On the morning of Christmas Eve 1994 a woman’s body was found in a hedge in a remote part of West Cork. She was identified as Sophie Toscan du Plantier, a French producer and wife of a famous film director Daniel Toscan du Plantier, who kept a holiday home in Skull. She had been grossly beaten with what was assumed to be a huge, heavy rock and possibly other ad hoc weapons, and left to die where she was given the fatal blow, at the end of her own drive. To this date nobody has ever been brought to justice for her murder.
I’d never (that I can remeber) heard of Sophie Toscan du Plantier or that fatal night, but I was pretty young when it happened and so probably paid no attention to news, but it made West Cork the centre of the media’s attention across the world. West Cork marks the three year research project of the writers, investigative journalist, Sam Bungey, and documentarian, Jennifer Forde, partners in research and married in real life, and their embarkation of an attempt to decipher the confusing, disturbing and unresolved crime.
It’s a harrowing but ultimately fascinating journey. West Cork was a destination in the summer for city types, rich types, and holiday-homers, but the winter time was very much as it usually was for the rugged Irish coast. The unravelling of the events of the night in question is pitted with lack of evidence, misdirection, rumour, speculation and manipulation. Each episode adds a layer to the story and examines the available official data, media publications, court records, and also the direct testimony of locals and Garda, and some of Sophie’s family. The writers also spend much time in the company of the prime suspect in the case, Ian Bailey, who is what is described as a ‘Blow-in’ - a non-native settler, and his partner Jools Thomas, another blow-in. Bailey never did – and likely never will, in Ireland at least – see the dock in a criminal trial due to the extensive and extreme media coverage of not only the incident but Bailey’s life, which renders the outcome far too biased to be safe. Whether he did commit the murder or not is a matter of mere speculation.
I enjoyed the exploration into the whole story, and the relatively balanced way the evaluation was dealt with. The gradual exposure of things like rumours of Sophie TDP sleeping around (spread by Ian Bailey as well as others) was shown to be incorrect. There were other assumptions about her habits based around the forensic investigation of her house, which again were debunked as merely what she was like and not some sinister goings on. The presenters can make no true judgements about her as she cannot defend herself directly, and so the overall examination is treated respectfully, and it seems she was well-liked by the people who knew her, but private, enjoying her holiday home by herself when she wished.
Ian Bailey comes across as the total opposite. He seems to relish attention, and relish being treated as both the prime suspect and a key gatekeeper of intimate knowledge of this whole investigation. His reports from the time it happened seemed to go through various different embellishments or deceptions, and where many acts that he or his partner carried out would have been normal under any other circumstances were treated in the context of suspicion at the time. The main problem is that Bailey seemed to have outright lied about certain things that happened, before taking a u-turn and ‘remembering’ them to be true. It seems every word that is said against him that is negative is “complete bollocks” or something to that effect, but anything supporting him is accepted. I’ve listened to this twice now, and I don’t know whether I believe he murdered SDP, or was capable of doing so, but at the risk of being armchair psychologist it does seem that its possible he has at least narcissistic tendencies. There is a reason he was the first reporter on the scene, managing to get from his house to Sophie’s on the afternoon the murder as announced in an almostimpossible legth of time having never been there before. That he lied about getting up in the early morning after coming back from the pub, allegedly drunk, with his partner. That he cannot quite remember if he ever saw SDP, or met her, and that everyone who says he had is lying. He seemed to have some weird habits, carrying around a staff (dubbed a “moonstick” by the locals ) and wearing a heavy black coat all the time, but go to Glantonbury any day and you’ll see as many strange sights. Being a bit weird doesn’t make a murderer, but consistently not being able to tell the truth certainly made him a suspect. The primary thing for me that is so offputting about him is that he never talks of how tragic is was for Sophie or her family. He focuses almost exclusively on himself and his plight. This might be just an editing thing, but it’s not something that seemed to draw the attention of the presenters.
The Garda information is probably the reason why there is doubt in my mind Ian Bailey committed the murder. Corruption in the police is not confined to this century, and the Garda of West Cork were described as essentially “owning” down there. The behaviour described by not only Bailey but one of the key witnesses Marie (who eventually changed her story and confessed she had lied about her sightings of Bailey at certain times) of the Garda during the investigation stinks. It also doesn’t surprise me. Perhaps they were so under pressure to find the murderer they decided to find a weird local, ideally a foreigner, who would be perfect for a set-up.
There are some moments which felt the bias of the writers, for example with an ex Garda detective who examined the scene who mentioned Sophie had no curtains in her bedroom, and was probably, as a French lady, more comfortable with nudity. The presenter seemed to judge this view “prudish” in regards to “forward French women”, however, it is not really an understated stereotype the French are comfortable with nudity, certainly more than an elderly ex-police officer’s view in Ireland in 1993, a very different time to today. Later in the series the same presenter makes quip judgements about another interviewee because he is a free-thinker who doesn’t live a conventional life. It is important to remember that even if you are creating something that is intended to be impartial, modern biases will seep in. It is also an issue regarding Ian Bailey. Though this series was intending to delve into the murder’s aspects from all angles, it did, not unnecessarily so, spend much time deliberating Bailey’s involvement and actions. The writers spent private time with Bailey and his partner, to the degree that they had dinner with them many times. Though this is not a problem per se, it does mean, that out of all the people involved, they spent more time with the prime suspect, that anyone else, and therefore were eventually going to form some kind of subjective bias towards him and the supposed actions he was accused of. Much like a trial must be decided by those who do not have a vested interest in anyone involved in it, it is was likely hard for the presents to separate the niceties with the possibly gruesome reality.
I suppose when you have an actively participating prime suspect you’re probably going to try and get as much as possible out of them, and I think that having so many conversations with him – and also with his partner – means that he was going to say a lot. This is probably the kind of documentary that would benefit from being on video, as it would have been very interesting to see the body language of all the interviewees throughout and not just hear them.
All in all, West Cork is well worth listening to. It keeps alive the memory of a woman who had her life brutally cut short, and also gets to examine in intimate detail and from the mouths of others involved the investigation a still-open case that is harrowing, confusing and still raw in a variety of ways for everyone involved.