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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Lucan, ITV, with Rory Kinnear, Christopher Eccleston, Michael Gambon PREVIEW

Lucan, ITV: RORY KINNEAR s Lord Lucan and CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON as John Aspinall.
High-rollers Lord Lucan (Rory Kinnear) and John Aspinall (Christopher Eccleston). Pics : ITV

Rating: ★★★★

ITV: starts Wednesday, 11 December, 9pm

Story: Desperate to get custody of his children, professional gambler Lord Lucan plots to make his wife Veronica ‘disappear’…

IT IS ALMOST FUNNY that Lord Lucan, professional gambler and murder suspect, was known by the nickname ‘Lucky’. However, this story, based on true events, is too full of callousness and cowardice to be a laughing matter.

The sobriquet was given to him by his chums after the Earl won £26,000 in one night’s gambling.

Lucan, ITV: CATHERINE MCCORMACK as Veronice Lucan.
Isolated – Veronica Lucan (Catherine McCormack)

But as ITV’s riveting two-part drama reveals, it soon became an ironic moniker as Lucky started haemorrhaging thousands of pounds at the Clermont Club, owned by his pal John Aspinall.

In the drama he also fails to bully his wife Veronica into a psychiatric institution and loses his custody battle with her for their three children, making him distraught that his position in life as a gambler and Earl did not entitle him to take precedence over her.

Final gamble is cowardly and disastrous

And then his final throw of the dice also goes disastrously for Lucky when, instead of killing his wife in a plan to make her disappear, he kills his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, by accident.

Lucan, ITV: MICHAEL GAMBON as Older Burke and PAUL FREEMAN as John Pearson.
Author John Pearson (Paul Freeman) and Burke (Michael Gambon)

The 1974 crime is a cause célèbre, as is Lucan’s amazing disappearance. Despite many reported sightings of the Earl around the world, his fate remains unknown. ITV’s Jeff Pope, whose script won a Bafta for his drama See No Evil: The Moors Murders, here delves into a world of incredible snobbery and class arrogance to explore events before and after the 1974 murder.

Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of Lucan has less to do with the charismatic, Aston Martin-driving gad about town of repute, than a cruel, introverted chancer who’s flung away his money and is obsessed with regaining his children.

Christopher Eccleston is chilling

Lucan, ITV: LEANNE BEST as Sandra Rivett
The nanny, Sandra Rivett (Leanne Best)

The most terrifying character on show is Christopher Eccleston’s John Aspinall, who owned the Clermont – in real life he later became well known as a zoo owner. His approach to human relations here owes much to the law of the jungle, and he encourages his friend Lucan to crush Veronica through the courts without mercy.

When that fails, he almost encourages something more extreme. ‘I’m your friend,’ he says to the moping Earl, ‘but I cannot help you if will not help yourself.’ This is a man who milks his ‘friend’ Lucan for all his money via his gambling club and bemoans the fact that people of breeding are losing control of the country, conveniently ignoring the fact that he was born out of wedlock, the son of a soldier.

Lucan, ITV: RORY KINNEAR s Lord Lucan and Exttras from the show, Myrtle Vraets and Kya Garwood
High life – Lucan at the Clermont

Veronica appears to have been treated with huge cruelty and callousness by the Clermont set, most of whom seem to believe she should leave her husband alone to throw away all of his wealth.

John Pearson’s book The Gamblers

The drama is based on John Pearson’s book The Gamblers, and speculation and fictionalised characters are used to tell the tale. That Lucan’s now grown-up children, Lady Camilla Bloch and George Bingham, have been voicing their fears over the drama is a reminder that dramatising real-life crimes to some degree appropriates the lives and memories of surviving family members.

However, conscientious dramas such as Five Daughters and Appropriate Adult have been serious attempts to understand notorious murders or examine the wrong done to innocent, decent victims. Lucan is a worthwhile and compelling look at a brutal unresolved crime that still makes the headlines today, along with the social world that engendered it.

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Mrs Biggs ITV1 with Sheridan Smith and Danny Mays PREVIEW

Sheridan Smith in the lead role as Charmian Biggs, wife of Ronnie Biggs
Sheridan Smith as Mrs Biggs. Pics: ITV

Rating: ★★★★

ITV1: Wednesday, 5 September, 9pm 

Story: As a teenager on a train in 1957, Charmian Brent meets and falls for flirty, worldly Ronnie Biggs. It’s the start of a struggle to keep the relationship alive and happy in the face of horrified opposition from Charmian’s middle-class dad, Ronnie’s spell in jail, and then his worldwide notoriety as one of the Great Train Robbers.

