|as an insight into how one man's determination brought a national institution to its knees after it's deceit took money, livelihoods and liberty from innocent staff
|Toby Jones, Will Mellor, Adam James, Alex Jennings, Amit Shah, Amy Nuttal, Conor Mullen, Ian Hart, Ifan Huw Dafydd, James Naughtie, John Hollingworth, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Katherine Kelly, Krupa Pattani, Lesley Nicol, Lia Williams, Monica Dolan, Nadhim Zahawi, Pip Torrens, Shaun Dooley, Susan Brown
|James Strong, Chris Clough, Gwyneth Hughes
|1st January 2024
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
In the late 1990s, the Post Office brought in a new computer system for its sub-postmasters. It wasn’t long before problems emerged – figures didn’t add up – money seemed to be going missing – or was it just a bug in the Horizon system?
The Post Office started to get heavy and told sub-postmasters whose computers showed a shortfall that if they didn’t pay it back, they’d be prosecuted for theft – some were allowed to plea bargain it down to false accounting.
But hundreds faced charges – some even ended up in prison. And all the while, the Post Office investigators were telling those, apparently having problems with their computer system, that they were the only one. They – and the courts – were also told that Horizon was infallible and their computers could not be accessed by anyone outside their own branch. The cases against them were solid.
Feeling alone, many sub-postmasters just gave up – shunned by their communities as thieves and without a business – falling into debt or depression – some even felt that the only way out was to end it all.
Until one sub-postmaster, Alan Bates (Toby Jones) started to ask questions – and look further afield. He found a handful of others, then dozens, then hundreds of others who’d lost their their money, their livelihoods, their reputation and – in many cases – their freedom – and found a way to fight back.
With the help of a supportive MP (Alex Jennings) and an honest investigator (Ian Hart), Mr Bates started to build a case that the Post Office boss, Paula Vennells (Lia Williams), could no longer ignore.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
This timely ITV four-part drama comes during a public inquiry into the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history – and at a time when, despite everyone now accepting the failures of Fujitsu’s Horizon system and the deception of Post Office bosses, fewer than 100 convictions have been overturned and the vast majority of victims of the scandal are still awaiting compensation.
Up against the BBC’s The Tourist in the New Year TV schedules, some had feared it wouldn’t even get a look-in, but within days of its initial broadcast, the government jumped up a gear, pledging new legislation to clear the victims en masse and improving the compensation settlement. Paula Vennells was also pressurised into giving up her CBE, awarded at the height of the scandal, for services to the Post Office.
As a campaign tool, no-one could have imagined a TV drama could have had so much of an impact, but as Nick Wallis – a journalist who’s been running with the story since its earliest days and written a definitive book about the scandal – observed, until now, there’ve been heart-wrenching injustices, but nothing for the public to look at.
Now, the public can see the uncaring brutality of the Post Office investigators, the shock on sub-postmistress Jo Hamilton’s (Monica Dolan) face when the numbers just change before her eyes, the calculated deceit of Vennell’s wing-woman, Angela Van Den Bogerd (Katherine Kelly) as she knowing lies to the faces of victims she meets, the crestfallen look of defeat on Alan Bates’ face when he doesn’t think anyone is going to turn up for his first group meeting, moments before the car-park fills up with victims as desperate for justice as he is.
But while they hit the right dramatic notes, it’s moments like this where it feels more like a standard TV drama than a polemic designed to expose a scandal. The victims all turn up, in the nick of time, to save his dignity; all the Post Office staff scowl like pantomime villains; the plucky victims bake cup-cakes for visiting journalists. The script often feels clunky and while Toby Jones and Monica Dolan are at the top of their game, some of the smaller roles would feel more at home on a daytime soap than a primetime drama.
Had this been produced a few years further down the line, once all the Is have been dotted and the Ts crossed, it probably would have come and gone with little fanfare – but with the scandal still a raw sore on the skin of communities across the country, the this series has come down like a sledge-hammer.
Two weeks after its initial broadcast, it’s already being repeated – and there’s clearly enough new material for them to make another episode or two.