Malcolm Webster is currently serving a life sentence.
At his sentencing in 2011, Lord Bannatyne explained that his “was a murder of a wholly exceptional kind, and of a type rarely seen in these courts. This was a murder which could properly be described as cold-blooded, brutal and callous”.
This three-part ITV drama follows the true story of a dangerous psychopath; a man who murdered his first wife, attempted the murder of his second, and ensnared a subsequent fiancé. In each case, his motive was a desire to amass money.
Webster’s trail of deceit and calculation covers a wide breadth of time and space; during the thirteen years after the murder of his first wife (Claire Morris, played by Sheridan Smith) in Scotland, he made a similar attempt on a second wife’s life (Felicity Drumm, played by Kate Fleetwood) in New Zealand, and subsequently returned to Scotland where he pursued a similar scheme with Simone Banajee (played by Archie Panjabi).
The reality is a chilling tale. A man, who proves himself capable of premeditated murder, similarly proves capable of building robust and trusting relationships with successive women and their respective families, whilst maintaining respectable employment. This is where the fascination lies and where, unfortunately, ITV’s dramatization is weakest. The story as told by Jeff Pope (ITV’s award-winning factual drama screenwriter and filmmaker) begins each chapter at the weddings, thereby affording little time to the development of the relationships.
When the actual story appeared in newspapers, the ubiquitous question was: how did this man so effectively deceive three women? That question remains after watching this drama. One would assume that to fulfil his grim quests Webster must have been, by all appearances, charismatic and affable. Whilst Reece Shearsmith’s portrayal is suitably disturbing, it also presents a man who is somewhat socially-awkward, rigid, and creepy; as such, it fails to provide an insight into how three intelligent and beautiful women were taken in by him.
The drama makes for unsettling viewing, but this may be largely because the viewer knows the events to be true, rather than any particular strength of the depiction. One has to question as well the purpose of dramatizing such events. If it serves as a cautionary tale to others; to ensure that Webster’s cold-bloodedness is not granted the relief of fading in our collective memory; or to offer an insight which allows the public to better understand the perspective of his victims – that it was no failure of theirs to be deceived, then it fulfils a worthy cause. If it serves as prime-time, post-dinner television entertainment, it risks being voyeuristic.
The Widower is on ITV at 9pm on Monday 17 March