Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Arts

Review: National Treasure

Like it or not, Channel 4’s new drama is sending out a message about rape trials. Hannah Dunleavy‘s a little concerned about what that message might be.

In the dock: Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane) is a celebrity accused of historical sex offences. Photos: Channel 4.

In the dock: Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane) is a much-loved celebrity accused of historical sex offences. Photos: Channel 4.

So, here’s the thing. Drama doesn’t have to mean anything. It doesn’t need to inform, or educate, or even tell the truth. It doesn’t need to have a message, it just needs to entertain.

You can feel a ‘but’ coming, right? A huge one. BUT… if you’re mining real-life events, particularly real-life events where people have been the victim of a crime, you owe it to them to cover it responsibly. And if you take your inspiration from one of the biggest news stories of the decade, in which huge numbers of people finally told the truth about the terrible things that happened to them? Then, like it or not, you’re putting a ‘message’ out there.

In fact, I’ve seen two of National Treasure‘s stars – Robbie Coltrane and Tim McInnerny – say just that. Before going on to discuss the pros and cons of giving anonymity to men accused of rape. McInnerny’s a friend of Paul Gambaccini, so he’s clearly seen the dark side of rape accusation. Even so, it’s crushingly disappointing to see a drama that twice drops the Savile bomb aim to ‘promote a debate’ about whether or not to make it easier for men like him to evade justice.

“The only possible way this can end well is that we never find out if Finchley did it either way. And that’s all a bit pffft.”

After one episode, National Treasure can currently go to one of three places: Finchley did it, he didn’t do it or we never find out. Which all sounds very simple. Except we’re talking about rape accusations, which never are.

If we get to the end and, lo and behold, he admits his guilt, then Channel 4 has spent four hours attempting to humanise a serial rapist, when it could have made a much more interesting drama about his wife.

And yet, that is preferable to option two: he didn’t do it and it turns out Channel 4 has spent four hours reinforcing the idea that women – seven of them in this case – JUST MAKE THIS SHIT UP. (Some women, I am aware, lie about being raped, but you only need a trip to social media to see that this small group prompt a quite widespread belief that MANY women lie MOST OF THE TIME. Which is why so many rape victims never come forward.)

It means that the only possible way this can end well is that we never find out if Finchley did it either way. And that’s all a bit pffft. We don’t need a drama to prove we can never truly know our “national treasures”, the news does that all the time.

"Incredibly safe hands": Julie Walters plays Paul's wife Marie Finchley.

“Incredibly safe hands”: Julie Walters plays Paul’s wife Marie Finchley.

The good news for National Treasure is that a lot of it, so far at least, has been very well done pffft. And some of it is absolutely belting. Coltrane and Julie Walters are, of course, incredibly safe hands in which to put the roles of Paul and Marie Finchley. Walters has less to do in the opening episode, which I’m sure will change.

Coltrane’s got a harder task, having to keep Paul blank enough that we can’t yet tell if he’s guilty or not, while slowly revealing what an unpleasant human being he is. (A personality seemingly designed to scream, “but it doesn’t make him a rapist, does it?”)

Babou Ceesay is terrific when he bursts into the house, effing and c-ing about the press but it is Andrea Riseborough who steals the show, despite only being in one scene. In fact, her describing that Rorschach test of a dream, with the plane flying noisily overhead, is among the best things I’ve seen on TV this year. There’s surely more of that to come.

@thatdunleavy

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Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.