The Witness for the Prosecution, BBC1

Programme Name: The Witness for the Prosecution - TX: n/a - Episode: Witness For The Prosecution (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: *** This image is under strict embargo until Mon 28th November 2016 00.01 *** L - R Emily French (KIM CATTRALL), Romaine Heilger (ANDREA RISEBOROUGH), John Mayhew (TOBY JONES), Leonard (BILLY HOWLE), Janet McIntyre (MONICA DOLAN) - (C) Mammoth Screen - Photographer: Todd Antony & Robert Viglasky

Rough justice: Kim Cattrall, Andrea Riseborough, Toby Jones, Billy Howle, Monica Dolan

Gripping, dark adaptation of Agatha Christie’s courtroom mystery

★★★★ BBC1, Boxing Day 9pm

I MUST COME CLEAN and confess all. I’m not an Agatha Christie fan. I admire her craft and ingenuity, but the stories’ often laughably convoluted solutions irritate me and the characters leave me cold.

So, this two-part production of The Witness for the Prosecution wrongfooted me – absolutely gripping, unsettling and tinged with sadness, it packed a far bigger emotional wallop than these costume pantomimes usually have.

The Witness for the Prosecution - TX: n/a - Episode: Witness For The Prosecution (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: ** THIS IMAGE IS UNDER STRICT EMBARGO OF 24th NOV 2016 ** Janet McIntyre (MONICA DOLAN) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Milk

Service without a smile: Janet McIntyre (Monica Dolan)

Toby Jones is particularly affecting as the poor solicitor John Mayhew, who takes on the seemingly unwinnable defence of Leonard Vole, played by Billy Howle. Vole is accused of bludgeoning his sugar mummy Emily French, former Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall.

Kim Cattrall’s plaything

On the prowl for company, Emily sees Leonard getting fired from his job as a waiter, taking him home and paying him to be her plaything.

All this is watched by Emily’s rather insubordinate maid, a performance veering between unhinged and sinister by Monica Dolan. When the maid finds her employer in a bloody pool on the carpet, she points the finger at Leonard.

Crime author Sophie Hannah is an Agatha Christie champion and often speaks of the Queen of Crime’s psychological depth. This has always eluded me, but The Witness for the Prosecution again breaks the pattern, as the twisted, tortured characters are truly absorbing.

The Witness for the Prosecution - TX: n/a - Episode: Witness For The Prosecution (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: This image is under strict embargo 3rd December 2016 00.01 Romaine Heilger (ANDREA RISEBOROUGH) - (C) Mammoth Screen - Photographer: Robert Viglasky

Swinging star: Romaine Heilger (Andrea Riseborough)

Andrea Riseborogh as Romaine

Andrea Riseborough as Leonard’s doe-eyed but hyena-hearted girlfriend Romaine is scary, while Mayhew, haunted by the loss of his son, is the story’s tragic hero.

Writer Sarah Phelps, who also adapted last Christmas’s BBC hit And Then There Were None, has done a great job in injecting emotion and passion – particularly in the bedroom.

And for once the period is not just nostalgic window dressing. The atmosphere is foggy and threatening, and you get an appreciation of what it was like in pre-war Britain to have no means or status.

See also…

Appropriate Adult — KIller TV No.43

DC Savage (Sylvestra La Touzel) with Leach (Emily Watson) and West (Dominic West). Pics: ITV

2011, ITV1

‘You’re helping me through the most terrible time. You’re my only friend.’ – Fred West
‘I’m not your friend, Fred.’ – Janet Leach
‘You are. We’re going on journey together, Janet.’ – Fred West
Dominic West, Emily Watson, Monica Dolan, Robert Glensiter
Identikit: The true story of how ordinary housewife and mother Janet Leach became the Appropriate Adult, or civilian counsellor, for one of Britain’s most notorious mass killers, Fred West, during his questioning by police.


The crime genre – books and films – frequently and luridly dabbles in depictions of serial killers, but few if any capture some of the mundane and evil truth of such criminals as powerfully as this two-part ITV drama. Extraordinary, sensitive and chilling, it offers a glimpse into the depraved world of Gloucestershire murderer Fred West and his wife Rosemary. It was criticised as insensitive in some quarters, but it is nevertheless a serious and carefully produced mini-series revealing some of the reality behind a crime few people could comprehend. It is based on the true story of Janet Leach, a social worker who volunteered to act as an Appropriate Adult, a liaison to help and support juveniles or vulnerable adults in police custody. Her very first appointment is to assist a 52-year-old man. No sooner has she entered the police interview to sit alongside him than the man is describing how he strangled his own daughter, Heather. ‘Hadn’t wanted to hurt her,’ he explains. ’I was scared, so I was gonna put her in the Wendy house, but then I thought I’d put her in the dustbin…’ He matter-of-factly describes using an ice saw to cut off her legs and head. He is, of course, Fred West, and Janet Leach finds herself acting as a supporting shoulder for one of the most disgusting mass killers in British history. Emily Watson plays Janet with wide-eyed dismay, and watching her the audience cannot help wondering what a trauma she went through. Dominic West, a long way from The Wire here, is extraordinary as the West Country bumpkin who lies, wheedles and charms as easily as he breathes, and who is by turns maudlin and monstrous. ‘Time for a cuppa, I’d say, Hazel,’ he chirps to the detective questioning him. When a third thigh bone turns up in his garden, Fred says innocently to the same detective, DC Hazel Savage, ‘Don’t know where that came from.’ Janet is a woman who must go home to a partner and her children at night and somehow keep a lid on the nightmare she is exposed to at the police station, while also finding it difficult to stop listening to the unfolding horror story she hears as Fred’s confidante. This is an appalling burden for her, but at one point she talks him into telling the whole truth and he admits to a further eight, ‘all right, nine, killings’. It was a controversial production, as any dramatisation touching on victims of recent crimes will be (some police officers were particularly critical), but the portrayal was not sensational or leering at the Wests’ crimes. No horror or crimes were depicted, just a disturbing portrayal of horrendously dysfunctional people. Dominic West, Emily Watson and Monica Dolan, who played Rose West, all won Baftas for their performances.
Watercooler fact: This was the third of ITV’s major dramas exploring real crimes, following This Is Personal (2000, about the Yorkshire Ripper) and See No Evil (2006, the Moors Murders).

