iTV has pulled out the major guns for Mr Bates vs the Post Office, and rightfully so. The Post Office affair is widely regarded as the largest miscarriage of justice in British legal history, and it is surprising that this terrible narrative has taken so long to reach the screen. This dramatisation depicts the 20-year struggle for justice when thousands of subpostmasters were accused of financial misconduct, hundreds were prosecuted and imprisoned, and many lives were destroyed. Except for Horizon’s pricey new computer system, which did not perform properly, the only mismanagement was on their part.
Although some names have been altered and scenes have been imagined, we are told from the start that this is a true story, and for those who are unfamiliar with some of the facts of the scandal, it serves as a valuable reminder that these seemingly unbelievable actions, so corporate and cruel, did occur. Toby Jones plays the titular Alan Bates, whose post office is emblazoned with a “Justice for Post Office Victims” banner from the outset. Over the course of 20 years, he becomes a tenacious advocate for persons wrongfully accused of wrongdoing, who have lost their livelihoods, reputations, freedom, and, in some cases, their lives.
The drama begins like an episode of Black Mirror, and it is easily as frightening as the most dark of those imagined dystopias. Monica Dolan’s Jo is a beloved member of her little town community, where she runs both the post office and a cafe. You can almost smell the fresh scones through the screen. She confesses she isn’t the best at keeping the accounts, but when inconsistencies in the Post Office’s finances get larger and more difficult to explain, she seeks assistance from a Horizon phone line. She is told that everything would work out on its own. On the screen in front of her, the deficit doubles. It’s terrifying, like a horror film.
Given that we know there has been a long march towards exonerating the innocent – but not towards assigning responsibility – it becomes easier to watch, but the first episode is difficult to sit through. The injustice is so awful and blatant that it gradually ties a knot in your stomach and tugs it harder and tighter, growing increasingly horrible as more people are falsely implicated. Will Mellor’s Lee is perplexed by the deficiency that keeps appearing in his books, and frustrated to hear the same line that everyone else hears: on the helpline, he is continuously told that no one else is experiencing these issues. “We’ve got to put our faith in the British justice system,” he tells his wife, a strategy that soon proves terribly optimistic.
This is a David vs. Goliath scenario, but the Goliath is a multiheaded beast born from a tangle of ancient institutional authority and modern business methods. The criminal procedures against the post office operators did not require the involvement of the police, as the Post Office has conducted its own criminal investigations for the past 300 years. Fujitsu, the Japanese technology corporation that provides (note the present tense) the Horizon software, is found to have concealed what it knew about system flaws. The victims’ ability to face all of this is astonishing and powerful, and their victory is as inspiring as it should be.
Jones and Dolan are an excellent starting point for exploring the human cost of such heinous corporate deception. However, hundreds of victims were gaslit by a helpline, and the cast is large and good throughout. Julie Hesmondhalgh is Alan’s partner, Suzanne, who has stood by him during his decades-long fight for justice, even if it meant giving up her sewing room to boxes of evidence. As the story progresses from individual post offices to the press, political system, boardrooms, and courts, more familiar characters appear, including Ian Hart, Shaun Dooley, Katherine Kelly, Lia Williams, and Adam James. It’s an incredible ensemble.
You can’t really fault the drama for using broad strokes at times, with major scenes portrayed as if in bold capital letters. The moments of triumph are so hard-earned that it seems only just to shower them in swelling strings. The Post Office scandal has been so long-running that it may appear that the astounding unfairness at its heart has been lost in the dense forest of minutiae. This restores humanity to the situation and simplifies the case for anger that so many innocent individuals were victimised.