Goodbye to Shameless. What does it leave behind?

As the long-running television comedy comes to a close, David Herman wonders what its legacy will be. Will David Threlfall best be remembered as the feckless, drunken Frank Gallagher?

Tonight, Shameless comes to an end, almost a decade and 139 episodes after it erupted onto our screens. Once it epitomised the sort of foul-mouthed edgy drama Channel 4 aspired to. Eleven series on, it has staggered to the finishing line. Ratings for the first two series averaged over two and a half million. By the end they were barely a million. Most of its stars and audience had long since left. 

Shameless will best be remembered for launching the careers of a group of talented young actors: Anne-Marie Duff (Fiona), James McAvoy (Steve) and Maxine Peake (Veronica). They all made their names in the first couple of series and then abandoned ship to go on to greater things. Duff has played Elizabeth I in The Virgin Queen, John Lennon’s mother in Nowhere Boy and Saint Joan on stage. Peake played Myra Hindley in See No Evil, the female lead in the gripping courtroom dramas Criminal Justice and Silk, and most recently played alongside John Simm in BBC1’s The Village. Most spectacular of all, James McAvoy has just played Macbeth in the West End and has had a hugely successful film career from The Last King of Scotland and Atonement to X-Men.

They all left but there, at the end, centre stage, still standing, was Frank Gallagher, played by David Threlfall. Threlfall is a tremendous actor, outstanding as Smike in the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby, a whole number of leading roles for Manchester Royal Exchange in the 1980s and ‘90s, and, perhaps best of all, as Dr Kritzinger in the Wannsee TV drama, Conspiracy and in Skellig at the Young Vic. Now he will best be remembered as the feckless, drunken Frank Gallagher.  

There are many criteria for deciding what makes a TV series memorable. But one, surely, is the number of household names it launched. This may seem straightforward enough. After Granada’s The Jewel in the Crown, Charles Dance, Geraldine James, Art Malik and Tim Pigott-Smith went on to have successful careers on stage and screen for thirty years. Younger viewers must wonder why there are endless ITV dramas, TV ads and documentaries about everything from shire horses to Cornwall with Caroline Quentin, Martin Clunes and Neil Morrissey. The answer is because of a hugely successful BBC sitcom, Men Behaving Badly, in the Nineties. Our Friends in the North is the best example of all. It launched the careers of all four of the main actors – Christopher Eccleston, Gina McKee, Mark Strong and Daniel Craig – who went on to play big parts from Doctor Who to James Bond.    

However, sometimes the story is more complicated. Anyone watching Brideshead Revisited might have expected Anthony Andrews as the captivating Sebastian Flyte to have a stellar career. And who can forget Nickolas Grace as Anthony Blanche, an astonishing cameo? Instead, it was Jeremy Irons as the plodding Charles Ryder, the master of the reaction-shot, who went on to become a film star. The same thing happened with Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, a hugely popular 1980s ITV drama. Thirty years on, Jimmy Nail is still best remembered as “Oz”, the loudmouth Geordie. But it was Kevin Whately (shy, put-upon Neville) and Timothy Spall (the boring bumbling Barry) who are still playing big parts on our screens, Whately in Inspector Morse and Lewis, Spall in numerous Mike Leigh films and perhaps best of all in Poliakoff’s masterpieces, Shooting the Past and Perfect Strangers. Who would have guessed?

Perhaps the most interesting case of all, though, is Shameless. Long-running series pose the question: do you jump and move on to bigger things like Duff, Peake and McAvoy (but strangely not the very talented Dean Lennox Kelly who played Kev)? Or do you stay on and on like Threlfall, take the money, build up the repeat fees, while everything around you goes downhill? It is a lucrative circle of hell in TV Babylon. As Anne-Marie Duff and Dean Lennox Kelly returned for the last episode, I wonder what was said off-screen. 

David Threlfall in Shameless.
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Why the wizarding world is a dystopian, totalitarian nightmare

All the reasons why you don’t want to go to Hogwarts.

Like most nineties kids, I was quietly devastated not to receive an owl on my eleventh birthday. Not getting an acceptance letter from Hogwarts was one of the great tragedies of my young life. Two decades later, no matter how many BuzzFeed quizzes I take revealing I’m a Gryffindor in the streets and a Slytherin in the sheets, I can’t honestly say that I’ve 100% come to terms with being a muggle.