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Appropriate Adult with Emily Watson and Dominic West ITV1 PREVIEW

Dominic West as Fred West. Pics: ITV

Rating ★★★★

ITV1 Sunday, 4 September, 9pm

Story: In 1994 Janet Leach, a mother of five from Gloucestershire, is at home making her children’s tea when the phone rings. Janet is on a course that, when completed, will enable her to train as a social worker. She is also on the list of ‘appropriate adults’, volunteers whom the police ask to sit in on interviews with vulnerable people to assist and safeguard their rights. The phone call is request to assist on her first case, that of 52-year-old Frederick Walter Stephen West…

Controversy has preceded this two-part dramatisation about Fred West, the depraved serial killer who is still vivid in memory, his arrest having occurred less than 20 years ago. His surviving daughter, Anne Marie Davis, in particular has condemned ITV1’s production.

Fred West hanged himself while on remand after being charged with 12 murders, his catalogue of crimes also including rape, abduction and child cruelty. Revisiting such events clearly reopens painful memories for all involved.

Executive producer Jeff Pope justifies making the two-part drama by asking, ‘Are there subjects that should never be tackled? My argument is that there have been many documentaries, newspaper articles and books that discuss what happened at Cromwell Street, and this is just as valid. Of course drama – to see something as if you are actually watching it happen – is far more powerful, so, rightly, there is a spotlight on what we are doing. But we do not glorify Fred or Rosemary West. There is no depiction of any violence.’ 

Emily Watson as Janet Leach
Pope is part of the award-winning team that has previously dramatised stories about the Yorkshire Ripper and Moors murders. Like those productions, Appropriate Adult does not depict the violence and horror of the crimes, but focuses on their repercussions.

Written by Neil McKay, it cleverly zooms in on the story of housewife Janet Leach, who was in line to train as a social worker and on the list of ‘appropriate adults’ to assist vulnerable adults and children in police custody. 

Emily Watson as Janet Leach
This is a brilliant way into the dauntingly awful events because Janet Leach is the viewers’ representative on screen. Excellently portrayed by double-Oscar nominee Emily Watson, the camera often focuses on her uncomprehending expression as Fred West denies or reveals his crimes to police.

One minute she is peeling potatoes at home, the next she is sitting next to a man she has never heard of as he describes strangling and dismembering his daughter, and wondering whether he should put her in the Wendy House or the bin.

Fred West’s disturbing manipulation
Dominic West is chilling as the affable monster Fred, a jovial bumpkin who says on being told police have found a thigh bone in his garden, ‘Can’t think how that got there.’

His self-serving manipulation knows no limits, as he appeals for sympathy as a loving patriarch, portrays himself as trying to help police and clear things up, and then to creepily try to manipulate the shocked Janet Leach.

As the appropriate adult, she has a bond of confidentiality with West, so while he hides some of his crimes from the police, he reveals them to Janet, unsettling her badly.

‘Do I know you from somewhere?’ he says to her at first, and a wave of dismay flashes across her face. Then later, ‘I know you’ve not always been loved and respected,’ and we get a flavour of the way he would worm his way into the confidence of his victims.

DC Hazel Savage (Sylvestra Le Touzel) with Leach and West

‘I don’t think I would like to play someone like West again’ 
It’s a stunning performance from Dominic West, here in a portrayal that could finally overwrite his reputation as McNulty in The Wire.

Filming it was difficult for the actor, who was thankful to be away from his wife and children during the shoot. He says, ‘Had they been around when I was filming, I don’t think I would have been so easily been able to act him. It was only possible in a finite, brief period away from home.

It was extraordinarily different to anything I have done before and I don’t think I would like to play someone like him again.’

Monica Dolan as Rosemary 
Equally disturbing is Rosemary West, the morally blank, foul-mouthed accomplice of her husband. Actress Monica Dolan dreaded researching her role when she was offered it. When her character sounds off about the inconvenience of the police searching her home or Janet Leach touching her belongings, once again incomprehension is the natural reaction.

This is a sobering film, but sensitively done. It has been painstakingly produced, based on detailed research and producer interviews with Janet Leach (Emily Watson also met her). It aims to tell something of the truth of a place no one wants to dwell.

Cast: Emily Watson Janet Leach, Dominic West Fred West, Robert Glenister Detective Superintendent John Bennett, Sylvestra Le Touzel Detective Constable Hazel Savage, Monica Dolan Rosemary West, Anthony Flanagan Mike, Sam Roukin Detective Constable Darren Law, Gerard Horan Howard Ogden, Seline Hizli Mae West, James McArdle Stephen West
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