The Widower, ITV, Reece Shearsmith, Sheridan Smith PREVIEW

REECE SHEARSMITH as Malcolm Webster. The Widower ITV
Not such a nice, ordinary bloke – Malcolm Webster (Reece Shearsmith). Pics: ITV

Rating: ★★★½

ITV: starts Monday, 17 March, 9pm

Story: A true story recounting how, over a 13-year period, Malcolm Webster set about poisoning and murdering his first wife, attempting to do the same to his second wife and moving on to a further scheme to deceive his third fiancée.

WRITER Jeff Pope has got form when it comes to dramatising true crimes. As writer or producer he’s recently covered Lord Lucan in ITV’s Lucan, the Great Train Robbery in Mrs Biggs, Fred West in the excellent Appropriate Adult, and the Yorkshire Ripper in the equally gripping This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper.

Meanwhile his films have included last year’s triumph Philomena, Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman and the TV movie Fool’s Gold: The Story of the Brink’s-Mat Robbery.

Now he’s co-written with James Barton this three-part drama about Malcolm Webster, a killer not as notorious as others he has visited, but that’s probably because this potential serial killer was stopped early in his career.

Reece Shearsmith as smarmy killer Malcolm Webster

SHERIDAN SMITH as Claire Webster. The Widower ITV
First wife Claire (Sheridan Smith)

Webster, as portrayed here by The League of Gentlemen‘s Reece Shearsmith, is a compelling study in evil. A man whose smarminess hid his secret side as a drugger and killer of his first wife, who then moved on to exploit and plot to remove a second wife.

It is Webster’s everyday, ordinary quality that fascinates Jeff Pope and is the thread through much of his work. He says, ‘Evil men don’t necessarily come with red eyes or fang-like teeth. They can be the bloke next door, who you’d never believe was capable of murdering someone.

‘They can be the man next to you on the bus, the guy opposite you at work. They can even be your loving husband. Malcolm Webster appeared unthreatening, benign, a “nice bloke” to friends and colleagues. Some of the people who came into his life still refused to believe he was capable of murder right up to his conviction, so plausible was the face he presented to the outside world.’

Webster – apparently so normal

Crime dramas dominate TV, but watching Pope’s brand of unflashy, considered fact-based adaptations is a slightly addictive experience. However abridged and edited these productions are – and they often stir controversy – they are a glimpse of cruelty and wickedness most of us can’t get our heads

REECE SHEARSMITH as Malcolm Webster and KATE FLEETWOOD as Felicity Webster. The Widower ITV
Snooping through the purse of his second wife, Felicity

round when reading the court reports of these cases.

Shearsmith’s self-justifying, deluded killer helps to give us an idea of how such normal-seeming criminals operate. We first encounter him at his wedding to Claire (Sheridan Smith), who is saying how he makes her feel so special. In a matter of months his controlling nature rears its head – ‘Take your hands out of your pockets… looks so slovenly.’

A nurse, he had access to Temazepam, which he used to drug Claire and manipulate her. The most chilling words viewers will hear this week are him saying, ‘How about a cup of tea?’

He snares another woman

It is disturbing to watch his lies being accepted by the police and loved ones. After Claire’s murder, he snares another trusting woman who he meets in New Zealand, Felicity. Being a sponger, Webster is soon administering the sleeping drugs and trying to fleece her too.

Knowing that Jeff Pope’s true crime tales are an approximation of what really happened makes them absorbing, dismaying, thought-provoking. You almost want to shout at the screen – ‘Watch out! He’s behind you!’

It’s a safe way to confront some of life’s monsters, before getting back to the made-up stuff.

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