Why we’re intrigued by suburban psychos
For some, Fred and Rose West are merely extreme expressions of the brutalism of ‘behind closed doors’.
‘Heather? I feel a bit of a cunt, to be blunt.’ This was Rosemary West’s infamous reaction to finding out that her husband Frederick West had killed and buried their daughter in the garden seven years earlier. All those years Rosemary thought Heather had run away from home.
In light of the truly horrifying crimes committed by serial killer couple Fred and Rose West, this near-comical reaction ought to give pause for thought to those searching for anything profound to say about the nature of evil. Yet, 17 years after a shocked nation learned of the horrors of 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester – where the Wests held a series of girls captive, abusing and murdering them – a cursory glance at the television schedules would indicate that we’ve lost none of our fascination with the topic.
This week, the Wests were the subject of a new two-part ITV drama, Appropriate Adult. Technically speaking it was another West entirely who stole the show, namely Dominic West, the Old Etonian graduate of The Wire fame. Even allowing for the fact he was hidden behind a thick West Country accent, a set of rotten teeth and dodgy hair, the choice of such a glamorous actor to portray such a monster inevitably raised eyebrows among relatives of the Wests’ victims. The protestations were not calmed by Dominic’s sincere pronouncements on taking such a ‘harrowing’ role.
As it happens, Fred himself was far from the most compelling feature of the first episode of Appropriate Adult, which was more voyeuristically concerned with the actual acts of cruelty committed by the Wests. The drama was very much an old-fashioned two-hander focusing on the relationship between Fred West and Janet Leach (Emily Watson), a social worker for whom Fred West was her first case overseeing a ‘vulnerable adult’ in custody. Leach was called in to accompany West as the police launched an investigation into an extreme case of child abuse. As we know, the investigation soon revealed many more incomprehensibly horrid details.
As a study of the morbid curiosity provoked by sociopaths, however, this was hardly Silence of the Lambs or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. For all the hype around capturing the apparently surprising charm and politeness of West, it became rather clear that he was not outstandingly charismatic or in possession of godlike powers of manipulation. Instead, it’s the sheer mundane nature of the Wests which fascinates.
What truly made the dramatisation of this nightmarish story worthy of attention was the portrait it painted of a significant shift within British society. Leach was caught between her role as confidante to the child-like and manipulative Fred and the pressure exerted on her by the police, who wanted to regain control of the case as the Wests’ ‘House of Horrors’ became a media sensation. And so the social worker became an accidental actor in a greater off-stage drama enveloping state institutions.
With the arrests of the Wests coming hot on the heels of the horrific killing of toddler Jamie Bulger by two 10-year-old boys, their crimes, too, were turned from something exceptional to something symptomatic of a ‘broken Britain’. At the time, another panic swept the country, with rumours of Satanic rituals in children’s homes. The horrors of 25 Cromwell Street acted as a particularly extreme manifestation of the ‘behind closed doors’ culture that allegedly had allowed Fred and Rose to thrive.
While Appropriate Adult sought to raise questions about the moral responsibility of Fred West for his crimes, it is also worth remembering that the events portrayed took place as the British legal system was moving to abolish doli incapax. This was a drive to remove the legal distinction between adults and children. It was only in Leach’s character that the outcomes of this policy played out. She bore the consequences of the changing relationship between the state and citizens, asked to perform numerous functions that someone in her position had, until then, not been assigned.
In the drama, it was Leach’s character, rather than the psychotic killers, who brought up the more interesting questions of morality and virtue – and this despite the fact that it took until the Josef Fritzl case in Austria in 2008 to find anything comparable in terms of scale and wanton cruelty. There was not much to learn from the character of Fred, while Rose was (in the first part at least) relegated to as little screen time as possible. Appropriate Adult was a programme worth making but, sadly, given that it’s been given barely two hours, one not likely to have the room to deliver on its promise.
Meanwhile, for anyone particularly troubled by the events over on ITV1, BBC2’s Horizon strand of science documentaries asked ‘Are you Good or Evil?’. On the plus side, it turns out that in all probability you are Good, or at least have the genetic predisposition for it. More troubling was the suggestion that you may not have a choice in the matter: your genes alone may not turn you into a serial killer, but a combination of bad genes and an unhappy childhood just might. Alternatively you could turn into a ‘successful psychopath’, with a happy marriage and a high-powered, well-paid job in the boardroom. This was a conclusion that raised more questions than answers, not least because one of the core neuroscientists involved in this research discovered that he himself had a genetic predisposition towards psychopathy.
That this was superficial stuff on a moral, philosophical and scientific level goes without saying, but it was interesting to note that this hasn’t stopped some of these ideas creeping into the courts on both sides of the Atlantic. Like our fascination with acts of extreme wickedness, it seems, we can expect this debate to run and run.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.
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