When I heard that a drama was being made from the story of Fred West, probably one of the most grotesque murderers of recent history, I felt the kind of instinctive revulsion that I suspect most people felt. Why would you resurrect such a story? Why would an actor of Dominic West‘s calibre choose to sully his career with such sensationalist horror?
I worked in the newsroom of The Independent at the time of the West trial. Half of what happened could not be reported because it was simply too grim. My abiding memory is of my news editor at the time listening to one of the newspaper’s most robust reporters break down in tears on the other end of a telephone at the end of a particularly gruelling day in court. He stood there, as we stood mutely around him, asking quietly if he wanted to come off the story. Most news reporters would famously sell their grandmothers to be part of the big news story of the age. I don’t remember anyone being desperate to take his place. It remains the bleakest, grisliest of news events. Some of those who suffered most – namely West’s children, and the families of the other victims – are still alive.
So what is the point of forcing it back into the spotlight? Mae West, daughter of Fred West, cooperated with the writing of the film – a process that has been both lengthily and sensitively done. “In recent years I have become a bit of a campaigner for the truth,” she told The Times. “As much as it’s horrible, life and death, murder … It goes on every day all over the world. We talk about wars, they show documentaries about cancer on television. We have to accept that good and bad happens.”
And it is the banality of evil that Appropriate Adult evokes so well. We see it through the eyes of West’s legally appointed ‘appropriate adult’ (It is important that he should not be the centre of the drama) and we are with her as she hears Fred West’s strangely matter of fact recitation of his crimes. It makes clear, through Dominic West’s astonishing – and repulsive – performance, that Fred West was both manipulative and perversely charismatic. It demonstrates how he managed to maintain power over his children, even as he abused them. And it shows the how the effect of those crimes rippled outwards, blighting the lives of everyone who came into contact with them.
I, like most people, had found the West crimes incomprehensible. When we see incomprehensible horror, we turn away. It is easier to tell ourselves that these are extraordinary people, lives unlike ours. Well, Appropriate Adult shows us that grubby and mundane as it was, Fred West’s life was not so far removed from ours. It shows how, for some people, acts of evil are steps that it becomes increasingly easy to take. And once the line is transgressed, how easily they can be contained within an apparently ordinary existence – amid the home repairs and the cement and the stairs that need recarpeting, and their perpetrator’s own peculiar logic.
What does this drama add to the sum of human existence? Well, certainly no less than the fictional horrors that characters on screen choose to inflict upon each other. I’ve seen grislier and more upsetting scenes in Luther, or Waking The Dead. It is the banality of both West and his particular brand of evil that sticks in the mind. He is not a towering figure of evil, but a disgusting, aberrant man whose children were let down by a system who couldn’t see past his domineering personality. We see a man whose power crumbles when he is removed from his perverted little fiefdom, leaving him a weak and pleading wreck. This is what evil really is, the drama tells us. Not the all-powerful bogeyman of our imaginations.
This is why I can’t join the chorus of condemnation that I witnessed on various social networks this evening, as Appropriate Adult began. Because that is the sum of it: some stories are unpalatable, and upsetting, but sometimes it is necessary to keep watching. Ultimately we tell ourselves stories in order to understand.