Urgent delivery

Urgent delivery

By James Rampton
January 3, 2024


ITV four-parter Mr Bates vs the Post Office dramatises one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in British legal history – a near-25-year scandal that criminalised hundreds of Post Office managers. Writer Gwyneth Hughes, director James Strong and star Toby Jones discuss the importance and difficulty of retelling this true story.

Things are getting very heated indeed. In an impassioned scene from ITV’s four-part real-life drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office, Suzanne Sercombe (played by Julie Hesmondhalgh) poses a heartfelt question to the Post Office official aggressively attempting to close her partner Alan Bates’ branch in the Welsh town of Llandudno: “How do you sleep at night?”

It’s an extremely pertinent question.

This engrossing miniseries, which debuted on ITV on Monday and concludes tomorrow, recounts a scandal that, even now, almost a quarter of a century after it began, is almost impossible to believe.

Written by Gwyneth Hughes (Honour, Five Days), the piece lays out in forensic, powerful detail the most widespread miscarriage of justice in British legal history. Two-and-a-half decades on, the Post Office Horizon scandal still possesses the capacity to shock.

No fewer than 736 branch managers were prosecuted by the Post Office from 2000 to 2014 after they were alleged to have pilfered cash from the company. However, the money had actually disappeared because the Post Office’s fancy new computerised accounting system, Horizon, was faulty.

Toby Jones plays the title character in Mr Bates vs the Post Office

To make matters worse, motivated by a typically British sense of honour, many of the victims believed they must somehow have been to blame, so they made it their duty to pay back money they didn’t even owe.

The consequences of this gigantic error were appalling. Four suicides have been connected to the scandal. Many of the accused were sent to jail, some of whom were pregnant or had young children.

Others were ostracised by their communities. Blameless people were bankrupted, causing divorce and depression. Thousands of lives were irreparably broken. This truly dreadful story – which for once justifies that overused adjective ‘Kafkaesque’ – is enough to make your blood boil.

The scandal certainly enrages Hughes. She says the victims were “innocent people, pillars of their communities, and the worst of it is that each of them was told they were the only one having problems with the Horizon computer system. They endured many years of miserable isolation.”

James Strong, who directs Mr Bates vs the Post Office, weighs in that “it’s everyone’s worst nightmare. The people pursuing you want that money back by a week on Friday, or they’ll chase you for it in court. So the gross unfairness of it all turns it into even more of an inexplicable nightmare.”

Alan Bates led the sub-postmasters’ fight for justice against the Post Office

However, the sub-postmasters did not take it lying down. In 2009, finally discovering that they were not alone, managers from across the country who had been falsely accused banded together to form the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance.

The organisation was assembled by Bates, a self-deprecating but astonishingly dogged sub-postmaster, who is played in the drama by Toby Jones (The Detectorists, The Long Shadow). Bates himself, whom Hughes consulted during the making of the series, is glad that his story is at last being brought to such a large audience.

“Over the years, a lot of words have been written about how lives have been wrecked by an out-of-control government organisation,” he says. “However, they have never come close to expressing the true horrors that have been inflicted on people. I think this drama is the first time anything has come close to getting across the suffering many of the victims have had to cope with.”

In the past, this tale has been grievously neglected by the media. For such a huge scandal, it has had a lamentably low profile. The drama’s executive producer, Natasha Bondy, explains: “Even now, I still find myself telling people who didn’t know about it. It’s just not terribly salacious.”

The fact the story is seen as “unsexy” is one reason why it has been hard to bring it to the screen. According to Strong, who has previously helmed Broadchurch and Vigil, “It’s not an easy story to dramatise because there’s no police procedural, there’s no body, there’s no murder, there are no aliens. Normally, you’d have scripts with set pieces full of car chases, robberies, guns or enormous action sequences of some form.

Monica Dolan also features among the cast of the ITV drama

“But this is a much more modest story that builds [over four episodes]. It’s lots of people talking in Post Offices, in kitchens, in front rooms, in corporate offices, in courts. It’s very conversational. One of the most dramatic scenes is a woman on a phone to a helpline while her computer screen is showing she’s rapidly losing money. These are not inherently dramatic sequences. So the biggest challenge is to find the drama and the excitement and the fear and the dread and the horror in those scenes.”

This may all sound very downbeat, but there is a hopeful coda to this story. Thus far, the wrongful convictions of 86 sub-postmasters have been overturned and £21m (US$26.52m) in compensation has been disbursed. The government has also launched an independent public inquiry.

Mr Bates vs the Post Office is also an inspiring tale about the strength people find when they work together. “You make drama like this because it’s about people’s relationship with their community,” observes Jones. “The oldest Greek dramas are about a chorus uniting behind a cause, and a hero emerging from among them and taking on forces that appear to be far stronger and immutable.”

The great thing is that, in this case, “the hero wins. So in a way this is an ancient story, and it’s a very uplifting story. It shows that people can talk to each other and unite and take action,” he continues. The actor feels very fortunate to have been involved in relaying such a significant story. “I’m very proud and relieved that they came to me because I’m honoured to have anything to do with Alan Bates. Anyone who talks about him is honoured to have had dealings with him. He’s an extraordinary man.”

The makers of Mr Bates vs the Post Office – it is produced by ITV Studios and Little Gem, with ITV Studios also handling international distribution – hope it will raise awareness of the scandal. “The point of this drama is to bring this onto the agenda quickly,” says Jones. “Sub-postmasters and their families are traumatised and terrified and they need to come out and make their voices heard.”

The makers of the show hope to bring wider attention to the scandal

The battle is not yet won. Jones emphasises: “We as audiences need to put pressure on the Post Office via our MPs to make sure this gets sorted once and for all. It has taken so long to get this far, but there is still some way to go.”

Patrick Spence, executive producer of Mr Bates vs the Post Office, adds: “This is where we come in. This is certainly the widest miscarriage of justice in British legal history, and many people don’t know about it. That’s why it is such a privilege to be offered the opportunity to play a role as a storyteller, in its most basic function, which is to spread the word and tell everyone.”

That’s also why “we went first to ITV with this idea,” he notes. “We wanted the largest possible audience. We wanted a home that had a track record for putting stories in front of millions of people. We see it firmly as our purpose here to carry the baton — to allow the stories of the sub-postmasters to be told in such a way that it can be part of their healing process.

“Because there is an awful lot of healing that’s going to need to be done. We feel that if the whole country can watch this drama and see the hell they’ve been through, it will massively help sub-postmasters come to terms with and move on from the immense damage and hurt they have suffered.”

Finally, Mr Bates vs the Post Office throws up a major question: can a TV drama ever bring about change in real life? “I would hope so,” says Strong. “This specific issue will now be known by, hopefully, three, four or five million people who may not have known about it before.

“That groundswell of knowledge can only help the cause. Hopefully, public opinion will demand that the Post Office do the right thing finally and fairly recompense the victims. By telling the story properly, you hope it will spread that awareness and outrage. That might help prevent it ever happening again.”

We can but hope, then, that viewers will be moved to take action after watching a drama that may well leave them feeling as if they have been mown down by a gigantic Post Office delivery van.

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