SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Monday, 12 December 2011

APPROPRIATE ADULT - APPROPRIATE TELLY? Can an ITV drama about the terrible crimes of Fred West cause outrage seventeen years after his death?

"This is a true story. What follows is based on extensive research, interviews and published accounts. Some scenes have been created for the purposes of dramatisation."

Suspects over the years for Jack the Ripper include: Lewis Carroll (some evidence for this being apparent 'clues' to be found within his children's books); 'Jill the Ripper' (a suspicion that a local midwife was dressing up in the clothing of victim Mary Kelly) and even The Elephant Man (staying in a Whitechapel hospital at the time). Prince Albert being the killer seems the very essence of reason, compared to some Ripper identity theories.

While true life crime sometimes throws up the worst sides of human nature possible, it's not long before the killers and their crimes become open season for film-makers, novelists, conspiracy theorists or become true crime shelf filler in your local bookshop - only after a few respectful years have passed, usually. The Fred West case seems to be one murder spree, however, that remains stubbornly and (like all crimes should be in a perfect world) appropriately cold-hearted and dreadful and seemingly free from ghoulish re-imagining.

Jack the Ripper has become so embedded in fictional retelling and real life theorising that sometimes the victims are forgotten. Jack the Ripper sliced his way through the movies in roles as varied as: a time traveller; a waxwork; or even a lump of possessed stone. He met up with Sherlock Holmes (many times) and even once menaced Captain Kirk in the 1967 Star Trek episode 'Wolf in the Fold'. This was written by Robert Bloch who obsessed about Jack the Ripper in many of his other works of fiction as well as finding himself inspired by Wisconsin's 'Plainfield Ghoul' - Ed Gein, who inspired him (if 'inspired' is the right word) to write 'Psycho' in 1959, subsequently adapted by Hitchcock into the movie of the same name the following year).

Star Trek: Wolf in the Fold (written by Robert Bloch)

Serial killer Ed Gein has inspired many big budget serial psycho movies over the years, ranging from Bloch's own Psycho to Silence of the Lambs via The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not so the crimes of Fred and Rosemary West, that - in the same way the killings of suburban Australian serial killer John Bunting, featured in the 2011 movie Snowtown, are unsensationalised as far as possible - remain cold and heartless crimes that we don't really like to talk about, let alone turn into an ITV drama.

The more flamboyant the killings the more easy prey they are to be used in fiction. Fred and Rosemary West were plain and dowdy people next door, who just happened to be brutal and sadistic and murderous behind closed doors. Even today, many who remember the West's crimes being reported on the news, are still in a state of shock. In the same way the suburban street killings at Snowtown must still strike fear in the heart of the Australian suburbs, the equally suburban-set crimes of Fred and Rosemary West are still often blanked from the minds of many of us.

The Wests weren't attractive people or especially pleasant in public; they looked like a couple you might raise an eyebrow at in a garden centre if they started complaining about the cold tea they'd been served in the cafe - they were absolutely normal on the surface, that is, perhaps, why we fear them still.

Perhaps also how they managed to snare their trusting victims so easily. Hollywood has little to glamorise about the Wests; their crimes were seeped in abuse and torture and finally the murder of very young people. They did what they did, horrifically - and were done. Moved on with their lives like any other couple could do. Their monotonous expressions, their lack of any feeling or remorse at trial, and the lack of any reason for what they did - left a nation still cold. Still in shock.

Jack the Ripper continues to be glamorised in the world of fiction. The 2009 novel, A Study in Red: The Secret Journal of Jack the Ripper, in which a man is left a diary after his father's death that contains the secrets of the Ripper's crimes, is to be released as a movie in 2012. Crime writers seem destined to spend many future years writing variations on the crimes of this one man. Respected author Patricia Cornwell has herself being accused of being obsessed (a claim she even chose to deny in newspaper ads at the time) with the Ripper story, and came to the conclusion - in 2002 - that the killer was the artist Walter Sickert; the clues of Ripper murder locations, she claimed, can be found within his paintings. A novel, The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes was based on Sickert's own tale that a landlady once told him that the former tenant of the room he was about to rent was Jack the Ripper. Alfred Hitchcock, among others, was inspired by this idea in his 1927 movie The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog.
Was Walter Sickert the Ripper?

