991 and went back some fifteen years. Prendiville’s treatment of the story was described by the Guardian as ‘a deeply necessary film that never avoids unpalatable truths’. In Mark Lawson’s Sunday night programme Review, a panel, which included the fiercely sceptical Germaine Greer, returned a similar verdict.
They were apparently unaware that all the main characters in what Prendiville himself has described as ‘a fictional piece’ were based on real people. Glenavon was clearly Bryn Estyn, the home outside Wrexham which was the centre of the North Wales scandal. The county councillor, who was portrayed in the film as a conscientious chairman of social services for ‘Caradog County Council’, was based on Malcolm King, formerly chair of social services for Clwyd County Council. King, in fact, was one of Prendiville’s main sources of information for the play. An article which appeared in the Wrexham Evening Leader the day after the film was broadcast reported that King had been given ‘a preview showing of the film a week before it was screened’ and confirmed that he ‘knew the person on whom Davey’s character was based’.
To those familiar with the story of Bryn Estyn this came as no surprise. Davey was unmistakably based on Mark Humphreys, a young Wrexham man who had once been in care there. Like Davey, Humphreys lived with a woman (whom he subsequently married) who had a number of children her own. Like Davey he had become caught up in the North Wales investigation as a result of being interviewed by a freelance journalist to whom he made very serious allegations. Remarkably Steven Mackintosh, the actor who played Davey in the film, even bears a striking physical resemblance to Humphreys. But the parallels are deeper and even more disturbing than this. While Davey’s ‘fictional’ allegations were made against the head of the home and against a magistrate, Humphreys’ allegations were made against deputy head Peter Howarth and a retired senior police officer, Superintendent Gordon Anglesea.
Howarth, who always protested his innocence, was sentenced to ten years on the testimony of others. As is the case with the magistrate in the film, however, Anglesea was never charged with any offence. But the allegations against him were both collected and championed by a freelance journalist. They were taken up by HTV and Humphreys and another witness were filmed in shadow telling their stories. Like the magistrate in the film Anglesea sued for libel and the case was heard in the High Court in 1994.
After listening to the evidence, the jury returned a verdict in favour of the former police officer, who had been supported throughout the trial by his wife Sandra (a woman with short blonde hair who bears a passing resemblance to the actress who played the part of the magistrate’s wife).
Largely because of these multiple parallels, the decision to screen Care has serious implications. For, whether the BBC itself is aware of it or not, the respected television writer Kieran Prendiville has used a drama to repeat, in a disguised ‘fictional’ form, very grave allegations which have already been rejected by a jury in the High Court.
The only possible justification for Prendiville’s approach would be if, during the course of his research, which supposedly took 2½ years, he had actually uncovered evidence to substantiate the libel against Anglesea. One of the most worrying features of the film, however, is that, far from presenting new evidence, it achieves its dramatic effect and its persuasive power by effectively concealing some of the most significant evidence which emerged in the real-life case on which it is based.
The story of how the allegations against Gordon Anglesea actually came to be made is one of the most disturbing in the recent history of British journalism. In view of the decision to schedule and transmit Care, it is perhaps time that this story was told.
THE STORY BEGAN at 5pm on the evening of Saturday 30 November 1991. Ian Jack was sitting at the editor’s desk in the offices of the Independent on Sunday. The paper’s deadline – the time it had to be sent electronically to its various print sites – was 5.30pm, though often this was stretched to 6pm. Most of the contents of the paper had already been cleared but just after 5pm a proof of the front page was brought to Jack’s office.
The lead story in the paper concerned North Wales. The story, which was largely the work of freelance journalist Dean Nelson, was spread across eight columns underneath the headline ‘ new child abuse scandal’. It continued inside the paper where it occupied the whole of page three.
Jack had already checked the proof of the story on the inside page. It contained serious allegations, both against Howarth, the deputy head of Bryn Estyn, who was described as a ‘paedophile’, and against a senior residential social worker in Gwynedd. But these allegations seemed well supported and he had already passed page 3 for publication.
When I interviewed Jack about what happened next he emerged as a deeply honourable man, possessed of that rare ability to admit that he may have made a serious error of judgment. He told me that what troubled him when he read through the front-page story in proof was a paragraph containing an allegation which did not appear in the main story:
According to former residents at Bryn Estyn, Supt Gordon Anglesea, a former senior North Wales police officer, was a regular visitor there. He recently retired suddenly without explanation. Another serving officer has been accused of assaulting a child at Ty’r Felin.
