I usually tend to avoid ITV’s cosy Sunday night drama – but last night’s Appropriate Adult looked to be something of a departure. This wasn’t a neatly constructed regional detective drama, plus there was no sign of Martin Clunes or Robson Green. Instead, ITV have produced a complex and disturbing two-part film, based on serial killer Fred West. It wasn’t so much the controversial subject matter which attracted me, but rather its intriguing line up of quality actors – being well above what you’d expect from the usual fare.
The casting of Dominic West as Fred West – known by many for his portrayal of Baltimore cop Jimmy McNulty in HBO’s The Wire – was simply genius. Sporting a pair of crooked fake teeth, curly hair and a West Country accent, Dominic West’s performance is frighteningly close to the actual recordings of Fred West. But while Dominic West’s chilling performance might be what sticks in the mind, Emily Watson was equally superb as Janet Leech – the social worker given the emotionally challenging job of offering support and advice to West.
Rather than going into graphic detail or depiction of the actual murders themselves, Appropriate Adult began with Fred’s arrest and the police raid on his house in 1994. There was a close-up of the infamous mantelpiece photo of Fred & Rose eerily recreated, signalling just how closely Dominic West and Monica Dolan (Rose) have managed to portray the actual couple. The intention of the film was clearly not to depict the grisly crimes, but the events that followed. West would refuse to share his secrets with the police, but instead confided in a sworn to secrecy Leech.
It was this difficult and challenging relationship between Leech and West which formed the main focus of the film. Janet Leech is shown to understandably struggle with the vulnerable position of dealing with West‘s confessions – with him continually confiding in her and her alone. Also interesting is the way in which the film often places us in Leech’s position, being an outside onlooker during the disturbing admissions and descriptions of murder. During many scenes of the programme she simply observes in horror, but finds herself compelled to continue despite at one point being told to back away from the investigation.
There’s a moment in which West describes disposing of his own daughter. As repugnant as the description of the crime is, neither the audience or Leech can look away. “I cut her head off…. But I closed her eyes first. You’re not going to take a saw to your own daughter when she’s sat there looking at you” he confesses with chilling nonchalance.
In a way the performance reminded me to that of Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler in the 2004 film Downfall. The film never celebrated or emotionally sided with Hitler, but it refused to portrayed him as pure monster, rather a deeply flawed human being – complete with feelings of fear, sadness and remorse. There’s no doubt at any point that Fred West is a reprehensible figure – but he was capable of engaging and joking with his captors and displaying bouts of fear and regret, leading to his manipulation and control over Leech.
There’s been some considerable controversy over the drama, with ITV accused of not only sensationalising a sensitive issue, but of making its depiction of West sympathetic. West’s own daughter, Anne-Marie Davis, has condemned the drama due to its revisiting of traumatic memories for the victims of the crimes. While it‘s perhaps irrefutable that the programme has the ability to cause distress to those involved, the drama is clearly based on solid research, with much of the dialogue during the interrogation scenes coming direct from audio recordings. The tone of the programme wasn’t gratuitous but stark, sedate and brutally honest – even humorous at times – making it all the more disturbing.
However you feel about ITV’s decision to dramatise such events, it would be wrong to label Appropriate Adult as irresponsible or sensational. It doesn’t trivialize the crimes, nor does it aim to shock with explicit detail. Instead, the programme makers should be commended for creating a thought-provoking and reponsibly subtle film with a compelling and unmissable performance from Dominic West at its core.
Appropriate Adult continues on ITV1 next Sunday at 9pm.
The first part is avalaible to watch on ITV Player.