Rebecca Barry Hill: Stranger than fiction

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The Widower centres around convicted killer Malcolm Webster.
The Widower centres around convicted killer Malcolm Webster.

The next time there's a horrible news event, whether it's a missing plane, a natural disaster or a murder, you can bet someone is already plotting the fictionalised version. If you don't write the script now, someone else will. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

Well-told stories help to make sense of life, particularly the crappy bits. But timing, and truthfulness, is everything. Recently, Northland writer Scott Maka apologised to Kiwi woman Danica Weeks, (whose husband Paul was on board the missing MH370 flight), after she took offence to his speedily produced novella, which speculated what happened to the plane. Then came Hope and Wire, (final on Thursday, 8:30pm, TV3) Gaylene Preston's drama about the Christchurch earthquakes, which divided viewers as to whether or not those wounds are still too raw. This week we had ITV's The Widower, (Sunday and Monday, 8.30pm, TV One), the story of Malcolm Webster, the Brit convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison for killing his first wife, and attempting to kill his second, New Zealander, Felicity Drumm. Webster is a made-for-TV villain, seemingly innocuous, yet chillingly brazen and merciless.

Webster dropped his appeal against his 30-year murder sentence in March and The Widower was shown on British television in April.

Is it too soon for the small screen? Clearly Webster's crimes have fewer victims than the other dramatisations, plus, Drumm and Webster's former girlfriend, Simone Banerjee, were advisers on the script. Perhaps the act of immortalising Webster as a monster is part of a process of healing and justice.

But given the story is fresh in the public's mind, that inevitably sapped the TV version of some dramatic tension. Co-writers James Barton and Jeff Pope, and star Reece Shearsmith must have known the dialogue would require a knowing sense of foreboding. The first example came as Webster regaled guests at his first wedding, thanking wife Claire for wanting to "put up with me" and wondering if his singledom until then was due to something "awful" he'd done in a past life, a line that heightened in evil when he repeated it at his second wedding.

There was also a blackly funny scene atop a sheer cliff, when Drumm told Webster she'd worked out why she had a weird taste in her mouth. Cue nervous shouts of "get away from the edge!" Turned out she was pregnant.

Naturally, the writers took creative licence, and this is where The Widower felt less like a real crime drama. In news reports, Drumm has referred to Webster as a psychopath, that rare archetype supposedly impervious to feelings of guilt. Yet the tele Webster appeared to express remorse, apparently for no one's benefit but his own, when visiting Claire's grave. Passive-aggressive behaviour with both newlyweds -- arguments about money, mostly -- led to gentle speeches chastising his heavily sedated victims, perhaps to show he felt the need to justify his actions even to himself. Again, not something you'd see from a true psychopath.

And you have to wonder why the intelligent, independent women who fell for him put up with his supposedly morose temperament. Surely the real Malcolm Webster is blindingly charming.

Still, The Widower was compelling viewing, Shearsmith's mild-mannered performance making the real Webster even more loathsome, despite a slow-to-warm-to foppishness that bordered on twee. A scene in which Webster cried into the mirror, appearing genuinely upset about his wife's death, then snapped out of it, revealing it was all a rehearsal, was too creepy to be true. Almost.

- TimeOut

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