• Entertainment
  • Television

What Fiona Harvey, the So-Called ‘Real Martha’ of Baby Reindeer, Claims in Case Against Netflix

8 minute read

“This is a true story.”

That’s what’s displayed over a black screen at the start of Netflix’s hit stalker series Baby Reindeer. It’s also the opening of a defamation complaint against the streamer, alleging the five-word phrase to be “the biggest lie in television history.”

Baby Reindeer, which premiered on Netflix on April 11, is based on the experiences of Scottish comedian Richard Gadd, depicting a character named Donny—played by Gadd, who wrote the show and the one-man stage production it is adapted from—being stalked by an older Scottish woman named Martha, portrayed by Jessica Gunning.

Baby Reindeer
Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning in Baby ReindeerEd Miller—Netflix

Within days of Baby Reindeer airing, online sleuths identified the so-called “real Martha” as 58-year-old Scottish woman Fiona Harvey. In a lawsuit filed on Thursday in Los Angeles before the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Harvey is demanding a jury trial and seeking at least $170 million in damages from Netflix for alleged defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, and violations of her right of publicity (unpermitted use of her identity and likeness). 

As a result of being linked to the show, Harvey claims that her “life had been ruined” and that Netflix “destroyed her reputation, her character, and her life.”

The character of Martha is depicted as a twice-convicted stalker who physically and sexually assaulted Gadd’s character, was said to have stalked a police officer, camped outside Gadd’s character’s home for up to 16 hours a day, and spent more than five years in jail for multiple sentences—things that Harvey says are all untrue about herself.

Read More: The True Story Behind the Surprise Netflix Hit ‘Baby Reindeer’

“The real Martha is reasonably understood by all viewers to have done all of these monstrous things because Netflix and Gadd stated this was true,” reads the complaint. “Defendants told these lies, and never stopped, because it was a better story than the truth, and better stories made money.”

Harvey alleges that Netflix “intended to inflict injury” upon her and did “literally nothing” to confirm the details of its “true story,” which ended up becoming a runaway success watched by more than 65 million people worldwide.

Netflix executive Benjamin King told a U.K. parliamentary committee in May that the show was “obviously a true story” of the abuse Gadd experienced “at the hands of a convicted stalker” and that Netflix “did take every reasonable precaution in disguising the real-life identities of the people involved in that story.” After the complaint was filed, a representative for Netflix told Variety: “We intend to defend this matter vigorously and to stand by Richard Gadd’s right to tell his story.”

Here’s what to know about the case.

“Hang my curtains”: How Harvey claims her identity was revealed

Like Netflix, Gadd claimed that his team had taken care to obscure the person who was the basis for Martha in Baby Reindeer, telling GQ in April that they had “gone to such great lengths to disguise her to the point that I don’t think she would recognize herself.”

Gadd has also urged viewers to refrain from speculating on the real-life identities of characters. “That’s not the point of our show,” he said. He told The Hollywood Reporter in May that he would not comment on the topic ever again, saying “if I wanted the real life people to be found, I would’ve made it a documentary.”

But, the complaint alleges, “the identification of Harvey as ‘Martha’ was easy and took a matter of days as Harvey’s identity was completely undisguised.”

“Like ‘Martha,’ Harvey is a Scottish lawyer, living in London, twenty years older than Gadd, was accused of stalking a lawyer in a newspaper article, and who bears an uncanny resemblance to ‘Martha,’” the complaint said. “Further, ‘Martha’s’ accent, manner of speaking and cadence, is indistinguishable for Harvey’s.”

Fiona Harvey appears on Piers Morgan Uncensored on May 10, 2024.Screenshot from YouTube

The complaint also points to a key detail that allegedly exposed Harvey’s identity in the very first episode of the show: Donny jokes about hanging Martha’s curtains for her—a euphemism for sex; later in the episode, among the dozens of emails Martha sends Donny daily was one that read: “myy curtains r waitinfro yu they r ready.” 

It wasn’t long before social media users dug up a 2014 tweet from Harvey to Gadd that said: “my curtains need hung badly,” after which Harvey says she started to be inundated by messages from strangers identifying her as Martha.

Screenshots of messages Harvey says she received, attached in her complaint.

