Created by sisters Penelope and Ginny Skinner, the five-part series stars “Sex Education” head Alistair Petrie as perennially successful con artist Rob. But when his former wife Alice (Rebekah Staton) joins forces with his current mark Cheryl (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), Rob quickly loses control of the situation.
Control, in “Pack of Lies,” is a key theme. “Penny and Ginny had been really interested in how there is a crossover and a pattern of behaviours that you see in con cases and in domestic abuse cases,” says Sister executive producer Lydia Hampson. “Coercive control, gaslighting, elements of narcissism.”
The show, which airs in the U.K. on Aug. 29 and is being sold globally by BBC Studios, went through development early in the pandemic, when there was suddenly a surge of interest in con artists (“It felt like, ‘Oh, wow, this is everywhere,’” Hampson says of the numerous podcasts and documentaries that sprung up about con men, such as “The Tinder Swindler”) and, at the same time, the U.K. toughened up domestic abuse laws to include coercive control.
Despite the various real-world influences informing the themes of the show, the character of Rob is not a composite of any real con men. “With a fictional story you can have more scope to push the envelope on how big a character might go or how unusual the thing might be,” says Hampson. “You’ve got the freedom to go and play with it a bit.”
Still, even with an entirely fictional plot and characters, Hampson said the creative team “definitely” felt a sense of responsibility in bringing the story to life. “The responsibility is in the message that this can and does happen to anyone and everyone every day,” Hampson says. “So there shouldn’t be this shame. But actually, the reason why con artists are often able to re-offend is because of the shame. It’s because [victims] are so embarrassed about what happened to them.”
Cheryl and Alice, who come from very different backgrounds and yet fall prey to the same man, were designed to show exactly that. Cheryl is an Oxford-based best-selling author; Alice is an under-confident designer who has spent her entire career as an assistant. But Cheryl is just as vulnerable as Alice, having recently nursed her academic husband through dementia until his death. “[Cheryl] had been very isolated and she’s lonely now and looking for a foothold again,” explains the Sister exec. All of which makes her the perfect mark because, as Hampson points out, “con artists will hit your emotional vulnerabilities, not your intelligence.”
The show also makes an effort to bust the myth of the glamorous con. “If we look back at films like ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ or ‘Catch Me If You Can,’ which are both great, the life depicted in them is quite glamorous, it’s quite high flying and beautiful,” says Hampson. “And the reality of going through a con is so different. It’s quite grimy and it’s quite bleak.”
But, with its motto of “joyful rage,”“Pack of Lies” isn’t gloomy either. “There are lots of shows that are a bit trauma porn,” Hampson says. “People having to relive stuff that’s quite harrowing. So [for us] it was like, can we find a way of giving the whole show a tone that feels a bit more triumphant and a bit more positive?”
That certainly comes through in Staton and Jean-Baptiste’s portrayals of Alice and Cheryl as they turn the tables on Rob. It also helps that the series has some colorful nods to the ’80s: Alice, who at one point turns up in a bright pink cape, is a fan of early Madonna while Rob is obsessed with Michael Douglas, and in one scene even watches “Fatal Attraction.” “He sees himself as that heroic alpha male,” says Hampson.
The reaction from those who have seen previews has already been positive, says Hampson. More importantly, she hopes the show might help people who are experiencing troubling domestic situations. “The aim was for audiences to watch it and to realise that if something like this has happened to them, or if they recognise some behaviours, to know it is a thing.”
“Part of what gaslighting is is a kind of dilution or belittling of someone’s perception of their reality. It’s so common and can happen and does happen to anyone – from any walk of life.”