Fred and Rose West: the Real Story, review: Morbid fascination keeps us coming back for more

Like many before it, the documentary mostly goes over familiar ground – but it’s impossible not to be glued to the screen

Sean O'Grady
Friday 22 February 2019 01:06
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Crime & Punishment: Fred and Rose West

It’s not that surprising that the broadcast of Fred and Rose West: the Real Story with Trevor McDonald was delayed for several weeks for “legal reasons”.

The main force of the argument in this uncomfortable documentary was unmistakable and unrelenting – that Rose West was more culpable in the murders than most people have assumed. A string of experts – a victim, lawyers, journalists and psychologists – suggested that Rose was the one with the violent temper and with sexual tastes equally as depraved as her husband’s. The programme’s focus was firmly on her.

Given that Rose West has never, ever, accepted any guilt in any of the 10 murders she was convicted of in 1995 – including of her own 16-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old step-daughter – let alone given a frank account of herself, she is unlikely to have welcomed this high-profile account of her life.

Whether any changes were made was not apparent, but the fact remains that, whatever she did or did not do, Rose West cannot be punished any further for what she did, under the law. We have done away with hanging. She is today incarcerated at HMP Low Newton, County Durham, under a whole life tariff. She will rot there. We can do no more.

What the programme perhaps should have said, but didn’t, was that Rose West, under that full life tariff, has little incentive to say more, beyond a moral duty to the families of the victims. That moral failure, her silence, albeit predictable, is the most damning evidence of all about the nature of her personality. Of the only two people who know about what happened, Fred West hanged himself on New Year’s Day 1995, before his trial, and Rose denies things. The rest is vacuum.

And in that vacuum, the documentary mostly went over familiar, macabre ground, including some clips of ITN News at Ten reports that McDonald himself presented at the time when the “House of Horrors” was giving up its grisly secrets. The abductions at bus stops; torture; sexual sadism; child abuse; dismembered bodies buried around the house; missing bones; advanced forensic techniques, all were rehearsed again.

Still, McDonald and the team did have some original material. They interviewed, for the first time on television, one of the Wests’ earliest victims, a lodger from the early 1970s, Jane Hamer. She was drawn into the Wests’ ambit, as were so many, through renting a room at the top of their notorious home. She gave an account that was both prosaic and disturbing of life there. She described Fred, jarringly, as a “fairly pleasant landlord”, and contrasted him with Rosemary, who was less agreeable - “domineering”, “very curt”, a “controlling person who definitely ruled the roost”.

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What’s more, Hamer confirmed what is commonly accepted, which is that Rose was working as a prostitute in the family home – the original classified ads for her services, complete with photo of her in the swingers’ “contact magazines” of the time hardly needed corroborating. Yet this eyewitness account of this weird sexually obsessed household was still compelling.

So, Hamer explained, as she learned more about them she discovered that the Wests “weren’t a normal couple”. Fred was “definitely” aware of what his wife was doing: “That’s their business, but I didn’t like it.”

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Even when Fred invited Hamer to inspect the cellar, she found it rather dank but not actually menacing. It was when she heard the children screaming “stop it daddy, stop it daddy, please stop it daddy” that she decided to get out. Shortly afterwards, the Wests murdered her fellow lodger, Shirley Robinson.

It was also worth hearing from the families of the victims. Two sisters of Juanita Mott, who disappeared in 1975, testified about what happened when they first heard the news about Cromwell Street. Belinda and Mary-Ann Mott said how “mum hit the floor … We had to pick her up daily, she didn’t dress, she didn’t wash. There was “no coming back from this”.

In the publicity material for the show – though it hardly needed it, given the row when the programme was pulled last month – Trevor McDonald said that “in every way you turn to look at this case, there is something ghastly and unexpected and totally inexplicable. I’ve come away from doing this without any kind of intimation at all about how this was possible. It defies belief, it defies explanation and it defies any understanding. There is no conclusion, you just walk away stunned about what you learn.”

We do walk away – yet we always walk back, out of sheer, morbid fascination.

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