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TV review: Mr Bates vs the Post Office, and Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster

12 January 2024

ITV

Toby Jones as Alan Bates in Mr Bates vs the Post Office (ITV, 1-4 January)

Toby Jones as Alan Bates in Mr Bates vs the Post Office (ITV, 1-4 January)

WHICH do I feel most strongly — outrage, or shame? UK TV dramas and documentaries have a proud history of presenting political, judicial, or social scandals that whip up so overwhelming a public response that the powers-that-be have no option but to act, however lacklustre their previous concern.

Last week, ITV offered a spectacular example of this in both a drama, and a documentary outlining its factual sources, in Mr Bates vs the Post Office. It was a deeply moving, star-studded production, spread over four episodes, from 1 to 4 January — presenting the TV critic with rather a quandary. So completely has the issue now been taken up by the rest of the media, the police, and Parliament —providing the delicious spectacle of BBC news bulletins leading with a story that they have to illustrate with ITV film-clips — that, first, you will know all about it, and, second, it has now picked up such a momentum that by the time you read this, significant developments will, no doubt, have occurred — let’s hope, decisively.

The decades-long pitiless hounding by a public institution, government-owned, of sub-postmasters, destroying their reputation, self-worth, savings, and even their liberty, and all based on bare-faced lies told over and over again — it is hard to think of any worse peacetime scenario. It is a shocking example of a syndrome familiar from, for example, sexual abuse in Churches or banking scandals: institutions so important that they cannot fail, bosses banding together to do and say anything to preserve corporate reputation, no matter how many little people are sacrificed in the process.

And this dire situation is greatly enhanced by computer technology. Most organisations are run by people who do not understand the IT systems that they utterly rely on: they just trust that they work. I am unclear why so little anger is directed at Fujitsu, whose staff must have known perfectly well that its system had massive failings, and kept silent as the prosecutions mounted up.

Trial by television is extremely dodgy, especially when those identified as the villains are still alive; but here it seemed that evidence and statements in the public domain provided reasonably adequate justification. If the programmes were a searing indictment of Britain’s moral collapse — hence my outrage and shame — they also celebrated, among the victims, heart-warming examples of probity, innocence, and solidarity.

Another vicious all-devouring predator was revealed in Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster (BBC1, Monday of last week), recording the extraordinarily skilled and dangerous excavation from the Dorset cliff-face of a 150-million-year-old pliosaur’s huge fossilised skull. The great man’s sheer delight at this increase in our scientific knowledge was an infectious joy to behold.

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