Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV & Radio
21 September 2016updated 03 Aug 2021 2:08pm

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.

By Rachel Cooke

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).

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy
THANK YOU

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.)

Content from our partners
Why competition is the key to customer satisfaction
High streets remain vitally important to local communities
The future of gas

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. 

This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times