However, I’ve started to console myself that this is largely A Good Thing, because, while I’ll never get to marry Oliver Wood or own a Hippogriff, the wizarding world is actually a complete dystopian nightmare. It’s a totalitarian surveillance state straight out of Orwell, with Pygmy Puffs.

No one cares about the freedom of the press

The wizarding world’s only newspaper, The Daily Prophet, basically functions as the Ministry of Magic’s Pravda. It turns a blind eye to rogue reporters transforming themselves into beetles, literally to bug the conversations of unsuspecting children. And its staff writers openly brag about flouting even basic standards of journalistic ethics.

“On one subject, however, Bathilda is well worth the effort I put into procuring Veritaserum,” writes Rita Skeeter, in her biography of Albus Dumbledore. Can we just contemplate for a moment that it is apparently acceptable to drug an elderly woman suffering from dementia with truth serum, in order to interview her without her consent? It’s like the News of the World cheerfully admitted to phone hacking, and no one minded. Isn’t anyone going to call for a wingardium Levioson inquiry?

The justice system is frankly appalling

Boy wizards may be allowed to bring an owl, OR a cat, OR a toad with them to Hogwarts, but they must leave their right to a fair trial firmly at home. When Harry produces a Patronus in order to defend himself from Dementors, he is threatened with expulsion by the Ministry of Magic. No one reads him his Miranda rights, and he is only granted a stay of execution because Dumbledore waves his wand at the Improper Use of Magic Office and shouts “Habeas Corpus!”

Harry is then summoned to a Ministry hearing worthy of the French Revolutionary Tribunal. What kind of society allows a Kafkaesque show trial where the defendant isn’t informed of his right to legal representation, the prosecution and the judge are the same person, and the jurors are all employed by the judge? They don’t even let Harry know when and where the trial is being held, in the hope of convicting him in absentia – and he is only exonerated because of the surprise appearance of his mysteriously omniscient headmaster. This is not ok, people.

The justice system is frankly appalling, part II

In what world is it acceptable to staff a prison with sadistic guards who torture inmates to the point of insanity, and suck the souls out of anyone who tries to escape? The Wizarding World, apparently. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect more from a society that segregates children into ‘brave’, ‘clever’, ‘evil’, and ‘miscellaneous’ personality types, but is no one interested in rehabilitating criminals? Who in their right mind deliberately brutalises inmates into a state of depressive psychosis before releasing them back into society?

And for the few juvenile defendants who manage to avoid the absolute hellhole that is wizarding prison, their punishment is to be deprived of the right to an education. When poor thirteen-year-old Hagrid is wrongly accused of opening the Chamber of Secrets, he is expelled from Hogwarts and has his wand snapped in half. Statutes of limitations, and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, aren’t things that appear to exercise wizarding bureaucracy much: when the Chamber of Secrets is opened again, fifty years later, Hagrid is imprisoned in Azkaban without trial due to a vague sense that he might be responsible.

Hagrid is then conclusively proved to be innocent on both counts, after Harry reveals that Voldemort is to blame – yet he is released without apology, a new wand, or the offer of night school to compensate for the four years of magical education that he was wrongfully denied. What is this, the DPRK?

Everyone is apparently fine with slavery

No one apart from Hermione seems to mind that an entire humanlike species has been enslaved into domestic service. “They. Like. It. They like being enslaved,” shouts an exasperated Ron of the Hogwarts house elves, after Hermione has the naivety to question whether institutionalised slavery is a bit problematic. Yes, Ron, and I’m sure they also enjoy being ordered to physically punish themselves.

Forced labour is clearly more endemic to the wizarding economy than we might have imagined. Professor Slughorn quaffs elf-made wine, hinting at the extent of indentured servitude in wizarding vineyards. We know that food can’t be magicked out of thin air; because it is of course one of the five exceptions to Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration. (Ten points to Gryffindor for me.) But we hear of no witch or wizard farmers. Are we to assume that the entire wizarding agricultural sector is based on serfdom?

Hogwarts is actually terrible

Ron spends an entire year of his magical education without a single teacher realising his wand is broken. Professor Binns couldn’t care less about student engagement. Snape bullies three quarters of his students, and no one intervenes. No one has a problem with the fact that the caretaker openly relishes the prospect of physically abusing children. In short: Hogwarts is terrible.

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