Next year, in 2012, we reach the 125th anniversary of the death of the Ripper's first victim; Mary Ann Nichols, although this tragic claim to the Ripper's fame still has experts debating whether it's even all that accurate. Many Ripper experts claim there are actually many other murders by the same person committed prior to that of Nichols. No doubt, in the years ahead, the same will be true of the crimes of Fred and Rosemary West. New evidence will be uncovered. Suspicions on other, earlier murders, possibly attributed to Fred West and his wife, endlessly mused over. Just five of the eleven 'Whitechapel' murders around the time of Jack the Ripper have been attributed to the cloaked man himself, and the crimes of the Wests are thought by many experts to be far more in number than the crimes that we know for sure about.

West spoke of these other crimes to his 'appropriate adult' at the time of his arrest - and this idea, of how the search to identify more victims became an obsession for one woman, is the thrust of the ITV drama about the West's crimes that has caused so much controversy and outrage among some.

We still don't know - at all - what really motivated Fred West to murder, mutilate and molest his victims. There could well be no special missing motivational nugget to be found anyway, but this idea, of a search for 'a reason' was addressed with no answers found in the drama Appropriate Adult - a slice of true life crime television that remained fairly restrained and sympathetic to the victims involved, despite fears by relatives of the victims that the story would be over-sensationalised. To some of them - in fairness, it still is.

It's always possible that one day, the killings of the Fred and Rosemary West will be blatantly over-sensationalised or carried through into works of fiction; into popular TV shows or films featuring time-travelling aliens and the like. Totally numbing the pain. We are all guilty of being taken away by wild theories and fanciful narratives; guilty of ignoring real crime, or cracking a joke at a tragedy of some kind - like an ambulance driver gets by on morbid humour to get through all the terrible injuries they see; it's part of human nature. But we should never forget the reality. The crimes of Fred and Rosemary West; the age of the victims and the abuse and torture endured (as if that should matter - all murder equally upsetting) and the seeming normality of the people committing those crimes (at least on the outside), perhaps lessens the likelihood that these crimes will one day be glamorised in some way.

And film-makers can be sympathetic to the families of the victims. Snowtown, for instance, is upsetting and powerful but equally careful to never let us forget that the crimes committed were among the worst ever recorded.

The disturbing but brilliantly sympathetic movie 'I Am You' in 2009, centred on the murder of an young Australian girl (Rachel Barber) by her former nanny (Caroline Reid), and was shot with the blessing of the murdered girl's family. When the film turned out to centre too much for the family's liking on the killer rather than victim, theatrical screening delays in Australia and a stand-off with the film's distributors followed. The director and Rachel's family claimed that the film's distributors had recut the film to show the viewpoint of the killer as (it's been claimed, though not proven) this was the more commercial side to focus the film on. Clearly some true life crimes are as raw as ever, especially those within living memory. Filmmakers, rightly, have to tread carefully when tackling real life crime for fear of treading on a public nerve and intruding into still real grief.
I Am You

ITV's Appropriate Adult was as considerate as it could possibly be to the families of victims; but we can't hide our heads in the sand about the crimes, or cling to sympathy alone forever. Bad things have to be confronted and discussed, and in the case of the Wests, perhaps enough time has passed to do so. Rosemary West denies involvement and protests her innocence, to this day. And in a way you half want to believe her because it's hard to understand how two such unmeticulous, chaotic killers, so close to being caught so many times (one rape and abuse victim even reported the crime to the police after she escaped but the case was later dropped) got away with such a long, drawn-out spree of suburban murders and a cruel catalogue of relentless sexual abuse, for so long.

I respect the relatives of the victims right to feel wronged by Appropriate Adult as a work of TV drama. Martin Amis was also a relative of a victim; his cousin Lucy Partington was killed as she travelled home from Exeter University. Amis has spoken of how, for his own children, as a result of Lucy's death, he gave them: "a sort of rule for life. It began with me saying don't get kidnapped. Don't let anyone make you do something you are not 100 per cent easy about. Don't let your peer group coerce you. Don't let current ideas of what is smart coerce you. Be yourself." 

The novelist Marian Partington, the sister of Lucy, wrote about the girl as less of 'a victim', and focused more on her life (sometimes you have to reclaim that right) in her book 'If You Sit Very Still'. The nature of 'victim' here receives a different take: 'forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past' writes Marian. The idea that 'he who cannot forgive must dig two graves' may well not be the thought of other family members of the West's young victims, but serves to remind of the different opinions and ideas we all have, and why dramas such as Appropriate Adult maybe anger some, while enabling others to get some kind of understanding about the true crime that more lurid books written under the name of 'true crime reporting' don't really focus on - clearly these kind of books focus too often on the victims who are no longer with us, rather than the victims, the families still tainted by grief, who still are.

