National Treasure: Episode 1

Broaching risky subject matters can make or break a television drama. Whether a writer chooses to cautiously tip-toe around the boundaries of taste and decency or make every attempt to shock an audience is a matter of choice, but surely there are some subjects that are just too controversial to even consider presenting as entertainment. Where do we draw the line with what can be dramatised? National Treasure (that unfortunately shares a name with the horrendously awkward Nicolas Cage adventure movie) premiered last night and starred Robbie Coltrane as a veteran comedy performer accused of rape. It’s immediately provocative, but does that make for good television?

Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane) and his longstanding partnership with the seemingly more successful Karl (Tim McInnerny) make up a comedy duo not dissimilar to Morecambe and Wise. His subdued nature might answer for the fact that his partner became the most recent winner of a lifetime achievement award rather than Paul himself. In Paul, we are presented with a character that appears to have lost favour in the public eye yet somehow has managed to maintain enough of a reputation to present a daytime quiz show. His detached manner extends even to his family life; his wife Marie (Julie Walters) knows this all too well and his estranged daughter Dee (Andrea Riseborough) seems to give him nothing but derision. When an allegation of rape is made against Finchley, his life turns upside down with press scrutiny that feels all too familiar. But did he do it?

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Primarily, the audience is concerned with the truth behind the accusations against Finchley. Did he do it? Didn’t he do it? There’s a serious ethical conflict at play here. If Paul is guilty then we can assume that writer Jack Thorne is telling a timely story about the people we’ve read about in the papers. But the scrutiny that ageing male celebrities are forced to endure in the aftermath of a single allegation must have serious psychological implications if they are in fact innocent, so that too would be an interesting direction. As always in recent cases like these, a snowball effect of allegations begins to mount and the guilt on the accused’s face is recognisable. That’s the genius of the series – National Treasure will have you second guessing Paul Finchley’s every move.

Thorne privileges Finchley’s narrative perspective in such a way as to show his day-to-day activities without revealing whether or not he’s guilty. We see ‘family-man’ Paul, but we also see immoral philandering Paul. Marie’s nonchalant reaction to her husband’s casual porn intake encourages viewers to ask how well she really knows her husband, and Dee’s Freudian dreams about her father beg interpretation. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s hauntingly minimal score casts doubt on our trust in Paul and our recent memories of Yewtree scandal remind us that those we consider ‘national treasures’ can always prove us wrong.

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I cannot fault a single member of the cast. Coltrane and Walters leave lasting impressions on the viewers that are remarkable for just an hour of television. Andrea Riseborough gives an impeccable performance as the eloquent drug-addict – her memorable speech in the halfway house provokes discomfort and unease which is exactly what this drama aims to do. Members of the wider cast also give essential supporting performances, Babou Ceesay who plays Finchley’s lawyer is brilliant as the clinically smooth operator and Nadine Marshall who plays the detective expertly alerts us to the police’s difficulties in cases like these. Even the unusual celebrity cameos from the likes of Alan Carr and Frank Skinner allow for a sense of verisimilitude that perpetuate our belief in the drama.

It’s a daring project and it’s going to divide audiences, but so far I think it’s been done well. My interest is piqued, and although someone was bound to dramatise Yewtree at some point, I just thank God that it was Jack Thorne.

National Treasure continues next Tuesday (27/09/16) at 9pm on Channel 4.