Channel 4’s latest drama National Treasure is a brilliant observation of what happens when a much-loved entertainer gets accused of historic sexual offences.
Robbie Coltrane plays Paul Finchley, a much-loved entertainer and one half of a very successful double act. Having been on our screens for over thirty years, Paul has cemented his place as a national treasure and legend.
As the series begins, his national treasure status is explored through very small and definitely secondary cameos from the likes of Robert Webb, Alan Carr and Frank Skinnner, all of whom praise Paul as a performer as he present a lifetime achievement award to his comedy partner.
Nowadays, he’s not quite as successful as he once was, hosting a quiz show on Channel 4 called Smuggle, but is still frequently recognised in the street, especially by younger generations of comics as well as cabbies who affectionately ask him to repeat his famous catchphrase.
But Paul’s life is shaken to its foundations when he’s arrested after an accusation of rape that dates back to the 1990s. And it’s not just Paul’s life who is turned upside down, it’s his wife of 41 years Marie and daughter Dee’s lives too.
Marie is played by the magnificent Julie Walters, who twelve minutes into episode one answers the door to DI Palmer, who tells her “We’re here for a word with your husband”.
Hearing this, a confused and seemingly innocent Paul appears asking “A word about what?” to which she responds with “there’s been an allegation of rape made against you”.
Will Marie stand by her husband? Will she believe him? How will she cope with the scrutiny placed on her and her family?
Their daughter Dee is played by Angela Riseborough, and currently lives in a halfway house, being treated for addiction. Her kids, Billy 14 and Frances 10, are being looked after by Paul and Marie but how will she react when she finds out about the allegations that have been made towards her father?
Away from the limelight he hasn’t always been a good husband to his wife, Marie, or the best father to his daughter, Dee. It’s this clearly troubled side which Paul has to confront when he’s arrested and in the course of the investigation.
Best known for playing Dr. Eddie Fitzgerald in Cracker and Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, Robbie Coltrane has been noticeably absent from our screens in the last five years, with his last appearance being in three episodes of BBC comedy Lead Balloon, the same year that the final Harry Potter film was released.
It’s so good to see Robbie back on our screens playing a character with such complexity and intrigue. Strong yet weak, Paul is a fascinating character. Whilst I can spend ten minutes being confident that he’s guilty, I can also spend ten minutes certain that he isn’t.
The ambiguity in the line “They think I’m Jimmy Savile. They think I’m fucking Jimmy Savile” is wonderful. Is he disgusted that he should even be thought of in a similar vein to Savile? Or is he over-compensating and trying to distance himself from Savile? I don’t have the answer. But I’m sure by the end of the four episodes, this will all become clear.
Robbie is one of our finest actors and to see him working alongside Julie Walters is a real treat for the viewer. The two of them compliment each other perfectly and deliver spine-tingly good performances which I’m sure will become career defining performances for them both.
The series is incredibly topical and examines the impact accusations of historic sexual offences can have on a much-loved public figure, both in the public and at home.
It’s a story we’re all too familiar with. It’s one we’ve seen played out in the news many times since Operation Yewtree started in 2012. For example, with Jimmy Savile and Dave Lee Travis the accusations were found to be true, whilst the likes of Neil Fox and William Roache were accused but then found not guilty.
We’ve all done it. We’ve seen that a celebrity has been accused of sexual offences and jumped to conclusions. Throughout National Treasure those same sensibilities apply and as I’ve already mentioned, as the investigation and criminal trial work their way towards a verdict, our opinions of Paul and whether or not we think he’s guilty, change many times.
Whilst I’m sure a drama about Jimmy Savile is in development somewhere, National Treasure is a much cleverer than a simple retelling of one of those stories. Jack Thorne’s excellent script plays on this notion of truth, and will leave you asking questions about memory, trust and the impact such accusations have on a family.
From the way it looks, to the music and to the performances, National Treasure is in every way an outstanding piece of television which has been very carefully thought through and put together. I really hope this four-part drama cuts through and becomes part of the national conversation and if it were to win a couple of awards along the way then they would be thoroughly deserved.
National Treasure begins Tuesday 20th September at 10pm on Channel 4