Imagine volunteering at your local police station, to try to help children and other vulnerable people understand what’s going on when they’re accused of a crime. Now imagine that the very first person you’re assigned to help – a “52-year-old man with learning difficulties” – is actually a scheming and manipulative serial killer. He will go on to confess horrific crimes to you, yet insist that your duty of confidentiality forbids you from telling the police.
That was what confronted trainee social worker Janet Leach when, in February 1994, her local police in Gloucester asked her to be the “appropriate adult” for Fred West.
“If any of us had been in Leach’s shoes when we’d gone into that situation, I think all of us would have struggled to deal with it,” says Neil McKay, the writer of a controversial two-part drama, Appropriate Adult, which tells the story of the infamous Cromwell Street murders from Leach’s point of view.
“When you watch the two films, I want the audience to feel – ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I. What would I do in that situation?'”
The drama has been made by the same ITV team that created the critically acclaimed See No Evil (about the Moors Murders, and which won the Bafta for best drama serial) and This Is Personal (about the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper). Despite that pedigree, the making of Appropriate Adult has inevitably provoked a hostile response among some of West’s victims.
One of his daughters, Anne Marie Davis, has said that she felt “physically sick” when she heard of plans for the TV drama, and that it will cause “unimaginable distress” to other victims’ families – some of whom have also spoken out against it.
McKay readily accepts that it is “absolutely right we should be questioned about whether it’s right to do it, and also how we do it”. He adds, “Anne Marie has every conceivable right to all her opinions against the drama, and we wish her no distress whatsoever.”
But he defends ITV’s right to make the programme, pointing out that drama has, since Ancient Greece, “been a tool for looking at what is most difficult and most uncomfortable about human nature”. He cites Sophie’s’ Choice, Schindler’s List and United 93 as examples of lauded films that were based on horrific real events. And he says that another of West’s daughters, Mae, has seen the two-part drama and approved of it.
“Having spoken to some of the children of Fred and Rose West, and others affected by the story directly, there is a strong feeling these things shouldn’t be swept under the carpet and left unexamined.”
McKay’s script is the result of years of painstaking research. ITV has also enlisted an awardwinning cast, including Emily Watson as Janet Leach, and Dominic West, fresh from BBC2’s The Hour, as Fred West.
Watson’s performance is “absolutely the most extraordinary piece of acting,” says McKay. “It is Janet Leach – simultaneously, she is moving, flawed, weak, determined to get to the truth – all those things.”
The narrative starts after Fred West’s arrest and thus avoids (intentionally, says McKay) depicting the gore and violence well documented in several books about the Cromwell Street case. Fred and Rose West had committed at least 12 murders, including some of their own children (whom they also sexually abused). In addition, they preyed on vulnerable young women, some of whom needed a home and ended up lodging with the Wests.
Far from coming across like a violent monster, says McKay, West had a “fairground attraction” for women, which he used to manipulate his victims – and which he also used on Janet Leach. Leach, says McKay, was simply a diffident young mum who was ill-equipped to cope with a man like West. “I wouldn’t say mousy, but I would say quiet and coping. And perhaps she lacked a little bit of confidence and self-esteem, and I think Fred West cottoned on to that. Janet would absolutely resist saying that she fell in love with West, and it would be wrong to say that. But I think it would be correct to say that the manipulative ways that he’d used on his female victims, he also used on her. In terms of a kind of neediness – saying, ‘Oh you will help me won’t you? Don’t leave me to deal with this alone.'”
Leach became heavily involved in constructing the case against West, but at great personal cost – alienating her family and, eventually, suffering a stroke.
“On the one hand, she was able to assist the police in persuading West to make admissions that he wasn’t making to them,” says McKay. “However, West knew that gave him a certain power over her, and he used that, and eventually drew her into a relationship that was quite oppressive and damaging to her psychologically. She would have the enormous burden of him saying, ‘I’ve killed X, Y and Z person,’ but knowing that he hadn’t told the police. And of course he really enjoyed that power over her.”
As the case went on and the pressure mounted, Leach made misjudgments – including a deal to sell her story afterwards to the Daily Mirror – for which she was criticised. “There was an atmosphere around of the press throwing money at everybody who was involved for anything that they could get,” says McKay. “She became subject to that, in large part to do with her partner at the time.”
Yet even though that partner subsequently died, McKay says Leach’s story is far from being “all doom and gloom”. She’s taken up a new career, remarried and, says McKay, displays a confidence that she lacked in 1994.
And just as Janet Leach has eventually gained strength from her ordeal in the Fred West case, McKay believes that a TV drama such as Appropriate Adult can also be a force for good in the real world. “I’d almost never make any great, specific claim for any drama,” he begins carefully.
“What I would say is that people would watch Appropriate Adult and be more conscious of the way manipulators work and work very successfully. The Wests’ kids talk about this – they weren’t creatures from another planet. A lot of it was normal, bizarrely enough, or normal enough. The need for normality was there.”
McKay even believes that Appropriate Adult might help viewers be alert to wrongdoing in their own communities. “Are we very interested in our neighbours, and what happens? And if somebody was there, and disappears. We don’t have to be voyeurs of other people’s lives, but to take an interest in a community, be aware.” And might Appropriate Adult even encourage people to come forward with their own suspicions? “Yes,” says McKay thoughtfully. “I would hope it would do, yes.”
RT: Did you question taking on the part of Fred West?
Dominic West: Of course I did, but it’s an amazing script and they found a way of telling a story around Fred West rather than about Fred West. It’s about this social worker [Janet Leach] who sat in on all his interviews. Everyone who went near Fred West was a victim of his, and she was his last. She found that just by being implicated with him – she found it very difficult to extricate herself from that implication.
RT: If you’re playing Fred West, aren’t you in danger of being another of those who is tainted by him?
DW: Absolutely anyone associated with his malignancy is affected. Even while we were shooting, Rose West – who is in jail – was quoted in a paper saying, “What’s that dopey actress doing playing me?” and it really upset the actress [Monica Dolan] playing her. She was well aware how nasty Rose was, but it still had an influence. She’s so malignant.
RT: Do you feel sullied playing him?
DW: [hesitates] Yes I suppose I did. I was having pretty horrible dreams during the shoot where I’m perched on a wall and Fred West is trying to grab me and pull me down. However, I was fairly determined not to let him get to me because, ultimately, he was a pit of ignorance. He wasn’t powerful in real terms. He was a terrible nobody, so I didn’t want him to get to me. I only did it for three weeks and it was a pretty intense, very dark three weeks. It was grim. But then I threw myself into the play rehearsals [for Butley] and that helped. [Dominic looks pensive at this point, as though searching for the right words, clearly concerned he gets this right] It’s important these stories are told. The sister of one of his victims wrote an article in The Guardian in the late 90s about him and she ended it by saying the worse thing is that people forget this case and don’t discuss it. And that was really my moral justification for doing the part. I think what that woman meant was – quite apart from the memory of the victims – that this stuff still goes on, on an enormous level. I mean child prostitution and child abduction. 10,000 people go missing in Britain every year, 3,000 are never seen again. Some of those must have been murdered. There are probably serial killers out there that we’ve never heard of. Fred West was around for 25 years doing his killing. It’s important to discuss these things, as long as one doesn’t do it in a way that glorifies them.