True crime buffs have some detective work ahead of them in the new CBS Justice (DStv channel 170) 4-episode true crime series The Night Caller.

Series director, creator and editor Thomas Meadmore takes us on a dangerous, atmospheric journey into the past to the years 1958-1963 when serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke’s 5-year crime spree – which included rape, murder, vehicular homicides and assaults, and assassination-style shooting – confounded police.

Political pressure and the nature of police work at the time led to the arrest and framing of 2 innocent men, John Button and Darryl Beamish, via false confessions achieved through violence, coercion and intimidation. It allowed the killer to keep escalating, and left a sleepy community in Perth, Australia, reeling in terror.

The Night Caller draws on the work of investigative journalist Estelle Blackburn to expose the truth about the police investigation and exonerate Button and Beamish. It includes fascinating first-person interviews with members of the community, survivors of Cooke’s attacks, John Button himself along with his family, Eric Cooke’s widow Sally, people who lost family members and friends to the Night Caller, and even retired detective Max Baker, who was on the case from the beginning and was the first member of the police to hear Cooke admit to the killings.

Through clever structuring and editing, The Night Caller sets the stage to help us realise how everything went so horribly wrong in the investigation, and why it took so long to free Button and Beamish. It slowly turns into the story of a crime within a crime – 1 in which the perpetrators not only walk free, but remain in a position of trust and power to this day.

Thomas spoke to us about how he came to create the series, and how he brought the story together.

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Making the show

How did you come to make a series about The Night Caller? 

Thomas: The idea came to me when I was on a trip back to Perth in 2018 with my wife. I was introducing her to family friends for the first time. And we were in the area where these crimes happened. It’s an area that both my parents grew up in. My dad's friend said, “You should make a film about Eric Cooke.” It reminded me of these urban legends that my parents would tell me growing up, about the fear that overtook them when they were kids, when these random killings were occurring. It connected to me on this level of, “What if we told this story of this community that is severely traumatised, and terrified by this person who was a mystery, and who no one could catch – because that's what my parents were.

“I set off from there to reach out to Estelle Blackburn, who played an integral role in investigating some of the miscarriages of justice (in the Night Caller case). I reached out to John Button, 1 of the community members who spent time in jail for killing his girlfriend at the time (Rosemary Anderson). And I reached out to the serial killer’s wife, Sally Cooke. When I reached out to Sally and was able to talk to her, that really solidified what the series was going to be about. I was expecting her to say, “I don't want to know about it.” But instead, she said, “What do you want to know? I'll tell you, whatever you want to know.” It just completely opposed my expectations and I thought, “Oh, this woman is brave. She is an example of accountability. She's standing strong and happy to not shying away from this horrible thing.” So that's where we started.

Tell us a bit about your background research for the show and into Eric Cooke.

Thomas: I was lucky, because the research was done. Estelle Blackburn, she wrote this book (Broken Lives, published in 1998), which is a comprehensive volume of everything that this guy did. There are a few other books that cover this subject as well, so it was really a case of getting an overview of the events that occurred, studying all of these books. The additional research that I did on my own was I travelled to every single location where anything happened. And I took it all in and thought, “Okay, well, what did actually happen here?” I walked through it all myself and got my own sense of the place. It was in talking to loads and loads of community members and getting their own personal testimony that I started to gather my own perspective on it, which was around the collective trauma. That process was extensive. I got my own angle and my own sort of point of view on the story. And then and from that, plotted and wrote the angle of the story that you see in the film (series).

It’s an intriguing structure and angle. How did you arrive at it?

Thomas: I love talking about this! Once I understood the engine of the (series) which was this is a boogie man story about the community, and how these events affected the community, it's about accountability. So, who is taking responsibility and who is looking at themselves and their role in the events themselves? That frame speaks to all of the different aspects of the story.

