Thursday 18 January 2018

Last night’s TV: Appropriate Adult

Dominic West plays serial killer Fred West with intelligence and skill says Diarmuid Doyle...

When we first meet Frederick West in Appropriate Adult (ITV1), he’s describing how he killed his daughter Heather.

In his telling, it was an accident, the tragic outcome of a row in which he strangled her without really meaning to and then cut her up into pieces and buried her because it would be better if his wife Rose didn’t find out.

Bad things just kind of happened to him, if you accept his account of events. “She ended up getting strangled”, he said of another of the many victims buried by himself and Rose under their house at 25 Cromwell St, Gloucester.

This is all horrific stuff, of course, but as played by Dominic West, Fred comes close to being a comedy figure. He talks about killing the way somebody else might recount a funny story from work to his friends in the pub.

“I was going to put her in the Wendy House”, he says of his dead daughter. “And then I thought, I’ll put her in the dustbin. But I couldn’t get in there so I got this ice saw”.

He goes on, in his sing song, Gloucestershire accent: “And I cut her legs off. That was unbearable. I mean I can still hear that in my sleep. And I cut her head off. I closed her eyes first ‘cause you’re not going to take a saw to your own daughter while she’s sat there looking at you, are you?”

In other hands, this could be an irresponsible portrayal of evil, leading viewers to think that Fred wasn’t a bad sort of chap really, give or take the odd body under the patio.

But Dominic West takes to the job of playing one of the more wayward members of the extended West clan with great brio, intelligence and skill.

Fred’s bumpkinish charm is what helped him to get away with his murders for so long. Police and social workers had been worried about the Wests for years, but Fred’s slippery reasonableness, his ability to talk himself out of most scrapes, and his lack of respect for the truth kept them at bay.

Twenty-four hours after his description of killing Heather, he was claiming that she was actually alive and working for a drugs cartel in Bahrain. He toyed with the authorities, took advantage of their desperation to make a case against them. He ran rings around them for years.

West tried to work his charm on Janet Leach, the appropriate adult of the title, and you could see how he might have won the trust of the less secure, more vulnerable girls (at least 11 of them) that he and Rose murdered. (Rose is played in a tour de force performance by Monica Dolan, who portrays her as a foul-mouthed, deranged witch. The level of acting throughout was of a very high quality, in fact).

An appropriate adult is a person in the British legal system who is supposed to accompany people with learning disabilities to police interrogations to make sure that they understood what is happening to them.

Leach’s first job after training was to befriend West, who wasn’t really a proper subject for the scheme at all, but who was so traditionally unreliable in the presence of police that they wanted somebody other than his solicitor to sit in and vouch that he had been treated properly and answered questions under no duress.

“Appropriate Adult understands me in a way that you lot don’t”, he tells police at one point. “Please stay”, he tells Leach, played with no histrionics by Emily Watson. “You’re the only one I trust”.

“You’re my only friend”, he says on another occasion. “We’re on a journey together”. In one scene, he tries to take her hand. It’s almost a flirtation (one-way), an attempt to woo her as he had done with all those women and girls before.

Why did he take such a shine to Leach? Or was he like this with every woman?

According to Appropriate Adult, Leach had a bipolar partner, so perhaps the instinct developed over years of dealing with his illness made her less judgmental of and more sympathetic to somebody else whose mind wasn’t in full working order, even if in West’s case, that imbalance manifested itself as pure evil.

In any event, it was Leach who persuaded West to start writing down the details of his murders so that he would find it harder to deny them later on.

She manipulated West’s affection for her as he had manipulated his victims, but for nobler reasons and with a happier outcome. She was the real hero of this story.

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