With credits such as “Cracker
” and “The Street
,” Jimmy McGovern is the doyen of realistic contemporary drama. I watched the opening episode of his new four-parter, “Accused
” on BBC 1 expecting another master-class in taut and bleak grittiness. This episode was co-written with Shaun Duggan.
Here, the central character, or rather characters, is/are played by alpha male Sean Bean, who in real life is openly a confirmed fan of Sheffield United. By day, he is a teacher of English called Simon, a very grey man prone to walk around his classroom declaiming “The Lady of Shallot
” to stereotypical bored students who couldn’t even bother to pretend to listen to any of the florid words flying literally over their boorish little heads.
By night, Martin painstakingly summoned up his alter ego, Tracie
by means of a ritual involving lengthy baths, shaving, and make-up with much gazing purposefully into his mirror. This is followed by a virtually sacramental vestment in stockings, jewellery, various rather tarty wrap-around frocks and a blonde wig. Tottering on size twelve stilettos, she would then stub out her last Silk Cut and board a cab for the city centre.
Tracie seemed to relish the journey into town with immediately attendant shouting matches with taxi drivers and potentially dangerous altercations with drunks in the street. Whilst the viewer feels her nightmarish vulnerability dressed to the nines and manifestly male in the pub, Tracie is insouciant. The barman exclaims “Jesus!”
and Bean replies dryly, “It’s Tracie actually.”
Tracie is feisty and combative. She stands up to the drunken homophobe on the stag night and eventually, when confronted with a real danger of attack, accepts the offer of sanctuary in a taxi home. Her white knight that evening was Tony a TV satellite installer and “happily married man
Tony and Tracie soon begin an affair. His visits to Tracie often take place when Tony is drunk. Initially hesitant and somewhat bashful, bearing a bottle of wine, Tony increasingly turned up worse for drink, latterly falling over, eating a fish supper and swigging from a can of lager. We do not know whether this was the result of nervous tension, complacency or his real personality emerging.
Tony lied that his wife was dead, but is ultimately found out when Tracie – unnoticed as ever in Simon mode – passes him in the street and follows him to the salon where his wife – who is very much alive – works. When Tracie daringly visited her in the salon for a makeover, she explained to her husband that “He wanted to look like Cheryl Cole. I think I managed Myra Hindley”
The story reaches one climax when the wife also discovers the existence of Tracie and is then murdered by Tony with the glib explanation that “I killed her because I couldn’t hurt her.”
The climactic trial is therefore of Tony as murderer and Tracie as accomplice after innocently running away to the Lakes with his lover whose wife’s corpse lay wrapped up in the boot. Her discovery of the murder lead to a dramatic chase with Tracie tottering about Cumbria in expensive Italian courts and losing her wig before the police turned up.
Tracie faces trial because Tony is fearful for his own reception in jail if his relationship with Tracie is known and is quite prepared to see his innocent lover punished to improve his own position. The trial climaxed with a tour de force appeal direct to the jury by Tracie – which had echoes of Quentin Crisp in the dock - in which she patiently explained the realities and practicalities of being a transvestite and convinces them of the sheer improbability of anyone who had actually conspired to murder dressing up so conspicuously and hoping to evade recognition and capture.
This story is in many ways magnificent. As ever with McGovern, current attitudes and prejudices are authentically reflected. It is tautly constructed and features haunting performances by Sean Bean and Stephen Graham, which are totally convincing. It is grippingly told, socially realistic and sustains the interest and sympathy of the audience throughout.
My only concern is that the dénouement felt somewhat rushed and the extreme personalities and lifestyles of the central characters were not sufficiently explained. The physical transformation of Tracie the “breathy trannie” from boring grey Simon was repeatedly depicted but in the hour available we did not have a truly convincing explanation for this spectacular evolution.
Similarly, we never really learned how Tony the married man became a seasoned adulterer. Was he deeply troubled or just a randy TV engineer on the make? Was his oft repeated mantra of “you only live once
” desperation or daring?
Perhaps because of the depth and quality of acting performances, our sympathies were stimulated so strongly that we were prompted to ask these questions regarding character and motivation and found that the script did not contain all the answers. This might be regarded as a “high class problem
”; most dramas certainly do not engage and involve viewers to this extent. These concerns do not imply that this first programme was not first rate. 98% rather than 100% is still Grade A* and no kind of failure.
The second film in the series starred Anne Marie Duff as Mo, the hairdresser mother of a gang member on a sink estate who was ordered by his adult gang leader, Cormack (Joe Dempsie) to shoot the teenage son of his mother’s best friend, Sue (Olivia Colman). Mo had upset the local thugs by stubbornly refusing to close her salon as a mark of respect following the death of another gang member.
The life depicted on the estate was a living hell of grubby houses, windswept precincts with threatening yobs anonymous in hoodies circling on BMX bikes like vultures. Bored youths play violent computer games and no-one makes the connection with the prevailing gun crime and moral vacuum.
