“Imagine if your partner – the person you trusted most in the world – was trying to kill you.” Jeff Pope gives a slight shudder. “He has lots of friends, is well thought of at work and an all-round nice guy. You’re planning your wedding, telling your friends you’ve found ‘the one’. And then you get a letter from the police telling you they think he’s going to kill you. Would you believe them?”
Pope leans back in his chair and smiles at the confusion his question causes. Over the past ten years, before he co-wrote the Bafta-winning screenplay for Philomena with Steve Coogan, he’s become famous for producing films about murderers – usually serial killers: Murder in the Outback; The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper; 2006’s See No Evil: the Moors Murders and 2011’s Appropriate Adult, about Fred and Rose West – the latter two both won Baftas.
His new three-part drama stays on topic. The Widower is the story of nurse Malcolm Webster (Reece Shearsmith), who murdered his first wife Claire (Sheridan Smith) in Aberdeenshire, tried and failed to murder his second wife Felicity (Kate Fleetwood) in New Zealand five years later and seemed intent on marrying, then killing, a third, Simone (Archie Panjabi), a decade later, before he was finally arrested in 2009. So why the obsession with serial killers?
“As a dramatist, what you’re looking for are extremes of behaviour,” he says. “Because drama is about conflict, isn’t it? And true stories are what I’m really interested in. So let me ask you this...” and he asks me to imagine my partner is trying to kill me. Interested now? I nod. He smiles. “Look, by definition, you’re not going to imagine yourself as Fred West, or if you do there’s going to be something wrong with you.” We both laugh. “You have to find a way in.
“With the story of Malcolm Webster, what attracted me to it was how easily he was able to exist in the real world. By any definition, I think he is an evil man and yet two women willingly married him, the third one would have married him. So we tell the story from the women’s view – Claire, Felicity and Simone. We meet him, we can see how plausible he is and we see how he managed to inveigle himself in their lives.”
Pope’s roots are in journalism – he was a reporter on a local London paper, then moved into television in 1983 as a producer at LWT where he filmed re-enactments for Crime Monthly, presented by Paul Ross, then Michael Winner’s True Crimes. His 1992 film about the Brink’s-Mat robbery – Fool’s Gold – marked his feature-length drama debut. He still researches assiduously – Webster’s surviving wife, his fiancée and his first wife’s brother Peter all collaborated on The Widower. “In the past, people have refused [to help], but all most people really want is for the story to be told faithfully and accurately,” he says.
He denies he’s chasing ratings with tabloid sensationalism. “Economically, single dramas are not profitable,” he shrugs. “ITV does them because they want to be a channel that’s perceived as tackling stuff like this. Old fashioned public service television.”
There is something of the Alfred Hitchcock about Pope: his forensic approach, his instinctive understanding of the shocking heart of a story. And if he is Hitchcock, then Sheridan Smith is his Hitchcock blonde. She played the eponymous Mrs Biggs in his story of the Great Train Robber’s wife (for which she won a Bafta in 2013); she plays Malcolm’s tragic first wife Claire in The Widower and she’s just been cast as Cilla Black in his biopic of the singer. This being Jeff Pope, it starts with a death...
“When Brian Epstein died, close to his body was a contract for Cilla to present a television show,” he grins. “Cilla and her soon-to-be husband Bobby didn’t want her to move into television. They said, ‘She’s a recording artist - why aren’t you finding better songs for her to record?’ I thought it would be interesting to work from that and tell her story from obscurity to Blind Date.”
The Widower starts tonight at 9:00pm on ITV.