I felt with Sally, it could be this beautiful and ironic, redemptive ending, bringing it back to a member of the community that's the last person you'd ever think would be the best example of true courage and accountability. Once I had those, I had the tool of, “Okay, of whose perspective are we telling it from? And what are we trying to say?” From there, I was like, “Okay, well, who can we talk to? We got access to John Button. He's a big part of this story, so his journey became a central part of the framing of it. And it came back to this community chorus of, “We've got this mystery killer in the community, and we don't know who it is,” and the perspective of the stories of the community itself. It was really a case going, “How can we do this in a way that is most compelling and leaves the reveal of who is responsible to the very last minute, and plays with the audience's perspective on who they believe? What's the best way we can do that?” Those thoughts dictated the points at which we placed certain plot points and story beats.

Speaking to the public’s “innocent” attitude to the police, you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to establish this portrait of 1960s Perth. Where did you source your archive footage to reinforce that?

Thomas: I was lucky I grew up there. So I know the city. My grandparents and my parents, I know what they were like. I knew about the backyards, I grew up in them. I knew what it felt like to be there. It's still a country town, but nothing compared to what it was. I wanted to dive into that subtlety of what life was actually like, because I knew that getting people immersed and turning it on its head would have hopefully a powerful impact story-wise for the audience. I really enjoyed doing that and setting all that up. With the archive, I was blessed. I went on to a Facebook group called Perth Reflects, which is this place where people share memories and nostalgic stuff from living in Perth. And someone had shared all this 8mm video of a surf carnival. And I was like, “What is this?” So I reached out to him and said, “Hey, can I use your video?” It turns out this guy's dad filmed 8mm stuff, like for the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and it had never been seen before. They had just digitised it. I said please, and so they let me have it all. And I found a way to make modern footage reconstruction and these 8mm archives work together in harmony, which is so much fun. That's the best part of editing, doing that. So I was lucky to get that archive.

Some (other) archive footage shows John Button watching crash test dummy recreations of his girlfriend Rosemary’s murder. What did you think, seeing that for the first time?

Thomas: He was still re-living it. And he was still in it. It still is dictating his life, which just filled me with sadness. It’s just horrific, absolutely tragic, that this man tortures himself still. And it's bled out throughout his family and his kids, you know, which is a big part of this story of the ripple effect throughout the community.

The people in question

What happened during your first in-person meeting with Eric’s widow, Sally Cooke (who died in October 2019)?

Thomas: I was so nervous because I so, so wanted to interview her. I was excited about meeting her and I didn't want to offend her in any way. I was just so nervous so I was really friendly. And I remember her just saying, “Love, come in.” She's from Liverpool. She said, “Come in, I'll make you a cup of tea.” So I came in with all my crew and she just made us all tea. We set up and sat down and she said, “All right, then.” She held up this knitting – she used to knit squares for charity to make into quilts – she started knitting these squares and she said, “What do you want to know?” And we just chatted about her family, who she's immensely proud of, and we got along really well. She had a great time. So it was a really lovely day.

There’s an interesting contrast between the way that John Button’s family and Sally Cooke’s family speak about the cases… 

Thomas: But you didn't see any of the other Cooke family in the film, did you now? They all have their own process with it. They've all got their own relationship with it, I think. While the Cooke family do – certainly Sally Cooke was able to – stand tall and talk to you about it, I don't think it was easy for them. I don't think it came without immense difficulty or immense difficulties throughout their lives that they have to deal with. My impression of everybody who experienced something in this is that everybody was deeply traumatised. You've got to look at Sally in a different light. You've got this stigma around their family. And she did manage to create this family of citizens who are great contributors to the community. In that light, it is pretty incredible. Whereas John Button was never able to really recover.