This is a world where no husbands or fathers take any responsibility whatsoever or indeed are in evidence at all. The women manage the household and their lives alone; they have to be strong and try to organise, but are sadly overwhelmed by the odds. The police file chillingly labels the murder “SOS
” meaning “Scum on Scum
.” The lowlifes kill each other and the Law isn’t really that fussed.
This dark world was a peculiar mixture of Dickensian or Hogarthian squalor meets Orwell with a touch of “High Plains Drifter
.” It is one destroyed by poverty, contempt for education and criminal drug and gang culture, all engineered by sinister men manipulating the lives of those who are little more than children for their own profit and who always escape unscathed.
As ever, the writing of Jimmy McGovern, this time with Carol Cullington, is apt and realistic and the central performances are impeccable. The key scenes of grief and confrontation are superb. Rarely have I seen so much convincing anguish, guilt, anger and despair compressed into an hour’s drama. Awards must surely follow such moving performances.
Despite the brilliant writing and acting, my personal problem was that the piece left me just feeling desolate. It flagged up the myriad of problems precisely. It was a lucid essay on the ills of drug crime, gang culture, exploitation, guilt, fear, loyalty and anger, but came no-where near postulating any solution.
A week or so after the end of the feel-good London Olympics, we were given a vision of the downtrodden in which everyone suffered and lost, apart form the evil gang leader who profited from the misery of others.
There was no glimmer of hope for salvation. Our post-Olympic bubble of optimism was well and truly pricked with a picture of hell and a world about to end with both a bang and a whimper. I guess that to remedy problems you first have to identify them clearly, but would suggest that some small hint of the possibility of a solution might have helped the viewer cope better with the suffering so skilfully depicted.
The third film in the series was written by Jimmy McGovern with Danny Brocklehurst. It starred stand-up comedian John Bishop as Peter Cartwright, the husband of a terminally-ill wife and father of sons, Stephen (Robert Sheehan) and Dom. The father falls for his wife’s palliative care nurse, Charlotte, played by Sheridan Smith and the story focuses on the struggle of seventeen year old Stephen to cope with his dad's new relationship, so soon after his mother’s death.
It is soon apparent that Stephen has mental health issues, although we are not given much idea of his history. He is in a dead-end job in a bowling alley and had not fulfilled his educational potential.
We see his faltering attempts at forming a relationship with girlfriend Olivia, in which he is presented in a somewhat threatening light. At home, Stephen does not co-operate in carrying out household chores when Charlotte moves in and becomes increasingly morose and uncommunicative. His increasing paranoia is graphically presented when he hallucinates that Alistair Campbell on television specifically reinforces his suspicions about Charlotte.
Stephen accuses Charlotte of killing the family dog. He complains of stomach pains, alleges that he is being poisoned by Charlotte and wrecks the house trying to prove this. Ultimately his father and Charlotte marry and, after yet another row, Stephen is asked to leave.
When his brother Dom falls ill, Stephen believes he too has been poisoned by his stepmother and, after another confrontation, wounds her with a knife. It is for this attack that Stephen is in the dock. After refusing defence counsel and medical review, he is sentenced to six years.
The story is melodramatic and strangely dispassionate. It treads familiar delicate ground in the death of one parent and remarriage of the survivor, trampled over repeatedly in drama from “Hamlet” onwards. Surprisingly for Jimmy McGovern, the characters created evoke little sympathy – apart perhaps for younger brother Dom, played with great restraint by Josh Bolt.
Some reviewers have described John Bishop’s performance as “wooden.” I’m not sure that this is fair, since I can’t think how else he could have performed the part as written. He portrayed a straightforward decent working man trying to make the best of his life. Lengthy terminal illness often induces in the surviving partner a numb fatalism that can appear as torpor which, in reality is simply the frozen carapace or veneer produced by cumulative empathy for an other's pain and the effect of loss.
Stephen is mentally ill, possibly paranoid. He leers at Charlotte’s cleavage and legs and is prone to outbursts. His eventual attack on Charlotte comes as no surprise.
Charlotte herself varies from the capable and compassionate nurse to the vamp with one button too many undone and a “come hither” expression. She has a tendency to make unwise remarks, likely to be misinterpreted by an unstable adolescent with rampant hormones. At the end we are left with the news that both Stephen’s father and brother are unwell, which more than hints that Stephen might have been correct in his suspicions regarding his poisonous stepmother. Perhaps Charlotte rather than Stephen should have been in prison by the end of the story.
As ever with Jimmy McGovern, this story is absorbing and reflects the realities of life. It is always intriguing to explore whether the madman is actually the only one who sees things as they are: the underdog who, if the world were just, would be proven right all along.
Unfortunately, I found this story less than convincing because it failed to develop the characters sufficiently to engage one’s sympathy or concern. In particular, the lack of clarity whether Charlotte was a wicked stepmother ultimately proved irritating rather than interesting.