Firstly, I'll confess an interest: I voted for Dominic West and Emily Watson, both of whom won BAFTAs for their roles in the ITV serial Appropriate Adult. For once, my votes counted. Hooray! For those who didn't catch it, the story deals with the relationship between mass murderer Fred West and Janet Leach, who, in lieu of a solicitor, took the role of 'appropriate adult' for West during his police interviews. It was Leach to whom West finally confessed his crimes.
Judging by the comments on a lot of online newspapers this morning, a fair slice of the British public thinks that the BAFTAs awarded to West and Watson were posthumous awards for West himself. But this is a bit like saying that Schindler's List was an award for Hitler for providing such rich dramatic fodder. Nonsense.
The public (if there is such a thing), seems to get very confused around the issue of artistic examination of uncomfortable subjects. This morning's armchair critics were probably the same people rushing to news agents to buy the tabloids when they so luridly described West's victim's being unearthed in the Cromwell Street 'House of Horrors'. What was that reporting if not entertainment of the lowest and most venal kind?
Appropriate Adult did not glorify West, nor did it even try to humanise him; it just did a very good job of presenting him as he must have appeared to Janet Leach in real life: a very ordinary, plausible man who slowly revealed his horrifying secrets. The drama explored Leach's journey and her role in encouraging West to unburden himself. She was treading a fine ethical line: she was meant to be safeguarding his interests, yet at the same time had a very human desire for the truth to emerge.
For those of us who write for television and invariably struggle to get challenging work commissioned, the success of dramas like Appropriate Adult gives us hope that complex and unnerving subjects can still be intelligently explored in our medium. There has been enormous pressure over the last decade and a half to make drama purely about entertainment - 'noisy', 'buzzy' ,'sexy' - but the success of a proper, demanding piece of writing that makes the audience confront the banality of evil proves that there has always been and will continue to be an appetite for thoughtful and difficult stories.
Apart from Dominic West giving Fred West a Somerset rather than a Gloucestershire accent (not a bad effort, though), my only regret is that it fell to ITV and not the BBC to make the show. We all cherish the BBC, but it has come under crippling political pressure since Birt first got his teeth in, and it has been left feeling that it has no option but to deliver massive ratings in order to justify the licence fee. The result of this kulturkampf has been the imposition of a state of fear: BBC drama executives are not encouraged to take risks because they are not allowed to fail. But, this of course, has meant that while the BBC can make terrifically entertaining shows like Sherlock, Merlin, Hustle and Spooks, it's nervous of peering into the darker corners where so many writers long to take us. Last night's BAFTAs should give them heart: it's okay to take risks, you won't hit the mark every time, but we'll applaud you for trying.
So while last night's BAFTAs weren't a prize for Fred West, they were certainly a prize for bravery in drama. We need to explore the monstrous in order to come to terms with it, even if we can't fully understand it. And wouldn't you much rather that exploration took place over three hours of engaging television rather than in the screaming, cliché-ridden tabloids? Bravo Dominic West and Emily Watson! Come on, BBC!
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