While our thoughts must - clearly - remain aware of the victims as real people and remember their families who still face the same crimes in their mind every day of the week, I also wonder how Fred West himself felt about the crimes he committed. Because he owed us that. But he cheated a country of closure. Like so many mass murderers before him at the final hour; at the end of a rope or a rolled-up prison bedsheet or from a bullet from the same gun that was used on a victim - the final act of cruelty has the killer turn on himself to escape justice. The worst ending; the final reel, decided by the killer - a final laugh in the face of justice.

And so, on the 1st of January, 1995, Fred West hanged himself in his prison cell. There was no final confession - no ending. For the families of his victims, I wonder if such an outcome was the one they dreaded the most. Maybe that's why, to this day, we still obsess over the identity of the Ripper - because it's a crime without an ending. A book without a last page.

While we have little evidence or understanding about why Fred West did what he did, Appropriate Adults does well to speculate, with restraint, as to West's thoughts or motivation in the days leading up to his trial. This is a drama with carefully subdued and respectful performances from leads Dominic West (as Fred) and Emily Watson as the 'Appropriate Adult' - Janet Leach; the trainee social worker and hard-working, devoted partner and mother assigned to the investigation.

From a search on the 'National Appropriate Adult Network' website, I found out that the 'appropriate adult' role 'was created by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984, with the intention of safeguarding the rights and welfare of young people and vulnerable adults in police custody.. This person is different to a solicitor and does not give legal advice. An Appropriate Adult can be a family member, friend or a volunteer or social/health care professional'.

Janet Leach has a family and children and seems to want to progress further in her role as successful social worker, ambition maybe getting the better of her in the end. Her husband suffers from bipolar disorder and finds it hard to cope with what looks like Janet's increasing obsession with the case - with Fred West. At first, Janet is wary of Fred, but his controlling personality and seemingly bemused, friendly appearance at police interviews, weakens her initial natural defences - soon she is playing the game by her own rules (or his) and visiting Fred in prison when she shouldn't be, becoming less a helper, more a person going it alone, risking everything - career and family.

It's almost like an affair that she has to keep quiet at times; her relationship with Fred - and actress Emily Watson conveys the repulsion of those first few meetings, shows up the professionalism she is forced to adhere to conflicting unexpectedly with some kind of understanding or even sympathy for West, in such a convincingly slowly-worsening way that you almost want to reach out for the screen and grab her - shake her shoulder; wake up! She is like an animal caught in a trap, caught and told to support West, but increasingly coming to carve out a relationship of sorts with him.

The resulting media furore around the case catches Janet Leach out. This quiet, unspectacular mother and loving partner, suddenly in the middle of a whirlpool of attention. Fred West, in a cold and calculating, 'seething beneath the surface' portrayal of mesmerising evil from actor Dominic West, clearly tries every trick in the book to seduce Leach or gain her attention, even revealing information, confessing to where bodies are buried - the hook, it sometimes seems, to reel the woman in with.

Suddenly, this outwardly dull and plain-looking man reveals how he gathered his victims - how he caught them and killed them, all the time speaking with little emotion, but all the time undoubtedly charismatic; horribly so. Without explicit horror, but just by the tone of voice, the brush of a hand -Dominic West's portrayal of Fred in this drama chills to the bone. It's awful to watch, creepy and disturbing to witness. But still, you can almost see that an image - a suggestion - is being conveyed to Janet Leach of a warm and open, everyman type; the man at the garden centre having a cup of tea and buying a few pot plants on a Saturday perhaps, but with those terrible secrets to keep back home.

It's no surprise that many women and men write to and develop a relationship with serial killers by writing to them at the prison they are locked up for life in - striking up thrilling sort of friendships, relationships, even marriage (and Rosemary West was said to have been engaged to the former bass player of Slade at one point before calling the whole thing off).

If you ever want to get an idea of how seduction of the mind can play its hand in the worst kinds of way, then Appropriate Adult does the job very well. The ITV drama is serious, too, about how the Wests are portrayed, rightly - as cold-hearted killers with no sense of right or wrong; just depraved cravings for sex, torture and murderous intent towards women and especially young girls. We do see some of the horror of their crimes, most effectively in a camera shot that creeps through the suburban dungeon underneath the West's house; like a guilty secret - chilling and stark, almost secret gazing. You just want to get out, back to the surface - to the less awful reality. And maybe that's where Fred West has Janet Leach cornered - he represents, in all his fake politeness and matter-of-fact approach; a less harsh series of events to imagine.

