The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman review – astounding true crime TV | Television & radio

Just over 1 / 4 of an hour into The Puppet Grasp: Hunting the Ultimate Conman (Netflix), considered one of the contributors says one thing you can not fairly imagine. She remembers how, in 1993, she selected to go on a highway journey with two pals and a stranger known as Rob: “That call modified the subsequent 10 years of my life.” At this level, we all know we’re watching a documentary a few fearsomely persuasive con artist, besides: 10 years?

By the finish of this chilling, regularly astounding three-parter about how highly effective lies could be when delivered with confidence – and particularly about the abusive behaviour referred to as coercive management – it makes excellent, terrible sense.

The girl is Sarah Smith, who was learning at agricultural school in Shropshire when her boyfriend met a person who claimed to be an undercover MI5 agent. A fellow pupil had lately been arrested for IRA gun-running; now Smith and her friends have been at risk, Rob mentioned, as a result of their housemate was suspected of comparable actions. Rob advised them they needed to go on the run from the IRA, beneath his safety. They agreed to take action. Smith didn’t return dwelling for one more decade.

Sarah Smith
Brave … Sarah Smith. {Photograph}: Netflix

In the meantime, in 2012, teenage siblings Jake and Sophie Clifton have been more and more frightened about their mum, Sandra Clifton. (The sequence hops backwards and forwards, scrolling left and proper alongside a timeline à la The Final Dance.) The behaviour of Sandra’s boyfriend, David, was progressing from troubling anomalies – having cash however not apparently going to work; being reluctant to disclose his surname – to aggressive gaslighting that appeared designed to drive the kids to go away dwelling.


“Rob” and “David” have been, after all, the identical particular person: Robert Hendy-Freegard, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for a plethora of offences in 2005, earlier than being cleared of the most critical one, kidnapping, on enchantment two years later and launched.

That Sandra was bewitched by a person who had already been publicly recognized as a ruthless deceiver – Jake and Sophie may have introduced him down with a easy Google search, had they solely recognized what to sort in – is considered one of so many close to misses and if-onlys in a sequence that makes your jaw drop wider and wider, with out ever straying into prurient sensationalism. Tight storytelling combines with environment friendly dramatic reconstructions to take us by way of a twin narrative that barrels on like a thriller. Certainly, a film dramatisation starring James Norton as Hendy-Freegard has begun filming.

What makes The Puppet Grasp unforgettable, nonetheless, is its dissection of how coercive abuse works. As soon as concern or love, or a mixture of each, has induced the sufferer to provide the perpetrator their belief, all kinds of unbelievable lies could be believed and all types of humiliations endured. Smith, specifically, exhibits appreciable braveness in describing truthfully how she was browbeaten into chopping herself off from her loving household, not speaking with them until it was to demand ever-growing sums of cash.

Initially, it appears preposterous that anybody would imagine a person who says: “I’m an MI5 agent,” however Smith’s testimony proves that, in the fingers of somebody as appallingly gifted as Hendy-Freegard, wise individuals could make absurd decisions and robust individuals could be damaged. As Hendy-Freegard takes Smith on an indefinite tour of the UK, shifting her from one “secure home” to a different and isolating her extra each time till her family members are deserted altogether, the story goes to locations a lot darker than Hendy-Freegard leeching her for money.

Maps trying to track Robert Hendy-Freegard
On the hunt … maps monitoring Hendy-Freegard in the present. {Photograph}: Netflix

A lot of the sequence’ energy to grip comes from mounting revulsion at Hendy-Freegard’s deliberate, sustained cruelty. That mentioned, it has heroes in addition to a momentous villain. Chief amongst them is Peter Smith, Smith’s father, who noticed by way of Hendy-Freegard instantly and, having did not cease this man taking away his daughter, spent the subsequent decade conducting what was typically a one-man surveillance and intelligence operation, doing it old-school, his examine wall lined in big maps dotted with pins linked by string. He by no means gave up. Ultimately, he bought his lady again.

Not everybody has been so fortunate. We’re advised from the outset that Sandra’s children, now younger adults, haven’t seen her in particular person since she skipped city with Hendy-Freegard some years in the past. His profitable enchantment towards his kidnapping conviction was based mostly on the declare that his victims have been free to go away him at any time. That coercive management didn’t grow to be a prison offence in England and Wales till 2015 is The Puppet Grasp’s greatest if-only of all.

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