7 Questions with… The Pembrokeshire Murders' Alexandria Riley: 'If it was a film, you would think it was too far-fetched'

Alexandria Riley talks about ITV’s gripping three-part drama series The Pembrokeshire Murders, the true story of Detective Superintendent Steve Wilkins and serial killer John Cooper.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 11 January 2021 - 5.13pm
ITV Alexandria Riley and Luke Evans in The Pembrokeshire Murders

Alexandria Riley was only six when the first murder by serial killer John Cooper took place. But she remembers distinctly the emotions when he was eventually convicted.

“I remember that being a huge thing in our household. Because it was Wales, because it was so close to home, because it was so idyllic, you just never expected it to happen,” said Riley.

“I remember everyone being so afraid and heartbroken that it could happen so close to where we were.”

Riley plays DI Ella Richards in ITV’s retelling of the incredible cold case, starring alongside Hollywood star Luke Evans, who plays Detective Superintendent Steve Wilkins.

Wilkins was the man who took on the challenge of solving two double murders from the 1980s, when he was promoted in the Dyfed-Powys police force in 2006.

Through the use of pioneering forensic methods and sheer bloody-minded determination, Wilkins and his team did everything in their powers to finally deliver justice.

The Pembrokeshire Murders - What really happened?

In a truly shocking moment, the crucial piece of evidence turns out to be an appearance by the killer on an episode of the ITV gameshow Bullseye, which finally matches him visually with a witness description.

The incredible story is a must-watch this week on ITV and we spoke to Alexandria about the challenges of bringing these emotional events to the screen.

1. What did you know about the case before you filmed the series?

Alexandria Riley ITV

When the first murder took place I was really young, I was about six, but I do remember as it went on and when he was convicted for all the murders, I remember that being a huge thing in our household. Because it was Wales, because it was so close to home, because it was so idyllic, you just never expected it to happen.

It was everywhere and everyone was talking about it. And in our house, we were massive Bullseye watchers, so for him to have been on that programme… it was like watching a film play out. It was really surreal. It was stranger than fiction. I remember everyone being so afraid and heartbroken as well that it could happen so close to where we were.

I watched a lot of documentaries about him so I had seen the Bullseye footage and we use the real footage in the show. We watched it again as a cast and there was just silence in the room. You really can’t believe the audacity of it. If it was a film, you would think it was too far-fetched, you can’t write this. But that really did happen and was a key part of the evidence that brought justice.

2. What was it like working with Luke Evans?

Alexandria Riley with Luke Evans ITV

As soon as the audition came through they said that role had been cast and it was Luke Evans. As if I wasn’t already nervous enough before the audition. I think its perfect casting and he plays the role perfectly. Having seen the actual Steve and Luke, the casting really made sense.

I was on day one quite shocked to be working with him, but as soon you get into the script and the filming you forget all that. He portrays him so well. This is his first role he’s taken in Wales. He loves Wales and loves his home and he remembered these instances taking place.

Steve is a very sleek gentleman with lots of charisma and I think that side of Luke meshes really well with playing him.

3. Who is DI Ella Richards?

Alexandria Riley as Ella Richards ITV

Ella is an amalgamation of a few different people and positions in the team at that time. The police really struggled with the fact they couldn’t bring justice. Ella and Steve being partners, it brings out the thinking that would have been going on in their heads and the struggles and trauma they would have been going through. It vocalises it and gives it dialogue. Ella also brings a lot of heart to the piece.

Ella is very connected to the murders and she brings a lot of heart and human connection to the victims in this case. That helps bring out the emotions in Steve and shows their human vulnerability.

4. How useful was it to have the real Steve Wilkins on set?

It was so valuable. We met him before we even went into shooting. We had a sit down with him to just go through what the team went through on a daily basis. It was just harrowing and exhausting, but he really pushed how that team operated as a family. How he would try lift them as much as possible. He would take them out for dinner and they had to have a human connection where they downed tools every so often. That really stuck with us a lot.

He also showed us how invested they truly were, how much they sacrificed and he brought his son along to set quite a lot. It was also great speaking to him about what it was like losing his father to this case for such a long length of time and how that impacted on his personal life. I think that really helped Luke. It was just great to have people on set who knew the details of how things worked. They weren’t using computers, they were filing bits of paper, it was just fascinating.

5. What is Keith Allen’s performance like as John?

Keith Allen in The Pembrokeshire Murders ITV

A lot of the time we didn’t see him until we got down to those final interrogation scenes. And that worked out well because in those scenes, he was absolutely petrifying. He was completely transformed. He is a master of what he does. Knowing the role he played, it was mad how when we did see each other on set he would change, crack jokes and put you at ease.

It was only just before a scene he would go off and have some quiet time and distance, before coming back as a totally different person. It was amazing to see.

6. Did you enjoy filming on location in Wales?

Alexandria Riley as Ella Richards ITV

What’s amazing about Pembrokeshire is it’s so idyllic and you have the sea, the greenery, the mountains and the villages. And then the weather changes and it can look quite harsh and quite dark. And when you portray it in this story, you see it in a different light. It’s a really interesting juxtaposition. It was lovely to be about the locals though with such incredible backdrops. And it was raining a lot of the time as well, which really set the mood for what we were filming.

7. What do you hope viewers take away from this series?

It is an incredible story that people should know about and I hope it honours the people who were affected. And I hope it highlights the incredible work of the police on the case and their efforts. How hard they fought, the lengths they went to, these six or seven people, what they did to bring justice.

The Pembrokeshire Murders airs on Monday, January 11th at 9pm and continues on Tuesday, January 12th and Wednesday, January 13th.

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