Hollywood CGI used on drama The Pembrokeshire Murders to recreate moment a serial killer appeared on Bullseye

Hollywood CGI used on drama The Pembrokeshire Murders to recreate moment a serial killer appeared on Bullseye

December 11, 2020

COPS have caged some of the world's worst serial killers thanks to the most unlikely of breakthroughs – but John Cooper's damning appearance on TV's Bullseye is one of the most bizarre in criminal history.

Competing on the darts gameshow, famously hosted by Jim Bowen, led to him being jailed for life as it identified him as the executioner of two siblings and an elderly couple in Wales.

The incredible turning point is at the heart of new ITV drama, The Pembrokeshire Murders, and was so crucial that producers used Hollywood effects to recreate the moment he competed on the programme in 1989.

Keith Allen, who plays the psychopath in the thriller, had his 67-year-old face "de-aged" by the technology before it was superimposed onto the body of Cooper in the original Bullseye footage, who was just 44 years old at the time.

The actor agreed it wasn't just important to show how the murderer was caught, but also what a self-centred monster he really was.

Keith said: "I saw it in terms of: 'There's a guy who, one month later, is going to ruthlessly murder a couple.'

"So I went back and rewatched it and rewatched it and you can see that that is not a very nice person.

"He's not on the programme to enjoy himself, he's there to impose himself on his playing partner. He's so self centred. The whole thing is: it's all about him.

"He was a darts player – and a very good darts player – and when he misses and he scored probably the most damning score a darts player can get, you can see the fury in his eyes. You can genuinely see it.

"I've often thought, that if he'd have scored 180 and won the prize, whether that couple would still be alive today?"

Cooper appeared on Bullseye in May, 1989. Just a month later he shot Oxfordshire husband and wife, Peter and Gwenda Dixon in the face with a sawn-off shotgun after robbing them of £300 on a remote coastal path as they holidayed in Pembrokeshire.

Four years earlier Cooper had also murdered brother and sister Richard and Helen Thomas in their home, Scoveston Manor, near Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, shooting them both before burning the building down with them still inside it.

Chillingly, when he appeared on Bullseye he chatted to host Jim about his love of the great outdoors and, in particular, scuba diving off the coast of West Wales. It was this lighthearted chat that provided more evidence for police.

It also provided more inspiration for Keith because, despite being born and raised in the neighbouring Welsh county, he had to work at capturing the peculiar voice of Cooper.

He said: "I am Welsh and I was very worried about the accent. In this case I really felt like I had to do the research so I'd seen the Bullseye thing and, actors do all sorts of things to remind them how they're supposed to speak.

"But my go to trigger was him on Bullseye when he talked about scuba diving. 'Does he speak like that? Seriously? Surely not?' He had a very odd way of speaking."

The new ITV drama, which starts next month, shows how both double murders remained unsolved until the start of a cold case review in 2005 led by DCS Steve Wilkins, played by film hunk Luke Evans, 41.

Advances in DNA technology helped the new case, but identifying Cooper was difficult as he'd deliberately destroyed any photos of himself from the Eighties.

Simon Heath, executive producer and boss of World Productions who made Bodyguard and Line of Duty for the BBC, said: "Although there had been an artist's impression done of the potential suspect, for the second double murder, there was no contemporary reference point.

"Then he discovered, almost at random, after one of his boy's football matches, that the pub he was in was the pub that Cooper had used to play darts at – and there was a picture of Cooper on the board.

"The landlord tipped him off that he'd been on Bullseye years before. They tracked down the footage to the ITV archive in Leeds and as part of making this show we got hold of the same footage.

"But we were left with the problem of: 'How can we incorporate it into the fictional version of the story?' So what we actually did was we superimposed through VFX a de-aged image of Keith Allen on the original footage of Cooper.

"And I think it pays testament to the technical guys, they've done a fantastic job and it's extremely convincing."

The technique has been used in a handful of movies, including Robert de Niro in Netflix's The Irishman, Robert Downey Jnr in Captain America: Civil War and Sir Ian McKellen in X-Men: The Last Stand.

The feat of altering the image was nothing compared to the achievement of DCS Wilkins in finding it, however. He managed to show how the artist's impression captured his distinctive mullet and moustache, even his frame, which were plain to see on the Bullseye episode.

The achievement was all the more remarkable because he got hold of it as the investigation faced a race against time.

Cooper, who'd been involved in more than 30 break-ins and violent assaults, was already in prison after being sentenced to 14 years in 1998 for robbery and burglary.

But he was being considered for release while police investigated him for the murders, and was allowed to leave jail in January 2009.

That meant he could possibly offend again, and was likely to exert more influence on crucial witnesses including his long-suffering son, Andrew Cooper.

The latter he'd shamelessly tried to blame for the murders, whenever he felt police were getting close to nailing him.

So Steve and the team were under increasing pressure to deliver results at speed.

Luke said: "It's a shocking true story about the worst serial killer that Wales has ever seen, but it drew my attention to what the police do behind the scenes and the human impact of what people go through when something like this happens in their community.

"Often these stories do feel like they can't be real. And this one has so many twists and turns, it almost feels like at any moment the case will go cold again.

"The forensic evidence was minimal, budgets were running out and people were losing faith."

But, within four months of his release, Steve and the team had used DNA to pinpoint a shotgun owned by Cooper as the murder weapon. Specks of Peter Dixon’s blood – with a probability match of one in a billion – were also found under black paint on the barrels of the firearm.

A more detailed forensic test on a pair of shorts owned by Cooper discovered traces of Peter and Gwenda's DNA.

He was arrested in May of the same year and two years later was convicted for both double murders, as well as the 1996 rape of a 16-year-old girl and a sexual assault on a 15-year-old girl, both carried out at gunpoint, in Pembrokeshire.

Cooper was sentenced to a whole life order, which means he will never be released from prison.

The judge told him: "The murders were of such evil wickedness the mandatory sentence of life will mean just that."

Luke said: "This is a story about a team of people who wanted to find the truth and get the man who committed these crimes. The work and time and the sacrifice they put in is part of the story.

"The Pembrokeshire Murders is not just about the person who carried out these crimes, it's about how they find him.

"And the twists and turns are just mind boggling and unbelievable – it really is a rollercoaster ride that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

  • The Pembrokeshire Murders is on ITV next month.

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