Jack recalled that when he read this part of the article ‘I don’t exaggerate when I say that the sentence naming Anglesea flashed a warning like a beacon. Its implication was clearly libellous. Did we have evidence to substantiate it?’ He talked to one of his colleagues who said ‘that I was not to worry, because “we’ve got tons of gear on this guy”, or a phrase like this, and the story had been “squared” (or a word like this) with the lawyer.’
In view of the assurances he was given, Ian Jack, against his own better judgement, relented. As the clock ticked on towards six he gave the go-ahead for the paper’s copy to be sent electronically to its print-sites.
Almost as soon as the story appeared Gordon Anglesea consulted solicitors who wrote to the newspaper describing the passage about their client as the grossest libel. They demanded publication of an agreed statement of rebuttal and apology, together with damages and costs.
When this letter was received in the offices of the Independent on Sunday, Jack asked for the evidence against Anglesea to be put before him. It was then that he discovered the disturbing truth. There was none.
As Jack candidly admitted to me, the newspaper had published one of the gravest possible libels without having ‘a shred of evidence’ to substantiate it. At this point, there was not even an allegation against Anglesea. The obvious course now would have been to settle and to print an apology. Yet, having discussed the issue with some of his colleagues, Jack decided on a course which he admitted to me may have been ill-judged. He decided to send freelance journalist Dean Nelson back to North Wales to see if he could find evidence that would justify the libel.
Having scoured Wrexham and failed to find any trace of an existing complaint against Anglesea, Nelson approached former Bryn Estyn resident Mark Humphreys. Humphreys, remembered by one of his teachers as a loveable rogue who was also highly suggestible, had already been visited by the North Wales Police. He had told them quite clearly that he had no complaints about his time at Bryn Estyn.
Nelson, however, now indicated that he was seeking an allegation against a policeman and actually showed Humphreys a photograph of Anglesea. During a subsequent interview, conducted in June 1992, he then supplied the officer’s name. With the help of such prompting Humphreys made an allegation of sexual abuse against Anglesea.
The interviews which Humphreys initially gave to Nelson were vague, incoherent and riven with contradictions. At first the allegations he made were relatively minor. In the statement that he made to the police on 18 August 1992, however, Humphreys said that he had become a resident of Bryn Estyn during the summer of 1976 and that he had spent four years there, leaving when he was sixteen. He claimed that Peter Howarth had buggered him over a period of three years and that, during the second Christmas he had spent at Bryn Estyn, Anglesea had also become involved.
In fact Humphreys had been sent to Bryn Estyn not in 1976, as he claimed, but on 13 May 1980. He left on 11 July 1981, having spent not four years, but fourteen months there. Although he claimed that he had been abused by Anglesea during his second Christmas, his time at Bryn Estyn included only one Christmas. He could not, however, have been abused at Bryn Estyn then since he was on home leave from 18 December 1980 to 4 January 1981. On 20 December he was actually arrested by a woman police officer for shoplifting in the Wrexham branch of Asda.
Confronted by these facts during an interview with Detective Superintendent Ackerley of the North Wales Police, Humphreys attempted to adjust his account to fit them. By this stage, however, Dean Nelson, who was evidently unaware of the impossible nature of the claims contained in Humphreys’ main allegation about Anglesea, had arranged for the former Bryn Estyn resident to visit London and make an affidavit.
Soon after this Nelson approached another former resident of Bryn Estyn – Lee Steward [not his real name]. On 24 August 1992, Steward made a statement to the police in which he complained that, since making previous allegations about his time at Bryn Estyn, he had ‘been continually pestered by the press, mainly a man called Dean Nelson’.
He said that Dean Nelson had asked him to give information about a number of police officers including Gordon Anglesea:
Some two weeks later, on 3 September, Steward telephoned the police to complain once again about ‘being hassled by Dean Nelson.’ By the following day, however, for reasons that have never been explained, Steward’s attitude towards Nelson changed. He now gave the journalist a long interview, the transcript of which occupies some eighty pages. During this interview the subject of Gordon Anglesea was eventually raised. Nelson then showed Steward a photograph of Anglesea and attempted to get Steward to identify him.
Steward, like Humphreys, now went on to make a series of contradictory statements in which he accused Anglesea of sexually abusing him. After Steward and Humphreys had repeated these allegations on television, a third witness, who had watched the programme, made similar allegations to another journalist.
These allegations were repeated by some newspapers and, in the libel trial which eventually took place, Anglesea sued not only the Independent and HTV, but also the Observer and Private Eye.
