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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How a dramatized account of Mark Duggan's death found a prime-time audience

I usually have an aversion to actors pretending to be police officers in this kind of scenario, but Lawful Killing: Mark Duggan was done with surprising care and nuance.

The BBC grows ever more lily-livered in the matter of current affairs. It would, you feel, rather devote an hour to yet another historian in a silly costume than to a piece of investigative journalism – the problem being that while the latter often has serious consequences, the wives of Henry VIII, being dead, cannot be libelled, and thus shows about them are consequence-free.

But what’s this? When I saw it, I had to rub my eyes. Lawful Killing: Mark Duggan, a 90-minute film at 8.30pm on BBC1 (5 December) about the shooting of the 29-year-old Londoner by the police in 2011? Who commissioned this extravaganza of inquiry, and by what strange magic did they secure for it such a whopping great slot in the pre-Christmas schedule? I would love to know. If you have the answers, do please drop me a postcard.

What made it even more amazing was that this documentary contained no hint of a scoop. It was revelatory, but its disclosures were achieved cumulatively, through the careful pulling together of every possible version of the events of that August day: wildly conflicting stories that its director, Jaimie D’Cruz, told through a combination of interviews and reconstructions.

I usually have an aversion to actors pretending to be police officers in this kind of scenario; they often come over like The Sweeney gone wrong. But the dramatisations in Lawful Killing had a terrible veracity, being based almost entirely on transcripts of the real thing (inquest accounts, witnesses’ interviews, and so on). Every voice seemed to reveal something, however unwittingly. In these accounts, the attentive viewer heard uncertainty and exaggeration, ambivalence and self-aggrandisement, misunderstanding and back-covering – all those human things that make the so-called truth so elusive and so damnably difficult to pin to the page.

A lot of the supposed intelligence that caused the police to follow Duggan that day remains secret, and I can’t see this changing any time soon. For this reason, I am not qualified, even after seeing the film, to say whether or not he was holding a gun as he emerged from a minicab on that warm afternoon. (The inquest jury decided that Duggan threw a weapon on to a nearby patch of grass before he was – lawfully – shot by an armed officer, while the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which had access to the secret intelligence, decided he was killed while holding one.) However, other things do seem to me to be crystal clear, and chief among them is the strange, cowardly and stupidly inept behaviour of the police immediately after his death.

In those hours, rumours swirled. At Duggan’s mother’s house, the family gathered, expecting a knock on the door at any time. How, they wondered, can a person be dead when the police have not yet informed their closest relatives? But no one came. The next day, the extended clan went to Tottenham Police Station where, again, they waited, for several hours. “Someone will be with you shortly,” they were told. Still, no one came. It was, incidentally, as they finally made their way back home that Duggan’s sister Kay Harrison saw a burning car. It was the first sign of the nationwide riots that – speaking of consequences – ultimately resulted in the deaths of five people.

Meanwhile on Channel 4 is a show for people for whom the Netflix Gilmore Girls reboot isn’t sugary enough (I can’t imagine who they are, these addicts with rotting black stumps for teeth). I was secretly hopeful that This Is Us (Tuesdays, 9pm), which is made by NBC, would be a bit like Thirtysomething, the touchy-feely series about a bunch of baby-boomer friends that I watched obsessively as a sixth former.

But, no. This is the kind of show in which a guy finds his long-lost parent, only to discover that the noble, adorable daddy is – boo hoo – dying of cancer. Its principal characters, three siblings, don’t talk to each other, or to anyone else. Rather, they make speeches, most of which come in two basic formats: mushy and super-mushy. This is schmaltz on toast with a mighty vat of syrup on the side.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump