These days, ITV1 is normally the last place you would expect to find some decent drama on TV. Too fond of pumping out pantomime soaps, bland detective series and vehicles for ex-Eastenders and Corrie stars of varying abilities who they’ve managed to sign up with golden handcuff deals, they seem to have fallen very far indeed from the days when they were a genuine alternative to the BBC. However, they seem to save their best efforts for one particular genre – true crime drama – and this challenging production on a charged and emotional subject hints at how much better they could be if they focussed themselves on items of similar quality.
It would be impossible for an announcement on the production of a drama based around the murders committed by Fred and Rosemary West not to gain a lot of sensational column inches. One can almost imagine the entire Daily Mail staff spluttering white foam from their mouths while spinning round like whirlwinds in their swivel chairs. Of course, such a subject would need to be handled very carefully indeed lest any accusation of trampling over the graves of the murder victims or exploiting the grief of the families purely for cheap, voyeuristic reasons while chasing ratings be levelled at the producers. The subject is so sensitive due to the sheer notoriety of the perpetrators that, even with twenty years passing since the case stormed the national consciousness and nearly forty years since some of the murders took place, the producers could have been easily forgiven for walking away from the project as too difficult to get right. How do you find drama in this sordid subject of sexual torture, murder and garden burials without reducing the proceedings to the level of a thriller or a detective show aimed at entertaining people and offending those who still live with the consequences? Fortunately, ITV have assembled a team behind the scenes with experience on such tricky subjects and managed to find perhaps the only way into the dramatic proceedings that could work.
Writer, Neil McKay, is no stranger to drama based on real life murder stories, his most recent work before Appropriate Adult being the true tale of Victorian infanticide, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. But it’s on the controversial edge of crime drama that he has really made his mark penning both the excellent This is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper in 2000 and facing a barrage of criticism for tackling the almost no-go area of See No Evil: The Moors Murders about Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in 2006. McKay is exactly the man you want on board for this project and in my opinion he has come up trumps by providing a thoughtful and humane way of dealing with so much inhumanity. Add in a very competent director in the shape of Julian Jarrold, fresh from Becoming Jane, Red Riding and the feature film version of Brideshead Revisited and you can be sure that a certain quality is guaranteed and fears of an exploitative piece of trash can be allayed.
Trying to make a drama which any way showed the victims being enticed into Fred West’s world or being killed would have been so distasteful as to – almost certainly – ensuring that the production was blocked at an early stage. Focussing on the relationship between these two appalling people, Fred and Rosemary, might also have strayed over the line. Even just following the police procedures may have resulted in accusations of trivialising the crimes by reducing them to the stuff of entertainment so legion are the number of detective dramas on British television. Fortunately, for the producers there was a way in to the story which offered the chance to not only study the awful hold that Fred West exerted on people but to sidestep the actual killing and start afterwards.
By making the character of Janet Leach the centrepiece of the drama, McKay pulls off a triumph. Leach was the social worker who was asked into the police interviews of West as his “appropriate adult” – someone who could be called upon in cases involving children or adults with learning difficulties to ensure that things proceeded as they should without any undue stress to those being interviewed. Unfortunately, for Leach she ended up being emotionally manipulated by West who would only reveal clues to his crimes in her presence and who started to worm his way into her psyche in a disturbing way. This ordinary person who was only trying to do some good in society, but who ended up being badly burned by the process with all sorts of damage to her health and family life, would therefore provide the angle required to make a drama about such a monstrous person worthwhile rather than a cheap shocker looking at his crimes.
With Leach co-operating with the production to tell her story it now looked viable but there was never any doubt that the casting of the two leads would prove pivotal to the success of Appropriate Adult and on this front they’ve definitely succeeded. Superb female lead required for the role of Janet Leach: Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves, Gosford Park), check. Superb male lead required for the role of Fred West: Dominic West (The Wire, The Hour), check.
Of course, it was perhaps a risk in a way to attach an actor like West to his horrible namesake. Given that West is seen as something of a hunk by the ladies gambled adding some unnecessary glamour to Fred West which is clearly lacking in every single photo I’ve ever seen of him. However, rather like giving someone a slicked side parting and a Hitler moustache instantly transforms them into something quite sinister, the curly hair and Christmas jumper combo Dominic West has to sport here does a similar job and, with some wonky teeth to complete the uglyfying transformation into Fred, we can rest assured that no one will be finding him too attractive and we’ll just be getting his fine acting skills instead.
