ITV1: where did it all go right? They’re not supposed to be good at making drama – certainly not drama made for adults with, you know, proper integrity and stuff. And yet, for the past couple of years, they’ve blasted away the competition with some of the biggest popular and critical successes on the box. It makes you wonder if someone missed the memo that read, ‘Keep it light; keep it soapy; keep it strictly cops and docs.’
Appropriate Adult is very far from being light and formulaic, and makes for discomfiting viewing – as it should. Telling the story of the police investigation into the serial killers, Fred and Rose West, it takes as its central character Janet Leach (Emily Watson), an ordinary family woman, who, in the early stages of her training as a social worker, is appointed by the police to be an ‘appropriate adult’ to sit in on interviews and safeguard West.
The Wire‘s Dominic West – too good looking for the role, with a leading actor’s charisma – inhabits the part with a casual diffidence and a genial normality, even as he describes to police the most horrific details of his daughter’s dismemberment. The incongruity between what he describes and how he acts could be comic; but as the camera lingers on Emily Watson’s face, as she finds herself shell-shocked by a world beyond her imagining, we feel the horror of what happens when decency encounters depravity and is unwittingly altered by it.
Janet Leach is not alone in her horrified incomprehension. The horror of the story – of the grotesque depths of human evil – feels too big a subject to wrap one’s head round; so typically it’s in the minutiae that the drama sucker-punches the viewer. The camera lingers on details in an ironic commentary on the Wests’ veneer of familial respectability: family photos, a framed embroidery that speaks of a mother’s love. It feels simultaneously eerie and sordid.
And the cinematography has time to wrong-foot us in other ways. The opening close-up of ploughed earth promises to be a dug-up garden, but is in fact a Gloucester field – a brief glimpse of a rural idyll. We are a long way here from the world of serial drama; but there is a darkly ironic connection to it nonetheless. The phrase, ‘body under the patio’, gifted into the language by soap opera, becomes the West family joke, which, discovered by the police, prompts their investigation. You couldn’t make it up. You couldn’t make any of this up.
Rightly, the drama chooses to juxtapose the two central worlds of the drama – the police station, and a seedy 25 Cromwell Street, presided over by a chain-smoking and volatile, Rose (Monica Dolan) – with a third world: Janet Leach’s home, which acquires a pathos by virtue of its normality . This family too, in its warmth and simplicity, is at risk from West’s predatory manipulations, as he attempts to play mind games with the appalled Leach.
As with West; so with Rose. Their fantasies, accusations and lies – Fred’s delivered in a disingenuous spirit of cooperation; Rose’s with foul-mouthed vituperativeness – reveal the sordid interior worlds of people for whom women are bitches and ’dirty’ lesbians, caught up in drugs cartels and sexual perversion. In 25 Cromwell Street, there are telling glimpses of Rose’s life as a prostitute: video cameras, peep holes.
No one in this story comes away untainted, and as a viewer, you may feel the same. Dramas like this aren’t made to be enjoyed as such; but they impress with their integrity and their commitment to telling the truth, however unpalatable.
Airing in the Downton Abbey slot, Appropriate Adult won’t win the warm affection of Sunday night viewers, nor should it. Even so, with this drama, ITV1 have yet again confounded the cynics. Janet Leach may be the appropriate adult, but it’s the programme makers who are the responsible ones.
Airs at 9pm on Sunday 4th September 2011 on ITV1.
Released on DVD on Monday 12th September 2011 by ITV Studios Home Entertainment.