True Crime Tuesdays: Fred West: The Glasgow Girls
Helen Archer | On 21, Mar 2023
Produced and directed by a female creative team, this dark yet sensitive three-part documentary looks at Fred West’s time in Glasgow, in an effort to paint a more detailed picture of his first known victims – and in doing so reveals much about life in deprived areas for women and girls at the time. It also has a great deal to say about the modus operandi of those who prey on the most vulnerable, and the various ways in which society as a whole fails those who are ripe for exploitation.
The series is structured to give us two timelines, intercutting footage of English news reports during the long process of victims’ remains being excavated from 25 Cromwell Street and the fields of Much Marcle in 1994 with Scottish bulletins calling for help in tracking down West’s first wife, Catherine (Rena) Costello, and her daughter, Charmaine, with audio excerpts of some of West’s police interviews as he gradually directs them to their whereabouts. It uses these beats to leap back in time, to Scotland in the early 1960s, where West moved after his marriage to Rena. It’s an effective framework, which emphasises both the span of time West was active and the many points he could have been stopped.
But it does, too, humanise Rena, Charmaine, and Anne McFall – who was drawn in to West’s life via her friendship with Rena after leaving the notorious Nazareth House children’s home in Aberdeen – detailing memorable facts about their characters and lives, via interviews with people who knew them. The well-coiffed, stylish ladies who are interviewed about their childhood memories of Rena paint a picture of a feisty, strong, bright young woman – qualities which were, it seems, passed down to her first child, Charmaine – and the interviewees have the added effect of allowing us to picture Rena as she might have been at their age, had things been different.
While none of the information in the series is exactly new, it allows the documentary makers to make pertinent points about the nature of predators and domestic abuse. Rena’s strength was, apparently, seen as a challenge to West, who wanted to ‘break’ her, and used her two children as collateral in order to tie them together. They were married not long after Rena moved to Ledbury, pregnant by a married Asian bus driver she met while working as a conductress – West stepped in as Rena’s ‘saviour’ and took the child on as his own, just a year after it emerged he had impregnated his 13-year-old sister. It was Rena who led him to Glasgow, where he stayed and worked in Coatbridge – where at least two other paedophiles were known to be active at the time, including one interviewee’s dad – Castlemilk and the Gorbals, using his job as an ice cream man to groom the city’s youngsters – one of whom, a three-year-old, he killed by running him over with his van.
The documentary-makers use old footage of the areas, with a little potted history. One contributor jokes: “When people ask me how rough was the Gorbals, I say – well, Fred West was my ice cream man”. It proves to be the darkest of humour, as another interviewee, Jackie Stanton, recalls her terrifying brush with West, whom she accepted a lift from – assuming he was ‘safe’ because he drove an ice cream van, and told her he knew her father – before he drove her to a deserted cottage. She managed to escape, and told no one of her ordeal, only realising it was West after the discovery of his crimes in the 1990s. West was ultimately chased out of Glasgow – and Scotland – by gangsters who apparently didn’t like the heat he brought to their patch, and the allotment he had – which some theorise might have been used to dispose of bodies – has long since been built over.
Rena, Anne, and Charmaine’s fate is slowly revealed to the viewer. Rena was the first to be murdered, after a final attempt at escape was thwarted when Anne – who hoped Fred could provide her with some form of security – told Fred about a planned attempt to bring Rena’s children back to Glasgow. Anne and her unborn baby were the next to be killed, while Charmaine remained with Fred after he got together with Rose. In the end, though, her bright spirit was, too, snuffed out – the first conspiracy between West and his new wife, whose early life is likewise summarised in the final part of the series.
It’s a deeply depressing story of the way in which West – like so many other abusers and murderers – chose and isolated his victims, and explains, to a certain extent, how these women’s disappearances could have gone unnoticed for so long. But it also begs the sobering question of how many other victims won’t have their story told, because their lives have been erased, and overlooked.
Fred West: The Glasgow Girls is available on Sky Crime. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, for £9.99 a month with no contract. For the latest Sky TV packages and prices, click the button below.