There’s a noticeable contrast in the (scanty) degree of evidence, time and effort the system used to condemn John Button, compared to how much evidence, time and effort it took to eventually clear his name and free him… 

Thomas: I think there's a real problem with the justice system. Often it was a political issue. They talked about that at the end of the series. The reason we land on it is a lot of the appeal decisions, whether or not an appeal occurs, are based on the decision of the Attorney General. And the Attorney General is a politician, not a judge who's based in the legal system. So having an appeal is really expensive. I also think that public opinion of the police was immensely high (at the time). People needed to feel safe and secure and didn't want a question mark on the place. So public opinion was, “Nah, we don't believe John Button.” Turning that ship around was very, very difficult. The problem is that there's not enough accountability and transparency in the legal systems that allow for question marks like that. 1 of the things that the story highlights is this problem with confessions, false confessions or forced confessions. It's a prolific problem in wrongful imprisonment.

How did it feel to open the can of worms that was police corruption and Owen Leitch (the police detective who became Commissioner partly off the strength of “solving” the Night Stalker case)?

Thomas: it felt really good to open that can of worms, because I feel like I have a responsibility as a storyteller to say something that's relevant, and to say something that's of value. And I really felt that the issue is that, despite all of the overturning of convictions, this body of trusted servants (the police) who the public pay and depend on for their security, are the least accountable. And that's wrong. So being able to say something about that and go, “Hey!” You know, banging on the door, “There's a problem here,” that's doing a good job as a filmmaker, that's doing something worthwhile. So I felt very good.

Which of the people you interviewed did you find the most challenging? 

Thomas: Max Baker, the detective. I sat with him for 3 hours, 1 3-hour interview. He just wouldn't answer the questions in a way that was easy to understand. He would answer with yes, no answers. And you can't do anything with a yes, no answer. So you'd have to push and push and push and (Thomas mimes an old man-style tantrum) he would be cranky. It was challenging from a practical level to interview him, bless him. He certainly didn't, in any way, indicate that the police were culpable in his opinion, even when I challenged him on it. He didn't. Though, at the same time, he trips himself up, doesn't he? When he says, “You know, there's no way, in my opinion, that Darryl Beamish was capable of killing.” I called him on it. I'm like, “Well, hang on, what was he doing in jail?” And he's like, “Nah, nah, nah (no).” He refuses to acknowledge the fact that the exoneration went through and that Button’s innocent. That's the problem, isn't it? They won't look at themselves. They won't, they can't be wrong. That's an interesting part of it.”

At the end of it all

Throughout the series we see people struggling to make sense of the murders, while even Eric Cooke, in the police interview that we see with him, seems to not really have a grip on why he killed at all…

Thomas: Different people think different things, but the collective sense is that Cook was disillusioned as a result of a horrific and violent childhood, and felt because he had certain disfigurements, he was excluded and an outsider. That sense of power that he got from being able to take the lives of the people that excluded him or he felt excluded by, and get away with it, was intoxicating [to him]. I think that, but we can't know. The fact that people speculate about it is understandable. However, the general consensus is that you're sort of taking revenge – even from his own son – he's taking revenge on the society that shaped him and created him. But it's something that doesn't really have an answer, since no one can get inside Eric Cooke's head.

What sort of feedback on the series have you gotten from the people of Perth?

Thomas: Oh, really positive feedback from people of Perth. They are thrilled to see their story up on the screen like this. The people who are in it have been immensely moved by it, and I've had amazing feedback from them. It's brought up all sorts of feelings and emotions for John Button and his wife, and his daughter absolutely loved it. I haven't heard anything from the Cooke family at all. A lot of young people had no idea about the story. It was pretty cool to be able to bring it to them.

One of the community members, at the time that you interviewed him, was still convinced that John killed Rosemary. Has he changed his mind at all?

Thomas: Funny you should say that, because I was going to put that in the film. And I couldn't find a way to do it in a clean way. But he came to the seminar that we put on, or that Estelle put on, and he did listen to the whole thing and said, “No, I still think he did it.” I regret not putting it in. But anyway, you know, it's like hearsay versus science, people. What can I say?

Watch The Night Caller S1 Sundays at 20:00 on CBS Justice (DStv channel 170).

CBS Justice is available on DStv Premium and Compact Plus. To upgrade your package or to get DStv, click here

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