‘Unbeknown to him, he was narrating what was being done to him’: How The Sixth Commandment brought a harrowing British case to the screen

Timothy Spall as cherished teacher Peter Farquhar  (BBC/Wild Mercury/Amanda Searle)
Timothy Spall as cherished teacher Peter Farquhar (BBC/Wild Mercury/Amanda Searle)

All love stories have moments of exquisite lightness. In the first episode of BBC One’s The Sixth Commandment, Peter (Timothy Spall) and Ben (Éanna Hardwicke) climb up to a hilltop. Panting and squinting into the sun, they tell each other they love each other for the first time. Unable to contain his happiness, Peter throws his arms around Ben, who lifts him up off the ground so his feet dangle just above the grass. The two men cling to each other. But this is no ordinary love story – it’s the tragic, true case of a lonely man who was murdered by the very person he thought he would share the rest of his life with.

The Sixth Commandment tells the real story of how the meeting of a cherished teacher, Peter Farquhar, and a charming, erudite young student, Ben Field, set in motion one of the strangest, most chilling criminal cases in recent memory. In the early 2010s, churchwarden Field started a campaign of harassment, disguised as love, against Farquhar, a devout Christian who was four decades his senior. Field tricked Farquhar, who had struggled with his sexuality his whole life, into a relationship, and exploited his craving for companionship, becoming the sole beneficiary of his will. Over the course of several years, he drugged him with hallucinogens and encouraged him to drink alcohol. The combined effect made Farquhar think he was losing his mind.

Eventually, Field killed Farquhar in 2015, making it look like the 69-year-old had drunk himself to death, and pocketed his inheritance. He then moved on to his next victim, Farquhar’s elderly neighbour Ann Moore-Martin, a retired headteacher and a committed Catholic, played in the drama by Anne Reid. The pair entered into a sexual relationship and the gaslighting began again, with Field writing biblical messages on Moore-Martin’s mirrors at home, telling her to leave her house to him. Ann eventually died from natural causes in 2017, but not before telling her niece about the commands she believed were coming from God. Thanks to Moore-Martin’s niece alerting the police, Field was found out – he admitted to defrauding both Farquhar and Moore-Martin, showing no remorse, and was sentenced to a minimum jail term of 36 years for the murder of Farquhar and other offences.

“It is ultimately a story about love,” series writer Sarah Phelps says. “About wanting to be loved and the representations of love – there is this false, fraudulent representation, and then the real, deep, driving love of the families.”

When Farquhar met Field, he had been suppressing his sexuality for many years, and had resigned himself to being alone. At one point in the drama, he tells his brother, “You cannot imagine my life before [meeting Ben] and I need you to imagine it. I need you to imagine my absolute despair. You can stand with [your wife] Sue in the sight of God, marry, have children, and our church smiles on you. Your life is full, but me, I have to be untouched, unloved and live only a fraction of my life. And that is in torment and loneliness and self-loathing and grief. Ben has brought me to life. And I am loved.”

Spall says it was this internal battle that Farquhar had been fighting that drew him to the role. “Within Peter, I saw a real tension between somebody trying to reconcile their desires with their faith,” he says, “and within that attempt at reconciliation, that almost denial of the reality of it, along comes the object of a prayer, so perfectly an answer to a prayer that he cannot believe it. And I think that is the real deep tragedy of it: that this man who had given up hope for love, finds it. And he died sincerely believing it was still there.”

In an unusual move for a true-crime drama, the police investigation doesn’t crop up until the third and penultimate episode; the first two focus on Farquhar and Moore-Martin in their final years. “I didn’t want to glamorise Ben,” Phelps says, explaining that she wanted to avoid a “cat-and-mouse” narrative of the police versus the villain. “I really wanted to tell Peter’s and Ann’s stories. I wanted to foreground their lives, not their deaths. Otherwise, it was the tricksy perpetrator and the dogged police, and while the police were phenomenal, I didn’t want to feed Ben Field with that sense that he was the main player. I wanted Peter and Ann to be the main part of the story – and their families and the people who love them.”

From Farquhar’s diaries to Field’s workbooks and reams of police transcripts, the stack of source material that Phelps used while writing the show was almost up to her shoulders. And much of the dialogue in the series is taken verbatim from Farquhar’s notes. “Peter wrote everything down,” says Phelps, “and it meant that unbeknown to him, he was narrating what was being done to him. Peter’s diary formed the absolute core basis of the police investigation and the subsequent prosecution.”

As the first episode opens, Field is heard reading a sermon. The words are taken from a real sermon that he gave while on bail at his father’s church, on the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (which gives the drama its name). In it, he asked whether the commandment applied if death would bring “an end to people’s miserable condition”. He said that “legally enforced norms” were less important than one’s personal convictions.

Spall and Hardwicke as Farquhar and Field in ‘The Sixth Commandment’ (BBC/Wild Mercury)
Spall and Hardwicke as Farquhar and Field in ‘The Sixth Commandment’ (BBC/Wild Mercury)

A friend of Farquhar’s, Channel 4 News political correspondent Michael Crick, describes his experience of encountering Field for the first time at the trial. “The astonishing thing about him was that he was incredibly clever, incredibly well educated, and that’s what would have appealed to Peter,” he says. “So I just sat there in court, watching him, thinking, ‘God, this guy is so convincing, so charming,’ and you can just see how Peter and Ann would have fallen for him, and that’s what’s frightening.”

Farquhar and Moore-Martin were not alone in being duped by Field, who also manipulated those at the church where he was training to be a vicar, and many people in Farquhar’s and Moore-Martin’s lives. “You have no idea how close he came to being ordained,” Phelps says. He had a fixation with elderly people, too. Director Saul Dibb calls him a “weird character” who “was working in care homes and as a funeral director”.

Hardwicke and Reid as Field and Moore-Martin in ‘The Sixth Commandment’ (BBC/Wild Mercury/Amanda Searle)
Hardwicke and Reid as Field and Moore-Martin in ‘The Sixth Commandment’ (BBC/Wild Mercury/Amanda Searle)

The Sixth Commandment has been made in full cooperation with Farquhar’s and Moore-Martin’s families. “They were completely behind it,” says Phelps, “and they say that we’ve honoured the people they loved.” Reid met Moore-Martin’s niece, Anne-Marie Baker, when she was preparing for the role, and got her blessing to play her late aunt. “I didn’t want do an impersonation of Ann,” Reid says. “I saw a little film of her, and we weren’t really alike, certainly not physically, but when I read the script, I just believed it. It was so beautifully written.” She says she knows straight away whether she can pull off a role, adding, “I felt that if I’d known Ann, we would have actually got on quite well together. But it’s a terrible responsibility playing somebody whose relatives are still there and still loving them.”

Phelps wants the drama to serve as a warning to viewers. “I hope it puts people on guard for that very particular kind of trespass, just to be aware of manipulation and people who transgress boundaries in a very, very subtle way,” she says.

Spall, meanwhile, gives a powerful reminder of the wider ramifications of a murder. “When somebody is killed, that person is dead,” he says. “But you also kill a big chunk of the souls of the people who love them.”

He pauses thoughtfully. “And the people who love that perpetrator – it will kill parts of their souls, too.”

‘The Sixth Commandment’ premieres on BBC One at 9pm on Monday 17 July