You’re always going to be on safe ground with Emily Watson and she’s great as the mousey mother social worker who has got herself wrapped up in something much bigger and more nightmarish than she could ever have known. As she is called in on what is her first case as an appropriate adult she’s proud to be helping and Watson plays her with a little glint in her eye and the merest trace of a smile on her face as she marches down the corridor to the fateful interview room where the police and Fred West are waiting for her. It’s a wonderful little scene which contrasts greatly with the proceedings she’s thrown into where, after giving her a friendly greeting, West plunges into a rather jovial and friendly description of how he strangled his daughter, dismembered her and buried her in his back garden. The look of panic and horror washing over Watson’s eyes is well played indeed and perfectly conveys someone who has suddenly found themselves several leagues out of their depth.
The remainder of the first episode sees the game of cat and mouse develop between West and the police as he toys with them, taking them to his back garden and pointing out graves, only to tell them later he’s got the wrong location or that there are more than he originally said, sometimes co-operative and others times extremely unhelpful. And all the while he uses Leach, enjoying the power he has over her by telling her things which he knows she is legally unable to pass onto the police. It’s an interesting journey into West’s mind and you begin to see how he exerted influence over people in real life. Dominic West gives a great performance – at turns amiable and pyschopathic – and Watson matches him as Leach displays revulsion towards West while, at the same time, finding herself compelled by some force to stay on as his appropriate adult, unable to break free, despite the strain it places on her family as she becomes part of a media circus.
There are fine supporting roles too in the midst of this with Sylvestra La Touzel as the world-weary female detective keen to finally put the West case to bed and Robert Glenister (Spooks, Hustle) as the slightly more ruthless cop alongside her who seems happy enough to exploit West’s control over Leach. And then there’s the rather chilling portrayal of Rose West by Monica Dolan who manages to transform herself into something truly malevolent and wicked.
It’s in the second and concluding episode where the drama moves up another few notches. With Leach now taken out of the interview process and with no further obligations to the case she finds herself travelling to Birmingham and visiting West of her own free will in prison after he acquires her phone number. Her motives are good in that she believes there are other murders she can get West to confess to but there is little doubt that she has succumbed at least in part to his influence. As West confides in her that she is the image of a previous love of his who has met with a tragic end you squirm as you sense that this is much too dangerous a game for this decent and ordinary woman to be involved in.
Leach was criticised in real life for selling her story of her involvement with West to the Daily Mirror and this is dealt with here as her partner urges her to get something back for all the turmoil that the case is causing them, which ends up having disastrous effects upon her health when details of this emerge towards the drama’s conclusion at the trial of Rose West. Of course, by this stage, Fred himself is no more, neatly sidestepping justice and having to face the shame of his crimes in court by hanging himself in his cell. Although the drama does miss Dominic West’s portrayal of him during its final half hour his presence is still very much felt by the mess he has left behind in Leach’s life. Even when she is finally free of the events in her day-to-day life and enjoying a walk in the countryside with her family she remarks that there are certain things that you can’t unlearn and that once someone has put something in your head it will stay there forever. In Leach’s case it’s not just the knowledge of his appalling crimes but the feeling that there were more, and of an even more sinister and horrific nature involving both his wife and brother, waiting to come out and which will now remain buried.
I can understand how the family of victims might not have wanted this drama to have been made, let alone shown, and even Leach’s own son has spoken out about revisiting the events which brought disorder to his home. However, it’s hard to fault the way in which everyone on this production has pulled together to produce an intelligent piece where something shocking and tawdry could easily have been made instead. This isn’t a drama about Fred West killing people or exerting some dark influence over his victims. It’s not even one about his dysfunctional relationship with his wife. It’s a superb piece about one last victim, an ordinary woman drawn into his world, too far, and being damaged by the process and having the to live on with the repercussions. Carefully scripted, directed with a minimum of fuss, and perfectly acted out by two well-chosen leads it emerges from this controversial topic with honour. One has to salute the bravery of the production team for daring to tackle this subject, confident that they had the personnel with experience of similar dramas to pull it off. It’s also evidence that beyond the lowest common denominator chase for ratings and advertisers’ approval there still exists within ITV a core of people who dare to challenge the viewer and who happen to be bloody good at their jobs. More of this, please.