Tuesday, 13 September 2011


Tuesday, 13 September 2011
written by Neil Mackay; directed by Julian Jarrold
starring Emily Watson, Dominic West, Monica Dolan & Anthony Flanagan

25 Cromwell Street became Britain's most notorious address in 1994, when oddball Gloucester couple Fred and Rose West were arrested and charged with murdering twelve people (including family members), between 1967 and 1987. ITV1's two-part drama Appropriate Adult approached this true life crime with an interesting angle to its dramatization, by exploring the investigation via "appropriate adult" Janet Leach (Emily Watson), a social worker trained to help children and mentally-challenged adults through police interviews, who found herself sat beside one of the country's most infamous serial-killers.

It's a wise decision because it avoids sensationalizing the story by focusing on the West's themselves, and perhaps causing greater controversy by showing their criminal acts and turning them into antiheroes. Instead, West's narrow garden is already full of old skeletons, and viewers use housewife Janet as a proxy for their own shock at Fred's (Dominic West) unnerving nonchalance and forgetfulness about his crimes. He begins by describing how he throttled and killed his own daughter, with little provocation, before dismembering her body to fit inside a rubbish bin, spoken with the down-to-earth calm of someone presented with a humdrum issue of practicality. Even odder, Fred enjoys playing a game with Janet by alluding to more bodies than he's admitted to burying, knowing her job means she's unable to break his confidence. A way to feel in control with someone who's part of a situation that's getting away from him, or just another mind-game he enjoys playing?

Dominic West (The Wire, The Hour) is marvelous casting, not least because he has a remarkable and hitherto overlooked resemblance to the chimp-like Fred West. He captures the Gloucestershire accent well, and manages to show Fred's disquieting monstrousness—that sits at odds with his tetchy, na├»ve personality. It has to be said that there's a surprising amount of jet black comedy in the way Fred's forced to keep changing his story as the police keep digging up more bodies, particular a chilling moment when he eventually confesses to having killed nine more people... "approx". Quite a few moments amuse, actually, like the way Fred sometimes behaves like an absent-minded spiritual medium when wandering around his garden and basement trying to remember where he buried his victims, as if he's in contact with their spirits. But while you can't deny there are grimly comical elements to Fred, exacerbated by his curly clown hair and yokel accent, the man's creepiness and inhumanity shines through without being played for laughs. He's more a figure of disbelief and pity than disturbing humour.

Emily Watson gives a good performance: reserved, timid, her large eyes portraying a spectrum of emotions with ease (shock, awe, fear, bafflement, sadness, curiosity). Watson's a fine actress and very good as Janet Leach, the nucleus holding the story together. The way she eventually starts to fall under Fred's spell is particularly good, as she realizes she's the spitting image of Fred's ex-lover and, rather than be shocked, just can't resist continuing to help the affable murderer write a tell-all book while in prison. Watson undoubtedly comes into her own towards the end of the two-parter, as Janet becomes even more prominent and her character begins to realize how misguided her feelings for Fred West have been as she breaks down in court.

The emphasis is largely on Fred and his police interviews, as you'd expect, but Monica Dolan is also very good as Rose West. It's a shame her character's acidic, combustible presence isn't a bigger part of the show, though—being reduced to a handful of brief scenes, almost all found in the first 90-minutes. I wonder what her police interviews were like...

It's obviously very difficult subject matter, but Neil Mackay found an interesting way to tackle everything, in a respectful manner, and the cast do the material proud. I was slightly concerned by how amusing I found many scenes, which is either an admission by the story that Fred West was an oddly comical fellow, or that my sense of humour is darkening the older I get. But in some ways the humorous edge actually helped the story, because you'd start to find yourself liking Fred (echoing what's happening with Janet), and then the script would remind you just how ghastly the West's crimes were and those feelings quickly dissipate.

Appropriate Adult is an intelligent, well-made, brilliantly performed two-part drama of tough material, if slightly undermined by the fact it's more a clever character piece than a truly compelling story—as it's tackling the consequences of crimes that are still too raw, shocking, murky, and contentious to be dramatized head-on. It's been said by people actually involved in the case that it's not a true representation of the facts, but drama based on reality rarely please everyone. For me, Appropriate Adult achieved its aims and managed to avoid sensationalizing things.

4 & 11 September 2011 / ITV1