For our readers outside the UK, I may have to let you know that something quite extraordinary has happened in the UK this week. A TV drama – a TV DRAMA – made, no less, by an, albeit commercial, but nevertheless PUBLIC SERVICE broadcaster, has thoroughly and utterly rattled the political establishment INTO ACTION. I am sorry for all the caps. But I feel it needs to be emphasised.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the UK has been rather good at ignoring a lot of harm being done to its (less powerful) people by the current government for the last 13 years. There was the bedroom tax, not to mention the whole shifting of the burden of the fallout of financial speculation onto the wider population through austerity, VIP contracts for mates during the pandemic that led to unusable PPE that were part of the reason why nearly 900 health and social care professionals died between March and December 2020 in England and Wales alone; and so on and so on. So I hope I may be forgiven my exclamations.
The drama in question was the rather well-written and acted Mr. Bates vs the Post Office (ITV, ITV Studios, 2024). It tells the story of the Horizon Post Office scandal: the Post Office adopted a faulty computer system by Fujitsu called Horizon which created faulty end-of-day reports for the individual sub post-masters who were subsequently charged with fraud and theft. Mr. Bates (Toby Jones) is the real-life post submaster Alan Bates who wasn’t charged but was fired as a result of these reports, while he protested his innocence. He subsequently led a campaign, first of all uniting the post masters, and then taking the Post Office to court. In addition, his campaign eventually led to a parliamentary inquiry which is still running as I write (alongside the similarly infuriating Covid Inquiry) and which has produced an interim report which was published in July last year.
Many commentators have criticised the fact that it required a television drama to cause the outrage that this national scandal should have caused years ago, and some blame a lack of more serious reporting about the scandal. But many papers and broadcasters have reported the scandal for many years: Computer Weekly has published articles on the topic since 2008, Private Eye joined them in 2011. The BBC has reported on the topic and have also experienced intimidation by the Post Office as a result. That it is a TV drama that has caused the uproar about the scandal will probably not come as a surprise to many of us, TV scholars, researchers and fans. Glen Creeber argued as early as 2001 that the television serial in particular was able to convey a form of Alltagsgeschichte that ‘takes our personal lives seriously’ and thus chimes strongly with those of us viewing the drama, enabling for (political) history to affect us viewers more strongly.
In this particular case, this form of Alltagsgeschichte – a history of the everyday – was particularly powerful because the people affected by the scandal were ordinary: everyday people, people like you and I whose livelihoods and lives were turned upside down. By contrasting the ordinariness of their lives, presented in relatively soap operatic forms (just as as Creeber outlined), with the persistently corrupt business dealings of the Post Office Management, bringing the drama aesthetically closer to a thriller, Mr. Bates vs the Post Office managed to unapologetically side with the ordinary people and remind us ordinary viewers that it could be and probably is us next.
It is wonderful to see a television drama managing to cause such a loud and impactful debate as this. And it seems a retribution for all the talk about the loss of relevance of television and public service television in particular. But before we get the champagne bottles out to celebrate the evidential ‘we told you so’, let’s remember that this is the absolute exception to the rule. There was more to why this hit a political nerve in the British public, and it required the latter to voice their outrage on social media, and for the drama to use its own marketing strategy as a political campaign for this to cause the consternation in the political class. Other – similarly impactful – dramas have been less successful.
To some extent, we could argue that the Windrush-scandal drama Sitting in Limbo (BBC, 2020) caused a bit of a stir. It presented us with – again – the real-life story of Anthony Bryan (Patrick Robinson) who, despite living in the UK for 50 years, was suddenly classed as an illegal immigrant under the ‘Hostile Environment’ policy of the Home Office, then fronted by Theresa May. Bryan had arrived with his mother as a child as part of the Empire Windrush generation where Caribbean migrants had been invited to join the UK in its post-war regeneration. Sitting in Limbo was celebrated (and won a BAFTA in 2021 as best single drama) at the time and hit the national mood which was affected by the Black Lives Matter movement. However, the level of outrage and demand for compensation and criminal investigation was not achieved to the same level. Perhaps at this time – during the early days of the Covid pandemic – the population had not become so dispirited by the continuous evidence of incompetence and corruption (see above) that it would call for those. Similarly, Hillsborough (Granada, 1996) which also won a BAFTA for best single drama was celebrated at the time because it redressed some of the other media representations, and in particular those of The Sun, in its unashamed siding with the survivors of the football stadium disaster.
I now have to become a bit more personal: I saw the drama as a young international student on a TV drama course at Stirling University. I struggled watching it then and I have not been able to watch it again because the first time was so – and there is no other word for it – traumatising. It’s left an indelible imprint in my mind that the survivors were not at fault. And yet, it took till Andy Burnham, then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, trying to tell a crowd that there wouldn’t be another inquiry and a crowd defiantly singing ‘Justice for the 96’ for them to get the latter. It was no TV drama that caused the Inquiry that brought that justice. It was a campaign, a regular, defiant and uncompromising campaign by the survivors that brought it.
And so it is with Mr Bates vs the Post Office: it’s not the drama that has made all the difference. It’s the dogged, defiant and uncompromising campaign by Bates and his fellow sub post-masters that has led to the inquiry we are now witnessing. What the drama has done is remind us in a visceral way why this Inquiry is running and why we need to care. That we needed to be reminded that we need to care – that is the scandal we are not yet talking about.
Elke Weissmann is Reader in Film and Television at Edge Hill University. She’s in the process of untangling her thoughts based on two research projects the British Academy were kind enough to fund. One looked at Transnational Television Drama in the Multiplatform Age, the other at Local Television, Local Communities and Climate Action.