Is Deadwater Fell a true story? The true crime documentaries that inspired Channel 4’s new series starring David Tennant

Though Deadwater Fell isn't based on true events, show creators were heavily inspired by true crime documentaries.

Deadwater Fell took inspiration from true crime documentaries according to its creator (Channel 4)
Deadwater Fell took inspiration from true crime documentaries according to its creator (Channel 4)

Deadwater Fell tells the story of father and husband, Dr Tom Kendrick played by David Tennant, who is instantly cast as a key suspect when he survives a fire in which his wife and children perish.

Set in the remote fictional Scottish town of Kirkdarroch the TV series has been showered with positive reviews, which describe the tale as "devastating" and "heartbreaking".

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Speaking at a Q&A session, writer Daisy Coulam and producer Emma Kingsman-Lloyd confirmed that though the events of the series are fictional, inspiration was taken from Netflix true crime documentary The Staircase.

Michael Peterson was an inspiration for character Dr Tom Kendrick, according to Daisy Coulam (Netflix)

'The forensic detail of a true crime doc'

True crime documentaries have been in vogue since the release of Making a Murderer on Netflix in 2015.

Kingsman-Lloyd revealed that writer and creator Daisy Coulam was keen to place the tone of these real-life murder mysteries into a fictional setting.

Speaking in December 2019, Kingsman-Lloyd said: “We’re both a little bit obsessed with true crime shows which is where the initial thought came from, because Daisy [Coulam] said that she wanted to write something that had the forensic detail of a true crime documentary show."

Writing for the Independent, Coulam revealed that she was "a true crime addict" and "wanted to challenge the genre with my own crime drama, Deadwater Fell."

Inspired by The Staircase

In particular, Coulam has been inspired by the deeply unsettling story of author Michael Peterson who was accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen.

The death of Kathleen Peterson was forensically examined in Netflix mini-series The Staircase.

In a Q and A session Coulam revealed that the clinical manner in which the crime is studied inspired Deadwater Fell.

She said: “You’re going through a house and it’s all quiet and you go ‘this incredibly violent thing happened there’. That sort of stillness and the natural way that, even when they’re talking about dead people, it’s very matter of fact the way they talk about things. We just wanted to capture that sense really.”

Michael Peterson, who was charged with murdering his wife in 2003, but recently had his charge reduced to manslaughter, served as an inspiration for David Tennant's character Dr Tom Kendrick, according to Coulam.

“I like that ambiguity and that he’s a really fascinating character, so just drawing on that really and that sort of nuance is what I was hoping for.”

About humans not monsters

True crime documentaries and podcasts have often tried to put a human face on the accused, whether it is that of Steven Avery in Making a Murderer or Adnan Syed in hit podcast Serial.

In her Independent article, Coulam insisted that Deadwater Fell too wanted to stray away from labelling the accused as "monsters".

She said the series "is about humans and what they are capable of – both the heroic and the incomprehensible.

"And it’s about victims who deserve to be remembered as more than a smiling face in a faded photograph."