The amazing Mr Bates V The Post Office starring Toby Jones, The Detectorists, airing on ITVX written by the acclaimed writer Gwyneth Hughes, (Vanity Fair, Tom Jones, Honour) is the real-life drama of the age about the Post Office Horizon Scandal that you will watch again and again. This is television talking truth to power. Television drama is back with a bang and boy do we need it to do the job that should be done by brilliant investigative journalism.
The most watched drama since Line of Duty and the launch of Downton Abbey, Mr Bates V The Post Office demonstrates the visceral and tragically human power of film, television drama and the documentary medium to tackle a true story that is so terrible and extraordinary, that it is like detonating a bomb into we the public and the conscience of the nation.
I am going to predict that the drama that has captured the nation and forced a Prime Minister to act is heading for a garland of television awards. Directed by James Strong, (Broadchurch) this is a brilliantly realised true story that dazzles from the opening scene as the camera sweeps across the famous bay at Llandudno and turns immediately into a crime scene, where the villains are the innocent victims of corporate greed gone mad and there are many twists and turns from a sleepy village hall in the heart of England to whistleblowers, the Royal Courts of Justice, Parliament and the James Bond style covert operation bunker at Fujitsu in Bracknell.
Move over Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot.
The drama and very fine ensemble acting which includes Monica Dolan, Ian Hart, Shaun Dooley, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Lia Williams, Amit Shah, Alex Jennings and Katherine Kelly, are cloaked in an eerily fierce musical score by composer Manners McDade Vince Pope. This is the epoch-defining, real-life story of The Post Office Horizon IT Scandal and what is being called the greatest miscarriage of justice of all time in the UK.
Above all, this is a story of the fall from grace of the Three Hundred-Year-Old British Post Office and extraordinary levels of corporate malevolence and medieval punishment.
At the beginning of the new century, The Post Office began introducing Horizon, its new IT software program developed and managed by the tech giant, Fujitsu. There were bugs and problems from the word go, but instead of admitting this, The Post Office and Fujitsu created an extraordinary climate of secrecy, fear, crime and punishment which they visited on the blameless Postmasters and Postmistresses. Every subpostmaster who rang the Horizon helpline with frightening shortfalls was told ' You are the only one.' That of course was the corporate lie of the century.
"Who are they? Are they stupid or evil?" asks Monica Dolan, who plays the character of Postmistress Jo Hamilton, who is accused of stealing £36,000 from the Post Office she ran in an idyllic village in Hampshire where she is the lynchpin of the community, loved for her unwavering kindness, humanity and cake baking virtuosity. The drama is brilliant at juxtaposing the lives of ordinary people who are trashed by top management at The Post Office and Fujitsu who act like the mafia. Pam remortgaged the family home to pay the phantom debt after she called the Horizon helpline and the profit and loss numbers changed before her eyes.
The real-life drama is about two things. The search for the truth and justice for the victims. Thus it is always focused on the victims, their families and everyday lives and to tell the world what is happening. This makes for brilliantly compelling and very human television. Our focus is always on the subpostmasters and Alan 'The Godfather's continued campaign to "get the bastards."
We care what happens to these people who lost their homes, and their good names and in the most tragic cases, took their own lives. The Post Office Horizon Scandal has far-reaching consequences in terms of the role technology plays in our lives.
How can we trust it in the face of such levels of wrongdoing?
You would have to have been asleep, not to be grimly aware of the men and women who ran our local Post Offices and who went from being pillars of their communities who looked after the pension books of elderly customers to overnight criminals, when the new software system, Horizon was introduced from 1999. Its shortcomings, blips and bugs were ruthlessly denied by Fujitsu and Post Office Management for two decades. Remote access was the culprit. The Post Office script insisted it was not possible. In reality, teams of covert operations geeks at Fujitsu could and did log in to the accounts of any postmaster or postmistress with the ability to change accounts without their permission or knowledge. They were tampering with the accounts of Post Offices across Britain, wrecking lives with a click here and a click there.
As a result, 93 Post Masters and Mistresses were prosecuted, some went to jail, and some committed suicide in a tidal wave of unimaginable horror, and suffering, with businesses and lives trashed and laid waste, where once each one of these blameless souls was considered to be at the heart of their communities.
The real-life story is dynamite material for Gwyneth Hughes and she dives straight in and sets the scene when she shows Alan Bates (Toby Jones) refusing to sign the accounts which would make him responsible for the sudden financial shortfalls at his Post Office in Llanddudno which he rightly says are due to errors generated by Horizon. I can't think of an actor better placed to play the real Mr Bates than actor Toby Jones who is marvellous at playing awkward rebels, nerds, English eccentrics and the everyman hero.
Alan and Suzanne are forced out of their Post Office and lose all their life savings. The couple retreats to the Welsh hills - with awe-inspiring scenes of Snowdon which reinforce the idea that they are in exile. This is the setting for Alan to begin the epic task of taking on The Post Office, by setting up his Justice for Postmasters Campaign which began with a website and then setting up a meeting in the heart of the English countryside, in the random location of Fenny Compton, because it is slap bang in the middle of England.
As the story unfolds and more wronged postmasters come forward, Toby delivers a portrait of unwavering calm and bloody-mindedness that is a credit to the real Mr Bates. Bates proved to be an indomitable champion of his ruined Post Office colleagues. A quiet, calm, meticulous man who never gave up and kept stoically campaigning and exposing a culture of nefarious corporate wrongdoing, which has taken two decades to finally explode into the public arena.
Mr Bates V The Post Office works because it shows the terrible human cost of The Post Office's medieval levels of punishment and cruelty. We meet Jo, Monica Dolan, the postmistress who ran a thriving Post Office, and bakery and is adored by her community. When she starts to experience frightening shortfalls, she is demonized by her employer and coerced into pleading guilty to a crime that did not exist.
There are many heartbreaking moments, based on dramatised versions of real-life events in the lives of the sub-postmasters. Two strands that stand out are the suicide of Post-Master Martin Griffiths, Colin Tierney, and the character of Sam Kaur, played by actress Krupa Pattani. Sam is coerced into making a guilty plea when she doesn't have a barrister present. Sam becomes so traumatised that she stabs herself with a kitchen knife and she is given electric shock treatment as a last resort in a hospital for severe depression.
How can we live in a world where the entertainment medium is forced to do the job that we expect the courts and the concept of British justice to do? That is where we are. The continuing tragedy is that it has taken ITV's drama of the Post Office Scandal involving the prosecution of over 900 postmasters and mistresses to finally force the current government to act and scramble justice now, and only because the world is watching.
I would like to leave you with a couple of questions. What happened to the money the Post Office clawed back from its victims that was never stolen in the first place and who in hell is running The Post Office, really, other than the British Government? Are we living in an age of corporate gangsters?
Copyright Alison Jane Reid/The Luminaries Magazine January 2024, All Rights Reserved. No Copying Whatsover in Any Format.
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