The Bake Off? Channel 4 should be putting more money into things like National Treasure

The story of a disgraced light entertainer, written with a light touch by Jack Thorne, is the most challenging thing on British television these days.

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I had imagined that eventually a serious novelist would tackle the bewildering and important subject of historic sexual abuse in the world of light entertainment. But it seems – and this says quite a lot about our literary culture – that television has got there first with National Treasure (Tuesdays, 9pm), in which Robbie Coltrane stars as Paul Finchley, an ageing comedian who wakes up one morning and finds himself accused of rape. Its writer is Jack Thorne, whose work for TV includes (with Shane Meadows) the This Is England series, and whose Harry Potter show is currently playing to predictably full houses in the West End.

I can’t claim to be a fan of his – I walked out of another of his plays – but on the evidence of one episode, this is superbly done. Not only does it have a certain distasteful veracity, but even better, the script refuses to do all the work. No hand-holding, no neat answers; much is just left unsaid. It is, in other words, about as challenging as British television gets these days.

Finchley is ghastly but is he guilty? A man who first googles himself on his phone and then watches porn on it, while sitting on the lavatory in the middle of the night, would struggle to win anyone’s sympathy. However, with a flagrancy I find rather daring, Thorne seems to want us actively to loathe him right from the get-go. No sooner is he bailed than he is spending the night with a prostitute, leaving his devoted wife of 41 years, Marie (Julie Walters), to wonder if he hasn’t tried to kill himself.

Where does it come from, this sense of entitlement? The inference is that its source is the public, to a degree. Before the police arrived at his door, we saw him at an awards ceremony, handing out a lifetime achievement gong to his (equally grim) comedy partner, Karl (Tim McInnerny). Backstage and front, he was treated with unstinting obsequiousness, a fawning so familiar to him that he barely deigned to acknowledge it. Even down at the nick, a copper greeted him with the words: “I’m a big fan.”

It would have been easier and more obvious to make Finchley the littlest bit likeable. In the end, though, even the nastiest and most lecherous end-of-the-pier merchant isn’t necessarily a criminal. All the other details are right, too. Finchley lives in an “exclusive” neighbourhood, the luxuriant privacy of which the director Marc Munden pointed up with, among other things, a long camera shot of the street that showed both its extreme width, and only one car parked in it (all the others being secreted away on long drives and in triple garages).

The series is brilliantly cast. Walters can sometimes be over the top, too eagerly warm. Here, though, she is nicely tepid, long inured to Paul’s affairs, her anger stowed in a box at the back of a wardrobe somewhere in her huge house. Their twitchy, troubled daughter, Dee, is played by Andrea Riseborough with stunning conviction; I hardly recognised her. Therapy has given Dee a verbal incontinence that could prove dangerous to her father. Are the things she remembers true, or is she as suggestible as the readers of the tabloids whose journalists are massed outside? (The police, on what is known as a fishing trip, have leaked Finchley’s arrest to the papers, and already new and younger victims are coming forward.)

And then there is Coltrane, in what may turn out to be the role of his career. He is perfect. Coltrane has never been easy, on screen or off, and this baggage comes with him; instinctively, I am wary. Here, he walks with a stick; we hear his stertorous breath and see his grey bulk half naked. I hesitate to call this brave – I don’t believe well-paid actors are brave, really – but I do think it is a bit extraordinary. Is his physical state intended to reflect his moral condition? I can’t believe this wasn’t in someone’s mind – and if it was, I wonder how he feels about it.

Either way, Coltrane and his colleagues are poised to win all the awards. Which only makes me wish all the more fervently that Channel 4 had put the cash it so stupidly splashed on the busted flush that is The Great British Bake Off towards new drama instead. 

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 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times