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The League of Gentleman, Psychoville and the recent Inside No 9 all proved that Reece Shearsmith likes his comedy on the creepy side.

But the former Bretton Hall student is set to prove even more unsettling when he returns to TV next week in a new three-part drama.

Not least because it’s inspired by the real-life case of Malcolm Webster, a seemingly mild-mannered nurse who over the course of 13 years poisoned and murdered his first wife, attempted to do the same to the second, and then set out to deceive a third woman.

Although he points out that he’s always seen himself as an actor rather than a comedian, Reece admits to being somewhat daunted at the thought of taking on the role: “It was a really big part for me, and a real challenge. I read the script and thought, ‘I can do this.’ But although it was really exciting to read the script, it was also quite scary - I thought, ‘God, do I really want to be in that world?’ It’s a horrible thing to take on. But I couldn’t not try.”

Shearsmith studied for several years at Bretton in what is now part of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park but was then attached to Leeds University.

For the actor, one of the biggest challenges was making sure that his character didn’t come across as a stereotypical, moustache-twirling bad guy. “My responsibility was to make him as real as possible and not appear to be a villain whom people could have spotted. Because no one did. There was nothing to spot. That’s what’s so chilling.”

Malcolm certainly doesn’t seem like a killer as the first episode opens and he marries first wife Claire (Sheridan Smith).

However, when she becomes increasingly concerned by his mounting debts, Malcolm tries to get her under control by systematically plying her with drugs. It looks like his actions are about to be found out when Claire makes an appointment with the doctor, so her husband resorts to staging a car accident, which claims her life.

Reece Shearsmith as Malcolm Webster.
Reece Shearsmith as Malcolm Webster.
 

After collecting the life insurance cheque for £200,000, Malcolm moves to New Zealand and starts a new life, which includes a second wife, Felicity (Kate Fleetwood). But when the couple relocate to Scotland, it looks like old patterns are repeating themselves, as Malcolm once again gets into debt - and starts sedating Felicity so she won’t realise what’s going on.

Her pregnancy buys her a temporary reprieve, but once their son is born and the rows start again, he returns to old habits.

It makes for gripping drama, but Reece never allowed himself to forget that the story is based on actual events.

He says: “As an actor you do feel a sense of responsibility on your shoulders when you play a real person. With The Widower I felt I needed to capture the spirit of Malcolm Webster - I’m not trying to do an impression of him.

“I also felt a responsibility because he is a convicted murderer and people were profoundly affected by his actions. There’s a duty of care that he is not presented frivolously”.

He adds: “This isn’t a drama about him as an innocent man. Our version of the person I play is quite rightly, presented through the eyes of the women. That’s the way it should be

THE WIDOWER (ITV, Monday, 9pm)

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