Even when the bodies are being discovered, picked out by West, who decides to confess all and rub off some of the credit for this sudden confession on his 'appropriate adult' - you sense that Leach is clinging on to the hope that the crimes aren't real, of West's innocence even, or at least the hope that there is some redemption to discover. And then the confession. And the realisation that there is no room for doubt. But Janet Leach remains in her chair alongside this confessed murderer, loyal still - to what, to her job? To herself? To - worse case scenario - West? This is a man who feigns beauty in murder, talking of seeing the spirits of the dead rise from the ground to greet him, but having to go back, as being the saddest sight of all as he searches for burial sites with the police and Janet alongside him. Truly, this romanticising of his crimes -such an evil way to speak of victims and for the family of his victims to have to hear.

Janet Leach is, perhaps, the final victim of Fred West. Some outraged family members of the murder victims clearly do not wish to see Leach portrayed as a victim at all, and claim that she has, throughout this nightmare: manipulated the media; used her experiences with Fred to bring out a book of her side of the story; and gone behind police backs in contacting West in prison, writing to him and even speaking to the killer on the phone (when he committed suicide she was said to have heard the news at home and become immediately distraught).

There are hints that the relationship between West and Leach was one that was becoming unsavoury - Leach's comment on her deepening (or perhaps worsening) involvement with West was that she 'just wanted to feel wanted', and was trying to discover as much as she could from him about the many other bodies he claimed were scattered around - those other lives that West claimed to have taken, perhaps just to gain Leach's interest for a while longer, after his conviction.

And so the end comes - Janet Leach's collapse at the end of Appropriate Adults is intense and all-consuming; heart-breaking, but soured with the thought that she brought some of this upon herself. Or was she another victim of being pushed into a working position that she didn't really want before she was ready to do so? "Fred would tell me these horrible things as if he was discussing the weather," is how Leach has described the experience of listening to West for many hours at a time, in a close, claustrophobic setting, the two of them alone.

At the trial of Rosemary West, Leach almost brought a collapse to the case by admitting she had been paid an advance sum for her story from a newspaper. At the end of Appropriate Adults, the Leach family is seen playing happily together, as if the past is behind them - a future ahead of them, but it seems a little forced. Leach is a consultant on the ITV drama, but her own son, Paul Leach, at the time of the drama's initial broadcast came out to criticise her mother's behaviour, and told of the scars that still mark the family as he remembers seeing her mother's scrawled map lying around dotted with the possible location of missing bodies and of the letters he saw to her that were from West - even once speaking on the phone to the killer himself who asked to speak with his mother, remembering, unnervingly, how polite the man was.
The scars run deep. Fred West's own daughter has criticised Appropriate Adults too and expressed some anger towards Dominic West's recounting of the nightmares he experienced playing the role of Fred West, and how dark a time it became for him on set, compared to the darkness she experiences every day of her life.

As for Rose West in the drama, she remains resolutely distant from all the madness. Fred West claims she was not involved in the murders. Her act of shyness and meek confusion is one she carried with her all the way to prison, despite her years of abuse of children and young adults unable to escape her clutches. Monica Dolan plays the role of Rose West with perfect blank decision - a rabbit claiming to be caught in headlights, but the pupils of her eyes not reacting to the brightness. Pure evil or a dumb pawn caught up in Fred West's world of escalating horror? The judge at her trial was certain of her guilt: "If attention is paid to what I think, you will never be released." To this day, West claims her innocence in the murders but has given up the chance of appeal, claiming that even if she were freed - she would never actually be free.

Anne-Marie Davis lost her own mother and two half sisters to her father Fred West and, as well as criticising Dominic West's portrayal of Fred in the drama, spoke in the press for the first time in 10 years at the time the series was broadcast, to express her anger with ITV: 'The only reason I am speaking now is because I want ITV to realise they will be causing unimaginable distress to the families of the young girls who were murdered. No-one should kid themselves, the object of this drama is to make money.'

Anne-Marie has also talked of how she was raped and tortured by Fred and Rosemary at the age of eight. When such stark facts are presented - only anger can be felt back. Beyond the true crime books or the serial killers that inspire horror movie characters. Anger - and overwhelming sadness. Although Appropriate Adult is, essentially, restrained and appears serious in intent - and the performances of the actors involved, equally serious and respectful to the memory of the victims and their families (there are no flashy performances here, just those that affect the memory and senses), it's also the case that, when you hear the stories of those involved in the actual horror, you can't help but wish we could turn back clocks, start again, not let this happen - let these people get their lives back instead of spending a lifetime under the worst shadow imaginable.

