Accused

Rachel Cooke gets the feeling Jimmy McGovern
is his own biggest fan.

I have a love-hate relationship with Jimmy McGovern. At his best, he is a very good television writer, though perhaps not quite as fine a one as he believes (no one loves Jimmy McGovern like Jimmy McGovern). In the first part of his new series, Accused (15 November, 9pm), a man came home late, having been with his mistress. In his car outside his house, the man opened a can of beer, drank a cursory couple of mouthfuls and then rubbed a handful of it over his scalp. Nifty. When he crawled into bed beside his wife, she could only complain he stank of ale. With this kind of detail, McGovern beats other dramatists hands down. You feel that much of his work comes from life - from knowing the kind of people he writes about - rather than the wellspring of his imagination, and it is duly burnished with a certain kind of truthfulness.

On the other hand, with age, he is growing melodramatic and moralistic. Accused is a series of six hour-long films about crime and punishment. In "Willy's Tale", Christopher Eccleston (shouty as ever) played a plumber, Willy, who found himself in a spot of bother. His mistress was nagging him to leave his wife; his daughter was getting married to a man whose parents were considerably richer than Willy; a builder for whom he worked had gone bankrupt, depriving him of £22,000. He put the mistress on hold, telling her he would leave his wife after his daughter's wedding. But pride meant that his money problems were trickier to escape. He would pay for the wedding bash - to be held in a mock-tudor barn - come what may. His wife, Carmel (Pooky Quesnel), looked on in anguish, her face growing thinner by the minute. Her mantra? "She'd be happy with the room above The Crown!" she kept saying.

There followed a strange interlude in which Willy called in at his local church. The priest appeared. Bearded and Geordie, he was not at all the kind of Catholic priest McGovern used to write about. Wise and kindly, he wasn't secretly having sex with other men or even with his housekeeper. You could practically see his halo. The priest offered Willy some advice. If he was in the market for doing a cash deal with God, he would have to give up his mistress. Five minutes later, in the back of a minicab, Willy found - presto! - an envelope stuffed with money. He took it to a casino, placed a bet and doubled it, then returned the original sum of £20,000 to the cab office. The mistress packed her suitcases and prepared herself for relationship nirvana.

Unfortunately, the money turned out to be forged, and the police rocked up just as Willy was delivering a particularly gruesome father-of-the-bride speech. Was McGovern hereby suggesting that if Willy had given up the mistress, the money might have been good? Surely the answer is yes: I can't think why he would have stuck in the priest otherwise. The thought occurs that McGovern, a cradle Catholic, is in the process of returning to the church, as cradle Catholics are often apt to do once liver spots ­begin appearing on their hands.

But still, it was peculiar seeing this played out on screen: preachy and unsubtle. Eccleston hadn't known the money was forged, so he was technically innocent of the crime for which he was eventually convicted. On the other hand, he didn't return the money to the cab company for 24 hours, by which time the car's driver had been beaten to death by the thugs who'd mislaid it. This, then, was the crime for which he should have been punished by some higher ­being, yet McGovern pushed the far greater sin into the background, emphasising instead Willy's infidelity (his wife, whose middle-aged flesh he disdained, discovered the existence of his mistress just as he was sentenced).

I was uncomfortable with this Old Testament approach, but it might not have mattered had Willy's character not also been so deeply unsympathetic. McGovern supposedly specialises in decent Everyman figures, but this one was a bully, a loudmouth and a misogynist, and I felt no pity when he was sent down. As any student of Shakespeare will know, this rather ruined the tragedy for me. I wanted him banged up on grounds of sexism alone, and given what I gather McGovern feels about namby-pamby middle-class political correctness, I'm guessing that was not his intention.