Mr Bates vs The Post Office

Mr Bates vs The Post Office
Mr Bates vs The Post Office
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Now and then, when it comes to journalism or any other factual program, a cliché saying is used. “It’s like they say: fact is stranger than fiction.” This phrase means that there are some exceptional stories that go against the grain of common existence. Moreover its occasional use proves the opposite point that fiction tends to be crazier than reality in most situations. In this case, ITV’s Mr Bates vs the Post Office is about the people who were wrongly accused of fraud by one of the country’s largest corporations because of an IT failure. So it’s one story you really don’t need to see before you believe.

Alien vs Predator, Freddy vs Jason, Kramer vs Kramer; now there’s a new fight to the death in town. All along Alan Bates’ (Toby Jones) journey in Mr Bates vs the Post Office he tries to bring together different workmates who have been made into criminals through software faults for reporting financial transactions. And this was actual life where incompetence combined with malice caused injustice. The road to justice is long and requires many years of struggle but eventually pays off well. “If we’re going to walk away,” says Bates to Suzanne, his wife (Julie Hesmondhalgh), “we’ll do it with our heads held high.”

Among them are Adam James, Shaun Dooley and Monica Dolan as well as Will Mellor and Alex Jennings etc – all lending humanity and dignity even though they are set in scandalous lives. (But what we don’t understand could fill a book) However it seems less logical for someone like Nadhim Zahawi- just until recently serving as an MP but lost his ministerial office due financial misconduct allegations- playing himself instead. If Mr Bates vs the Post Office also sets things right at least a little (“They won’t ever put another picture in the paper to say I’m innocent,” Krupa Pattani’s Saman laments), then why include a discredited politician for PR?

Yet, it is strange that this series chooses to do so. Action begins in media res with Horizon system throwing up issues and lives being ruined. “My savings are already gone, my credit cards maxed out,” Dolan’s Jo sobs. Sub-postmasters are told by invisible tech help that they don’t have these problems. However, it is not, and while visual excitement from digital bookkeeping is hard to find there are clear and terrible consequences. “They want to close me down to shut me up,” Bates tells the police. “Because they don’t want people to know what I know.”

The danger with such a show however would be the temptation to over exposition and have the already well-exposed Panorama series, (including books and podcasts), overshadowing the narrative. Mr Bates vs the Post Office is guilty of telling rather than showing although it has laudable intentions of clearing the names of subpostmasters. “A past master and liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Arbitrators” introduces Bates, “and board member for chief prosecuting accountant of Inland Revenue.” Each character is introduced using these words explaining his/her role in speeding up plot development.

However, maintaining suspense over four hour-long episodes is hard; how an institution’s resistance leads to wrong convictions and ruined lives can easily become fiddly. Explaining Horizon system, what exactly happened; spelling out what occurred doesn’t work in a drama context. It is unlikely many will stay with Mr Bates vs The Post Office through all its four nights on air.

ITV will also broadcast a one-hour documentary about this scandal titled Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The Real Story so that those who lack concentration can watch. This comprises interviews with real people (“It was diabolical,” recalls Alan Bates himself, “something had to be done about it”) mixed with scenes from the show similar to dramatized stories featured on Crimewatch. Being focused more than its sibling helps redeem this documentary by at least trying to avoid dramatic sagging.

Probably however, there is a major problem in using oppositional titles like Toby Jones et al did in Mr Bates vs The Post Office. Although he may appear as an everyman figure, Bates vaguely represents poor treated sub-postmasters. His is bureaucratic crusade; his enemy institutional one. Paula Vennells (Lia Williams) on her part gives shutting ranks against innocent franchisees while being CEO of the Post Office at that time a human face but it is very slippery, unsatisfying villain. Because of some strange choices in its creative direction and the technicalities of the plot, Mr Bates vs The Post Office has become a human play which needs more drama.

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