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A truly chilling drama

I'LL BE surprised if the year turns up 90 minutes of television drama more gut-wrenchingly riveting than the first part of Appropriate Adult. Unless, that is, it's next Sunday's concluding part.

There were understandable reservations about the advisability, on grounds of taste and sensitivity, of making a drama about serial killers Fred and Rosemary West 17 years after their horrific deeds were unearthed.

The loudest objections were raised by Anne-Marie Davis, Fred West's daughter from his first marriage, who was invited to become involved in the film-making process but declined, claiming the programme would cause unimaginable stress to the families of the victims and that its makers were simply in it for the money -- a frankly bizarre claim, since British TV drama hardly pays writers, producers or directors Hollywood-sized bucks.

But it's hard to see how writer Neil McKay, whose previous credits include highly acclaimed dramas about the Moors Murderers and the Yorkshire Ripper, could have done a better or more responsible job of bringing the story to the screen.

The thing about Appropriate Adult is that it's not really a drama about either the Wests or the murders per se.

There are no grisly recreations of the couple's stomach-turning crimes (they murdered at least 12 young women and buried their bodies in the garden of their home at 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester), no pumped-up thriller elements.

The film is really about the strange and unsettling relationship between Janet Leach (Emily Watson) and Fred West (Dominic West). Leach, a mother-of-five whose partner is bi-polar, is a trainee social worker who volunteers as an "appropriate adult": a person who sits in on police interviews with suspects with learning difficulties, to ensure they fully comprehend the situation they're in and "facilitate communication" between them and the police.

When she arrives at the police station, all she knows is that she'll be present at the interview of a 52-year old man. Within moments of sitting down, Leach is horrified as Fred West casually describes how he strangled his daughter Heather, then cut off her legs and her head with an ice saw -- making sure to close her eyes first, because "you're not going to take a saw to your own daughter when she's sat there looking at you, are you?" -- so her body would fit snugly into a bin.

Scripted from the recordings of West's interview, it's an astonishingly powerful evocation of the everyday banality of pure evil. Leach is horrified but, as the investigation progresses, she gradually finds herself in the difficult position of being a confidante to West.

He tells her things, such as the fact that there are more dismembered bodies buried in his garden, which she's prevented by a "duty of confidentiality" from telling the police -- although she can, and does, encourage West to come clean to his interrogators.

The deeper Leach is drawn into the horrifying world of West, the more emotionally exhausted she becomes, especially when her partner is hospitalised over a manic incident.

And yet she can't seem to extricate herself from the situation. When the senior police officer (Robert Glenister), who seems to resent Leach's closeness to West, tells her that her services are no longer required, she reacts with something approaching outrage.

Appropriate Adult is graced by two stunning central performances from Emily Watson and Dominic West, whose matey, easygoing demeanour makes his wickedness all the more chilling.

Even as the police are breaking down walls and digging bodies out of his back garden, he's talking about all the lovely work he had done to the house, as though he were an estate agent showing a buyer around a property.

Monica Dolan is also ferociously persuasive as Rosemary West, a screaming, foul-mouthed part-time prostitute who verbally abuses Leach, who's turned up at the station with fresh clothes for her, for having the temerity to poke around her bedroom.

But there's another star here: Neil McKay's script. Written with the full co-operation of Janet Leach, it's a disturbing meditation on our enduring fascination with evil, especially when it's up close.

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