Harvey then appeared on Piers Morgan Uncensored on May 10 for a nearly hour-long interview in which she claimed to have inspired the name of the show—a reference to a childhood toy—but that nearly everything else associated with her was untrue, despite the apparent similarities between her and the character Martha.

Morgan, during his interview with Harvey, argued that her swift identification showed that Netflix and Gadd’s duty of care had been “a spectacular failure,” and Harvey said at the time that she intended to sue.

Alleged defamation over depictions of assault and harassment

According to Harvey’s complaint, Baby Reindeer contains several defamatory claims about her. The show depicts Martha sexually assaulting Donny by grabbing his penis without his consent, as well as later physically assaulting him by hitting his head with a glass bottle and pushing his eyes with her thumbs. Harvey maintains that she has neither had sexual encounters with Gadd nor physically attacked him.

Moreover, while Martha was shown waiting at a bus stop outside Donny’s house for up to 16 hours a day for multiple days, Harvey denounced the depiction as a “psychotic lie,” claiming that she had “never waited outside Gadd’s residence.” (In her interview with Morgan, Harvey said she had only ever met Gadd “two or three times,” later revised to “five-six.”)

Jessica Gunning as Martha in Baby Reindeer.Ed Miller—Netflix

And unlike Martha from the show, who was described as previously convicted and sentenced to 4.5 years in prison for a separate case and then depicted to have pleaded guilty to harassing Gadd and his parents, Harvey says she has never been convicted of any crimes or gone to prison. The complaint also claimed that, whereas Martha was said to have previously stalked a police officer, Harvey has done no such thing.

Because of all these “brutal lies,” the complaint said, Harvey has been subjected to immense distress. The barrage of messages Harvey has received, including death threats, have allegedly caused her to suffer from anxiety, nightmares, depression, isolation, and a fear of leaving her home or reading the news. “Since being identified,” the complaint said, “Harvey has been tormented.”

What’s not mentioned in the complaint

Notably absent in Harvey’s complaint is any mention of the 41,071 emails, 350 hours’ worth of voicemails, 744 tweets, 46 Facebook messages, and 106 pages of letters Martha sent to Donny, a central detail repeated throughout the show and about which Harvey has been questioned since the airing of Baby Reindeer. “None of that’s true. I don’t think I sent him anything,” Harvey told Morgan in May, before quickly revising her recollection to say that she had sent just “a handful” or “less than 10” emails and just “one letter.”

“Even if the email thing was true,” she added at the time, “the rest is not.”

In recent weeks, Harvey has been accused of sending numerous emails to other public figures, including Labor politician and potential future Prime Minister Keir Starmer, whom she had reportedly sent 276 messages over the span of less than eight months. Some of the emails were laden with expletives and insults, including calling Starmer a “stupid little boy” and using a slur against his wife, The Sun reported.

Harvey also denied to Morgan that she had ever heckled Gadd during his comedy performances, as Martha was depicted to have done to Donny in the show, or that she had ever assaulted his girlfriend like Martha did. Neither, however, was mentioned in the complaint outlining how Harvey felt she was defamed.

Jessica Gunning as Martha in Baby Reindeer
Jessica Gunning as Martha in Baby Reindeer.Netflix

And while Harvey did claim in her complaint that she has never stalked Gadd, she did not address accusations that she has faced about stalking her former employer at a law firm—a detail that was also depicted in Baby Reindeer through the fictional newspaper headline “Sick stalker targets barrister’s deaf child.” As online sleuths unearthed newspaper articles from the early 2000s about Harvey reportedly harassing Laura Wray, a lawyer and widow of a former politician, Wray told The Daily Mirror in May that the show’s Martha was undeniably a portrayal of the Harvey she remembered. “It was obvious to me and to a lot of other people that she was my stalker,” Wray said. “The only thing they changed about her was her name. The lady Jessica [Gunning] who played Martha was excellent … I mean, she had the same laugh, even the same slightly kind of funny waddling walk.”

But while Wray’s easy identification of Harvey might seemingly help Harvey’s case against Netflix, Wray, in an appearance on Morgan’s show earlier this week, said she is considering her own suit against Harvey but has hesitated because she feels that Harvey has no money. “Reparation claims are very expensive to mount,” she said. “There’s very little point in me suing her if she’s got nothing.” However, she noted, “certainly if Netflix give her 11 million pounds, I’ll be suing her.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com