There will be many more memoirs to come from the people involved in the West murders; either those touched by the crimes directly or from a distance. But for now, the ITV drama Appropriate Adult is as close as we can get to understanding a little more about the crimes from someone directly involved in the legal process at the time (and while Janet Leach did work as an advisor on the production, I don't think the focus is entirely on her side - her role is full of flaws and bad decisions). 

The sensationalism is still there for the taking one day, that's inevitable, but Appropriate Adult does avoid this route, which has to be in its favour. It's probably important that we hear the story of those who lost their lives to the Wests or the stories of those whose lives were tainted forever by the murders too, including Janet Leach and her family. It's to the credit of ITV that the story has been told in perhaps the least sensational way possible. Many may wish the story is not retold at all - and that's their right.

After watching Appropriate Adult though, I felt that the West murders were no longer to be feared just thinking about (I wasn't sure I wanted to watch the drama at first myself). By the time the end credits rolled, I was glad this story of how innocent young lives that had suffered and been snuffed out at the hands of Fred and Rosemary West had been told. I also learned, for the first time, how Janet Leach had suffered (even so far as having a stroke at the trial of Rosemary West). I learned how Fred West's daughter and Janet Leach's son had suffered, and the families of all the victims had suffered - and still suffer to this day.
I also learned of how some of the cast had suffered in bringing these difficult roles to the screen (and my god it can't have been an easy decision to take the roles on) - how the story had affected them so deeply. Actors portraying such intense roles in as upsetting a drama as this, surely have that right to be uncomfortable - to talk of the nightmares brought on. The right to feel affected by their work, in their own way, not comparable of course to the trauma of the relatives affected by the West's crimes - nobody is saying that, least of all the actors themselves.

This was a drama where personal stories rose up from the flames of sensationalism and became more important than the drama itself - an outpouring of grief over two episodes that you kind of felt an entire country needed. A way to remember that this story isn't just a news item or a one-off drama - it's a story about suffering, past and present. If that, in terms of TV drama, makes for a valid and successful few hours of television - then I think the series has earned its right to be shown and yes; acclaimed. Appropriate Adult has its heart in the right place - it just that its a place many of us may not wish to go.

West's suicide robbed the country of any real explanation or motivation - assuming one even exists. But it would have been a small plaster on a more serious wound anyway. For the ongoing victims of these crimes, such as Anne-Marie Davis, I feel the most sympathy - but I don't think a restrained dramatisation on ITV that focused on events post-murders, and not on the murders themselves, is glorifying the acts of horror in any way. There will be many, far more exploitative, dramatic works and documentaries on the subject of Fred and Rosemary West to come, as there have been on the likes of Jack the Ripper, Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer to come in the years ahead. A quick search on Amazon already reveals pages of listings of true life memoirs and investigations into the case. Appropriate Adult is just a first toe dipped in a much wider ocean in which there are very few rules of play or even any real shackles of restraint. ITV just happened to brave the water first.

At the 2012 BAFTA Television Awards, Dominic West was awarded Best Actor, Emily Watson Best Actress and Monica Dolan Best Supporting Actress.

The following day after the ceremony, the news was filled with reports of a naked man shot dead after being spotted chewing the face off another naked man and eating the flesh. The horrors of life and of what we, as people, can do to one another, whether Fred and Rosemary West or the many others that line up alongside them in this history of shame, reminds us of how much suffering there is in the world when we want to look. Remembering the crimes of Jack the Ripper - as equally horrific as any ever reported since - just reminds us that it's not only in a modern world that these real life horrors exist.

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer

Star Trek images are
© Paramount Pictures

All 'Appropriate Adult' images are
Appropriate Adult DVD is available to buy from ITV STUDIOS HOME ENTERTAINMENT


  1. hi iam the son off jannet leach. .my mother well iam just about to let the world know wot she realy is i was put in care as a child and only relised a year ago i could get my care file.all in black and white the tru th . ive been run out of my home because of her. and i havnt even seen her for years mum you stabbed me and thats just one statment sorry about spelling whilst teach fred to read and write she forgot us. loves a strang thing anyway. its not going to go away mrs leach (cooke)

  2. Thank you for your comments Paul,

    It's important to hear another side of the story; very heartfelt words to read too, so thank you for sharing. I hope my review gave some support to the fact that so many lives were affected by what happened back then - and still are today...

    I wish you the best for the future ~ Mark