Freddy's final fantasy - watching you watching him

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Two years ago, Fred West hanged himself in his prison cell before his trial could take place. He must have known his suicide would only add to his celebrity status. His illiteracy did not get in the way of his knowingness. On the cell wall he had scratched his own epitaph: "Freddy, the mass murderer from Gloucester."

Freddy? West implicitly understood that we are now on such intimate terms with our killers we call them by their boyish first names. Like Jack the Ripper and Jack the Lad, Freddy the Fox got away. Two years on, Freddy would be delighted to know he is still in the news. He would be pleased that what he did to make himself feel important has worked.

A deal to make a film of his life has been struck by the Official Solicitor with the Portman Entertainment Group, which has purchased the non-documentary film television and video rights to archive material from the West estate. Among the goodies on offer are tapes of West talking to the police, copies of his favourite pornographic films and pages from his memoirs. The contract also includes an option agreement on the biography written by Geoffrey Wansell called An Evil Love. Wansell wrote his book with the co-operation of the Official Solicitor who offered him access to the hours of police interviews with West, and his small memoir, I Was Loved by an Angel, written in his prison cell, as well as much other written material. This, the "intellectual property" of West's life, was offered up by Peter Harris, the Official Solicitor, who, in his duty to administer the West estate, considered that it was his duty "to protect the financial interests of his five minor children". Now, in seeking to maximise the returns on the estate, Harris has made a film deal.

What, one might ask, is a government official doing flogging the rights of a serial killer's life? Any financial benefit that is being obtained for the children is surely outweighed by the emotional distress caused if the film was ever to be made. Can any tragedy eventually be exploited? While everyone has the deepest sympathy for the West children and may even feel they deserve some kind of compensation, the idea that this compensation is to be earned in this way is sordid beyond belief. Money has already changed hands for Stephen and Mae West's book Inside 25 Cromwell Street and Anne Marie West's book Out of the Shadows. But one senses these books were written not purely for money but as a floundering attempt to make some sense of the hell that their authors have lived through.

Books and films, however, are not the same thing. What would a film of West's life story attempt to achieve? Who would play West? Anthony Hopkins or Colin Firth? If West's life was extraordinary it was also increasingly repetitive - dramatic tension would have to be found in the murders themselves. Otherwise we could have ourselves a little romance. Rosemary and Fred's "evil love" for each other would be the narrative through which we encountered the man's life.

The movie, I guess, like all the books yet to come, would promise to throw some light on the darkness, help us understand the mind of an ordinary monster. The serial killer industry does, after all, rely on the idea that its products are educational rather than entertaining. Yet what exactly are we to learn? That killers have bad backgrounds, bad genes, bad blood? Despite the cod science, this is what it all boils down to. And despite the efforts of some writers to turn murderers into existential anti-heroes, symptomatic of the malaise of the late-20th century, these men are disturbingly samey, their fantasies of control arising out of their predictable inadequacies, their fear of women, their fear of their desire for women, manifesting itself in dull brutality.

What exactly is it that we want to catch sight of? What is this perverse desire for imagery rather than imagination? When the remains of the young women were carried out in boxes from "the house of horror" by grim-faced policemen, we realised that there wasn't actually much to see. The tabloids tried to show us what the inside of Cromwell Street looked like with a series of diagrams and plans as if seeing made it more comprehensible. Harassed mothers took along their bundled up toddlers to Cromwell Street so that they could see "what evil looked like".

The uncomfortable truth is that Fred West liked to watch too. He was a voyeur. He liked to watch pain but he liked to call it pleasure. He liked to watch his wife having sex with other men in front of him, on a video, through a peep-hole. Watching gave him a feeling of power. Watching films about him killing might make us feel more in control, too.

Our fascination with West is also sexual. I doubt there will be offers flooding in on the rights to film Thomas Hamilton's life. We may not like to admit it but the sexual torture and death of young women is titillating. We live in a culture, after all, in which the murder of women is part of our proud heritage. Not long ago I got out of a car at midnight in Shoreditch only to stumble upon an assertive young American woman carefully explaining how to remove a uterus from a female corpse. I was in the middle of a Jack the Ripper tour.

Just as few of us ever remember the names of the Ripper's victims, so, too, are all the lost girls of the West case unlikely to have their stories properly told. No one will find them interesting enough individuals to make movies of their brief lives or write long psychological profiles about them. No one much cared how they explored their fantasies. If a life's worth can be measured by its hold in the public imagination, theirs is still without much worth. West didn't think they were worth anything either.

Yet, as long as this killer is so much more fascinating to us than the killed, then we cannot afford to be outraged at the prospect of a film of the life story of Fred West. And, as long as we are in thrall to such death stories rather than life stories, then we will want to see everything we can. Just like Freddy did.

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