During the trial Nelson’s methods of obtaining allegations from Humphreys and Steward were subjected to devastating criticism by Anglesea’s counsel, Lord Williams of Mostyn QC. Humphreys’ original allegation was shown to be false. Steward’s complaints about Nelson, and the unequivocal statement he had made that he had never been abused by Gordon Anglesea, effectively destroyed his own credibility as a complainant. Even more tellingly it also emerged that Steward had actually left Bryn Estyn before Anglesea had any contact with it. More generally the evidence of all three witnesses was shown to be full of inconsistencies, implausibilities and impossibilities. The jury found for the plaintiff and Anglesea was awarded £375,000 in damages together with substantial legal costs.
Mark Humphreys had been living throughout the period of his allegations with his girl-friend whom he had by then married. After the trial, however, they split up and Humphreys went to live on his own in a bedsit in Wrexham. Tragically, some months later, his body was found hanging from the banisters outside his room. On the day of his inquest his mother, who believed that her son had wronged an innocent man, publicly stated her belief that Mark had never been abused at Bryn Estyn and that he had made up his allegations in an attempt to gain compensation.
When the whole sequence of events is considered dispassionately it is difficult to reach any other conclusion than that delivered by the jury in the libel trial. For what all the evidence indicates is that Anglesea was the innocent victim of a series of horrific sexual allegations relating to incidents that had never happened at all. All these allegations had apparently been fabricated by deeply damaged young men in response to persistent approaches from overzealous and misguided journalists.
BY FAR THE MOST DISTURBING feature of Kieran Prendiville’s play Care was that, although its central character was based unmistakably on Mark Humphreys, and the facts of his life and death, the details of the evidence which emerged during the police investigation into Humphreys’ complaints and the ensuing libel trial were completely disregarded.
At the end of the film the viewer is left in no doubt that Davey’s tragic suicide was a direct consequence of the sexual abuse he suffered as a boy, and of society’s failure to believe him as a man. Yet, in the real-life story on which the drama was based, the evidence suggests that Mark Humphreys was never abused as a boy in the manner he claimed, and that he was disbelieved as a man for no other reason than that his allegations were false. His suicide may have been unrelated to the libel trial. Or it may have been an indirect consequence of making grave false allegations which tormented his own conscience and severed almost all the links between him and those who genuinely cared for him.
That a writer commissioned by the BBC to dramatise a real social problem should base a powerful and hard-hitting play on episodes of abuse which, according to all the evidence, never happened at all, is deeply disturbing.
When, two days after the programme had been broadcast, I spoke to Gordon Anglesea himself, he was restrained in his comments. He said that he had not been able to bring himself to watch the programme but that his wife had.
His wife, Sandra, confirmed this. ‘We are now actually, would you believe it, beginning to relax and enjoy our lives, and it’s only in the last six months that we’ve been able to do that.’
Kieran Prendiville’s ill-conceived and misleading film will not destroy this recently achieved peace of mind. The Angleseas have fought their personal battle and won. But the decision to transmit this film has a much larger significance. Over the past ten years the story of Mark Humphreys’ life and suicide has become the foundation myth on which the entire North Wales story has been built. The idea that Humphreys’ allegations were based on fact, and that his suicide was a result of society’s uncaring disbelief, has sustained countless journalists, activists, local politicians and others who maintain that the received version of what happened in North Wales children’s homes corresponds to the truth.
For those who have no detailed knowledge of the North Wales investigation, Prendiville’s film will merely reinforce the demonisation of residential social workers which has by now become a part of many people’s everyday consciousness. But for those journalists, politicians and others who have helped to create the North Wales story, it will inevitably have the effect of revitalising a powerful myth which has already caused great harm.
It should never be questioned, and indeed it should constantly be reiterated, that a very significant number of guilty residential social workers have been convicted in recent years on charges of both physical and sexual abuse. But, as is now being recognised almost for the first time, a disturbing number of innocent care workers are also serving long prison sentences as a result of police trawling operations which have actively solicited allegations against them.
Radio 5 has already broadcast a documentary, Crusade or Witchhunt? which sceptically examined police trawling operations and their potential for bringing about serious miscarriages of justice. On Sunday 19 November,  BBC1 will broadcast a major Panorama investigation into the same subject. It will contain disturbing footage which proves beyond reasonable doubt that former residents of care homes have made grave sexual allegations which are false and that innocent men have gone to prison as a result.
As these cautionary documentaries are broadcast, however, practically every police force in the country has embarked on trawling operations of their own. Hundreds of millions of pounds of public money have been invested in these operations and thousands of care workers are facing trawled allegations. In such circumstances understanding the origins of what many now regard as a witch hunt becomes more and more important. Those origins are to be found largely in North Wales and in events which took place there between 1991 and 1992.
Kieran Prendiville’s film Care is but the latest attempt to disseminate a mythical account of these events. Today, after nine years, it is time to consider the facts.
© Richard Webster, 2000, 2005