Channel 4’s The Accident is shocking, unpredictable, nuanced drama

Writer Jack Thorn adds intensifying extra layers to his plot that other, inferior writers might consider unnecessary.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Sarah Lancashire, the star of Jack Thorne’s new series, The Accident (24 October, 9pm), performs numb better than any actor I know – and numb (this may not be the technical term as recognised by Rada, but you know what I mean) really is very hard to do. How to express a state of total emptiness? In her case, some of the thanks must go to her face, which is soft and yielding; when something gives way inside whatever character she is playing, her cheekbones and jaw don’t fight it. But it has to do with her immense talent, too. The eyes (how?) seem to grow dull; the lips slacken. At these moments, you understand that her character’s internal organs have been sheathed temporarily in ice. You know this because, as you look on, your own guts suddenly feel several degrees colder, too.

In The Accident, Lancashire plays Polly Bevan, a Welsh hairdresser. Bevan lives in a small town, Glyngolau, with her teenage daughter, Leona (Jade Croot), and her husband, Iwan (Mark Lewis Jones), the leader of the local council. For a long time, Glyngolau has been depressed. But when the series opens, there is hope: an (ironically somewhat hazy) building project called the Light is to bring 1,000 jobs to the area. Addressing the crowd shortly before the commencement of Glyngolau’s St David’s Day fun run, Iwan, dressed as a banana, is all smiles. If the faceless money men and women who run the company behind the Light live and work elsewhere – in a place where the wood is all bleached, and the laptops are all as slim as credit cards – he is their representative on Earth. He helped to bag this enterprise. At home, he keeps an architectural model of the Light encased in a PVC box as if it were a display, and his tiny terraced house a museum.

The sudden obliteration of this rising moment of optimism could easily have been too much: Glyngolau’s unfit inhabitants are still mid fun run when a loud bang stops them in their tracks. Moments later, they’re outside the gates of the Light and, moments after this, they watch as the entire structure collapses. Somehow, though, both the acting and the writing militate against any implausibility. Everything happens at speed and yet in slow motion, too. By now, several members of the crowd – Polly included – believe their children to be inside the building: a rebellion, it seems, born of the fact that there is nowhere else much to make mischief in Glyngolau (and, in Leona’s case, of her fractious relationship with her father). Who could survive this catastrophe? Even before the body bags arrive, they know the answer: almost no one.

This is the third of a trilogy of series by Thorne. The first, National Treasure, was about a comedian accused of historic sex crimes. The second, Kiri (also starring Lancashire), was about the disappearance of a black child adopted by white parents. The Accident, it seems, will examine the issues of corporate responsibility, and justice. Put like this, of course, it sounds terribly worthy – and so far, I do think it wants for the beautiful ambiguity of National Treasure, if not of Kiri. Nevertheless, it is highly compelling, and not just because the ramifications of the explosion won’t be pretty: neighbour will fall out with neighbour; the lucky among them will feel guilty, and the unlucky will struggle to direct their rage only at the truly culpable.

All this is, in fact, entirely predictable. What is far less so, and therefore much more thrilling, are the intensifying extra layers Thorne adds to his plot: quotidian thunderbolts that other, inferior writers might consider unnecessary or distracting. I was upset, in the first episode, by the scenes in which the children died. But I was only truly shocked – almost to the point of sickness – when Iwan punched Polly hard in the stomach in the moments after she called him a coward (he had been too afraid to come to the hospital with her). “Not the face,” she said, as he launched this attack: words that told us he’d done this before. And yet, already we sense that theirs is not just an abusive relationship but also a co-dependent one. I take it back. Perhaps Thorne is going to give us beautiful ambiguity, after all. 

The Accident
Channel 4

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 appears in the 23 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state