Charmian and Ronnie on an early date

For once the story is that of the criminal’s girl, not the criminal. The hair-raising, happy, miserable, thrilling, tragic times of Charmian Biggs, wife of Great Train Robber Ronnie, as they defied her parents and the law, and crossed the world in a bid to find a life together.

This is a high-class, five-part dramatisation of Charmian’s extraordinary story, with a charismatic performance from Sheridan Smith, made with the real Charmian’s input, and based on a script by Jeff Pope, who has a fine track record for sensitively exploring real-life crime stories – including Appropriate Adult, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, and Hear No Evil: The Moors Murders.

Love on the run – Charmian and Ron eluding police

On the run with £200
Charmian was no gangster’s moll or groupie. She was madly in love with cheeky Ronnie, who blew apart her stultifying middle-class life as a headmaster’s daughter, dad being a man she had to call ‘Sir’ at home. In time-honoured fashion, she wanted to elope with her lover, and for Ron, who’d already had a spell inside, this meant her stealing £200 from the bullion firm she worked for and their going on the run together.

‘The future is full of possibilities, the past will only drag you down,’ is Ronnie’s philosophy here.

Ronnie, international fugitive

But crime is not what Charmian wants, though she is reckless enough to chase her dream of a life with Ronnie despite the risks. However, they are caught and he serves another six months while she receives a suspended sentence. But they finally get married (she is pregnant) and settle down to married life, with Ronnie taking up again his trade as a carpenter.

Great Train Robbery
It is when money troubles crowd in that Ronnie turns to his old mate Bruce Reynolds for a loan. However, Bruce – played by Jay Simpson, looking like Peter Sellers and sounding unerringly like Michael Caine in The Italian Job – has sunk all his cash into a big robbery he is planning. It’s 1963 and his gang are going to stop and rob the Royal Mail train.

Danny Mays, Charmian and Sheridan Smith

When news broke that £2.6 million had been taken, it became a huge story that reverberated around the world for decades. As the opening episode ends, Charmian’s life as the mother of two young children is about to spiral into uncertainty and notoriety.

Mrs Biggs recreates the period well and is a fascinating time capsule of past social attitudes, lifestyles and even modes of speech. Charmian’s awful dad, confronted with the prospect of his daughter dating an ex-convict, says, ‘I can’t have people sniggering and pointing behind my back.’

Sheridan Smith as Charmian

‘Charmian’s is one of the great untold stories that I’ve come across,’ says writer and executive producer Jeff Pope.
‘It gives us a window on to events which we think we know something about – the 1963 Great Train Robbery and Ronald Biggs’ time in Brazil. But, in fact, it illuminates so much
about crime and punishment and love.’

Danny Mays does well in the difficult role of cheeky rogue Ronnie, a criminal and charmer who has his dark moments.

Sheridan Smith is very watchable as Charmian, who may make some mad choices but is always sympathetic for simply following her heart.

What a rise to stardom Sheridan has had, from roles in The Royle Family, Two Pints of Lager and Gavin & Stacey, to award-winning West End performances in Legally Blonde and Flare Path. She is also starring in Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat on ITV the week after Mrs Biggs starts.

But Mrs Biggs is a big emotional performance and will add to her star power.

Cast: Sheridan Smith Charmian Biggs, Daniel Mays Ronnie Biggs, Tom Brooke Mike Haynes, Leo Gregory Eric Flower, Adrian Scarborough Bernard Powell, Caroline Goodall Muriel Powell, Florence Bell Gillian, Phil Cornwell Jack Slipper, Robin Hooper Mr Kerslake, Jay Simpson Bruce Reynolds, Iain McKee Buster Edwards, Jon Foster Goody, Ron Cook Peter

Coming Up

Part 2 12 Sept – Ronnie is rich beyond his dreams, but gets arrested. The press descends on Charmian, as do villains wanting a share of Ron’s money
Part 3 19 Sept – Charmian has an affair, Ron plans to escape
Part 4 26 Sept – The couple hide out in Australia, before flees to Rio de Janeiro
Part 5 3 Oct – The couple are lonely, missing each other, and then tragedy – their eldest son, Nicky, is killed in a car crash. Ron is arrested, but discovers his Brazilian girlfriend is pregnant

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