This article contains spoilers for all episodes of The Following Events are Based on a Pack of Lies.
In the world of true crime, scammers are the new murderers, so audiences may well lap up the latest BBC 1 drama The Following Events are Based on a Pack of Lies. In it, Alistair Petrie’s sleazebag serial scammer, Robert, engages in a game of cat and mouse with Alice (Rebekah Staton), the abandoned ex-wife who thought he was dead, and Cheryl (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) the successful fantasy author who he is currently attempting to extort money from.
The show begins with a chance encounter where Alice happens to spot Robert on the streets of Oxford. Not in fact dead, Robert has restyled himself as Dr Robert Chance (not his name and he’s not a doctor), an Oxford educated explorer who runs a climate change foundation out of Greenland. Needless to say he has not attended Oxford, his exploration pictures are photoshopped and the foundation doesn’t exist. What Robert does have though is an RP accent, good looks, and an incredible sense of entitlement.
Alice on the other hand is a woman with not much money and very little confidence, who the police don’t take seriously and who has been gaslit in the past by Robert.
After she witnesses him trying to drown Cheryl’s precious dog in a lake, Alice plans to infiltrate Cheryl’s life, gather enough proof of his intentions and take him down. Why not just tell Cheryl about the dog? Well to Alice’s mind she’s just not going to be believed and Robert will simply say that she’s his crazy stalker ex-wife up to her old tricks.
It’s a mildly annoying plot device which allows the show to stretch to five hour-long episodes, with Alice lying to Cheryl about her identity, Robert threatening and assaulting Alice and Cheryl staying frustratingly in the dark when Alice really could have just said something before Robert stole a whole heap of her money.
Or could she? Because while this story is fiction and there’s a certain amount of humour, fantasy and wish fulfillment going on, there is actually a serious side in the background of this tale.
In the series finale, episode 5, in which Cheryl and Alice have joined forces in an attempt to finally nail Robert, Cheryl gives a speech. Robert has created a fake email account for Cheryl, he’s used it to talk to her lawyer and has arranged a policy where if she dies after the two are married, he gets the entire estate, and if she dies before they are married he gets a one off payment of £1.5 million, which he has signed, posing as her. She doesn’t believe she can prove he’s done this. And what’s more, she strongly suspects he’s trying to kill her and make it look like suicide. Cheryl feels trapped.
Even if she goes to the police saying she thinks he’s trying to kill her they’ll essentially do nothing without hard proof. And even if he does kill her and is caught, that’s probably not the end of his story, even though it’s the end of hers. He will write a memoir in prison, it’ll get turned into a podcast, a Netflix documentary, then a Netflix drama, Cheryl says. Women will write to him in prison, and when he gets out he’ll marry one of them. And while the series is fiction, her conclusion feels horribly accurate.
Though not based on the truth there are plenty of real scammer stories to be found. And the device the show uses – documentary style cutaways of other people who have fallen victim to “Robert” (or Terry, or Graham depending who you ask) – tries to emulate the vibes of Netflix shows like The Tinder Swindler. And before Robert’s final comeuppance we’re shown clips of real abusers from Harvey Weinstein to Jeffrey Epstein to Jimmy Saville and many more.
If you don’t think victims are regularly disbelieved and gaslit by powerful men then look at the real world, the show says. It’s happening all the time. So when Robert does get a semi-glorious comeuppance (“it’s a start” says Alice) in The Following Events are Based on a Pack of Lies, it doesn’t look very much like reality. Rather it’s a somewhat slapstick bit of fantasy wish fulfillment involving a maze, a magician, a rabbit costume and more. And it’s a comfort. We want to believe that the bad guys and girls will be apprehended and justice will prevail. We want to believe that we would never be foolish enough to trust a con artist, but true crime podcasts and docs should lead us to believe otherwise. So in a way, the fact that it’s not based on the truth makes it fluffy and, dare we say it, slightly pointless, when you can devour as much real life horror as you can eat all over the streaming services. But on the other hand you can watch the show, knowing it’s entirely plausible, without walking away with the knowledge that a real person’s life has been ruined – or not this time at least.
The Following Events Are Based On A True Story is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.