A starry cast takes on one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history. They’re the ideal way in to skulduggery so terrifying it could be a Black Mirror episode
Toby Jones stars as the title character (sixth from left) with Julie Hesmondhalgh (fifth from left) as his partner Suzanne in Mr Bates vs the Post Office Photograph: ITV
ITV has brought out the big hitters for Mr Bates vs the Post Office, and deservedly so. The Post Office scandal is regularly referred to as the widest miscarriage of justice in British legal history, and it is a wonder that this sorry saga has taken so long to find its way to the screen. This dramatisation tells the story of the 20-year fight for justice, after thousands of subpostmasters were accused of financial mismanagement, hundreds were prosecuted and sent to prison, and countless lives were devastated. Except the only mismanagement was on the part of Horizon – the expensive new computer system that didn’t work properly.
Although some names have been changed and some scenes imagined, we are told at the outset that this is a true story, and for those not aware of some of the details of the scandal, it is a useful reminder that these seemingly implausible events, so corporate and cruel, did actually happen. Toby Jones stars as the titular Alan Bates, whose post office is adorned with a “Justice for Post Office Victims” banner from the very start. Over 20 years, he becomes a dogged organiser of those falsely accused of wrongdoing, who lost their livelihoods, reputations, freedom, and in some cases, their lives.
The drama plays out like an episode of Black Mirror at first, and it is easily as harrowing as the bleakest of those imagined dystopias. Monica Dolan’s Jo is a much-loved pillar of her small village community, running the post office and the cafe within it. You can practically smell the homemade scones through the screen. She admits that she isn’t the best at doing the books, but when discrepancies in the Post Office finances become bigger and harder to explain, she seeks help from a Horizon phoneline. She is told it will sort itself out. There is a moment when the deficit doubles on the screen, in front of her eyes. It is horror-movie appalling.
Given that we know there has been a slow march towards the exoneration of the innocent – although crucially, not towards the allocation of blame – it does get easier to watch, but the first episode is hard to sit through. The injustice is so grave, and so obvious, that it slowly ties a knot in your stomach and pulls it tighter, and tighter still, becoming ever more sickening as more victims are wrongly accused. Will Mellor’s Lee is baffled by the shortfall that keeps appearing in his books, and frustrated to hear the same line that everyone is given: on the helpline he is told repeatedly that nobody else is having these problems. “We’ve got to put our faith in the British justice system,” he tells his wife, a tactic that soon proves to be tragically optimistic.
This is a David v Goliath story, but the Goliath is a multiheaded beast, emerging from a tangle of old institutional power and modern corporate practices. The criminal proceedings against the post office operators did not need to go through the police, because for the last 300 years the Post Office has run its own criminal investigations. Fujitsu, the Japanese tech company that supplies (note the present tense) the Horizon software, is shown to have covered up what it knew about faults in the system. The fact that the victims managed to take all of this on is remarkable and powerful, and here their victory is as rousing as it should be.
Having Jones and Dolan as our entry point to the human cost of such horrifying corporate skullduggery is the perfect choice. But there were many hundreds of people who found themselves being gaslit by a helpline, and the cast is massive, and excellent, throughout. Julie Hesmondhalgh is Alan’s partner, Suzanne, who supports him throughout his decades-long struggle for justice, even if it means giving over her sewing room to boxes of evidence.
As the story moves from individual post offices into the press, the political system, the boardrooms and the courts, other familiar faces appear, among them Ian Hart, Shaun Dooley, Katherine Kelly, Lia Williams and Adam James. It is an outstanding ensemble.
If the drama can be a little broad-brushstrokes at times, with significant moments delivered as if in bold capital letters, you can’t really blame it. The moments of triumph are so hard-earned that it seems only fair to drench them in swelling strings. The Post Office scandal has been so long-running that it can feel as if the staggering injustice at the heart of it all has been lost in the dense forest of the details. This makes it human again, and simplifies the case for outrage that this was done to so many innocent people.