Comedians are often praised for their acting chops. See Victoria Wood in Housewife, 49, think about Lenny Henry's recent acclaim in the theatre. The line goes that comics are not simple minded clowns but complex observers of the human condition who are robbed of making a serious impact because of their chosen field and their funny bones. Now, I am not sure about that. Take the great Takeshi Kitano whose first big serious acting role was in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence - in his native Japan the audience was too used to his tomfoolery on TV to take his role as a concentration camp guard as earnestly as he would have liked. Reece Shearsmith is funny ha ha and funny tragic. This is the fault of the caricatures he has created as a member of the League of Gentlemen. Unlike Steve Pemberton and Mark Gatiss, his dramatic persona is unproven and he has not challenged my basic definition of him as a British Steve Buscemi - funny looking and made for cameos. The Widower is a first step along the path that will prove whether he is going to become both a comic and serious character actor like his peers.
The Widower is a dramatisation of the marriages and aftermaths of Malcolm Webster's life. Webster was found guilty in 2011 of murdering his first wife and trying to kill his second, all, it was alleged, to gain from their life assurance policies to manage his own debts. Now Webster claims his innocence and has had some charges, of arson, struck down, so I'll just say that The Widower most definitely is of the opinion that he did it and that he is a thoroughly evil man. ITV has had some success with this kind of thing, and consequently they are able to attract quality talent to a drama like this one such as Shearsmith, Sheridan Smith(briefly) as his first wife and Juliet Alderice as his second with Jeff (Philomena/Lucan) Pope as a writer and producer. I'll be honest and say that I am a bit squeamish about such dramas and what I value about The Widower is the attempt to understand what drove a man to poisoning, burning and trying to kill people he had offered to share his life with.
In that respect, Shearsmith's Webster is a cold sociopath compelled to please his parents and to keep the awkward truth hidden away and obscured. His view of married life is one of being enabled to keep secrets, be agreed with and to be in complete control. He has a history of drugging and incapacitating those who get in his way - patients when he was a nurse, his first wife when she discovered his debts and his second from the honeymoon on. By medicating any threats, Malcolm is in charge. The story hints that this is because of his suburban repressed upbringing, his father was an important officer in the Metropolitan police, and what could be clinically referred to as well hidden "crazy". The first episode of the show launches straight in to his nefarious deeds, his manipulations and introduces his pathology by mirroring two weddings where he gives nearly the same speech despite being on different sides of the world with different brides.
Shearsmith has quite mad hair for all this and an impassive face that is wearing the most appropriate emotion by design. His accent is mannered and southern, hiding his native Hull very well, yet the number of murderers and comic killers he has played previously can't help but chime a little with Malcolm Webster, especially when he is chatting with his unconscious wives. This though is probably my problem, as the performance is strong and the effect particularly poignant. The Widower may be tabloid drama but it's well acted and riveting - more evidence that ITV can rival the Beeb for quality work.
ITV will be showing The Widower from the 17th March 2014 as three part series