“I just want to be able to take you on holiday, Suzanne.” Toby Jones sits on a wooden bench outside a small cottage in rural Wales. Wearing a woolly jumper, he holds a clutch of papers in one hand and fiddles with his glasses in the other. “A proper holiday, abroad. Not just… camping.” He squints at the landscape of Snowdonia before him, his great, rippling brow furrowed. “The Post Office took all our money,” his wife replies. “You can’t possibly go on holiday. You’re too busy campaigning, morning, noon and night.” As Alan Bates, the former sub-postmaster who exposed the Post Office scandal after years of activism, Jones is masterful: suspended between resignation and determination, full of quiet pain and resolve. It’s a performance that has had dramatic, unexpected cultural impact: his is the face that launched a million petition signatures.
Mr Bates vs The Post Office turns what the Criminal Cases Review Commission has called the “most widespread miscarriage of justice” it has ever seen into a deeply human drama, and in doing so has turned the nation’s attention to the scandal, making it a bigger story than ever before. Between 1999 and 2015 dozens of sub-postmasters were wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office – and in some cases convicted – of false accounting, fraud and theft, resulting in the loss of jobs, debt, bankruptcy, imprisonment and even multiple suicides. This chain reaction of ordinary suffering is unfathomable – both hard to believe, and hard to follow. The obfuscating technical details that allowed the Post Office to insist on such starkly unjust outcomes create an obstacle for the storyteller, who has to write a compelling narrative using an obscure lexicon: subpostmasters, shortfalls, “systemic issues with the computer system”, investigating accountants, group action, statutory inquiries.
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The series’ writer, Gwyneth Hughes, is a former newspaper reporter and documentary film-maker who travelled the country speaking to those affected by the scandal: conversations that “crashed into [the] massive complexities of the financial, technical, legal issues” of the case. But by concentrating on Bates, his campaign and just eight of the 555 sub-postmasters who took legal action against the Post Office, Hughes focuses on the accessible details of the story: the agony of seeing cash-register discrepancies double before your eyes, the isolation of being told you are the only employee struggling with the accounting software, the moral quandary of whether to plead guilty to a crime you did not commit to avoid jail time. As employees sit on the floor surrounded by receipts, wiping tears of frustration from their eyes, the lights on Fujitsu’s supposedly infallible Horizon computer systems blink menacingly in the corner. If the dialogue can be overly literal and expositional, sometimes melodramatic, it is fairly earned – this is the cost of turning dense material into an immediately legible and moving drama, one that has provoked widespread anger and triggered government intervention.
The four-part series has amassed 9.2m viewers, making it ITV’s most-watched new drama for three years. In the days since the first episode aired on 1 January, the Post Office scandal has become the biggest story in Britain, covering front pages and leading news broadcasts. After millions signed a petition calling for the former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells to be stripped of her CBE over her handling of the scandal, on 9 January she handed it back. With fewer than 100 of more than 700 convictions so far overturned, senior politicians have called for compensation cases to be accelerated, or even for a mass exoneration of the postmasters. Hughes has said she is “astounded” by the response to what she saw as “quite a niche story”.
In narrating this injustice with empathy, immediacy and urgency, television drama has succeeded where journalism has failed, making the Post Office scandal a story the British public cannot ignore. The series has invited the average person to step inside the experience of Bates and so many others, to feel the iron walls of bureaucracy closing in on them, to take on their panic and powerlessness. It is an extraordinary and rare example of a drama not just capturing but creating a national moment, and bringing about substantive change.
In the days following the drama’s broadcast, the real Alan Bates (as dogged and blunt as in Jones’s portrayal) has given forthright, emotional interviews to newspapers and chat shows. “If Richard Branson is reading this,” he told the Sunday Times, “I’d love a holiday.” A complimentary trip was swiftly arranged. Blinking back tears on This Morning, Bates grinned at the news. “Much appreciated,” he said, before correcting himself. “Much needed!”
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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously