Accused, by Jimmy McGovern, BBC1

Accused, by Jimmy McGovern, BBC1

These tightly-wound fables describing inadmissible and extenuating circumstances around fictional crimes muddle moral and legal judgmentalism

The Criminal Injustice System. Television review – Tom Jennings
Returning to tortured Catholic roots, Jimmy McGovern’s new television tragedies – on primetime BBC1 at the end of last year – tackle moral dilemmas and the wages of sin from the perspectives of six defendants awaiting criminal trial verdicts. As is this writer’s wont, emphasis rests on the restricted room to manoeuvre available to those lacking any kind of fortune, magnifying the consequences of mistakes, impulsive responses and personal weaknesses complicated by collusion, denial and efforts to maintain face and respectability against a backdrop of official hostiility and disinclination to understand, let alone forgive, trespasses against complacencies of law and order. Nevertheless Accused’s paradigm refreshingly refuses cliches of police procedurals and courtroom dramas, dissecting – in the time it typically takes to travel from cell to dock – the circumstances leading to the protagonists’ appearances there.
A-list casts deliver predictably sharp scripts in five lean mean narratives describing everyday domestic dysfunctions exacerbated by cruel happenstance, unwise choices and desperate or hysterical overreactions – with realistically unsympathetic central characters creditably eschewing the lazy milking of sentimentality. The second episode, in contrast, courted broader resonance – with a squaddie in Afghanistan honourably killing the psychopathic officer who persecuted his mate to suicide – thus preventing himself and others suffering the same fate. A media kerfuffle followed when a former army chief complained that such behaviour could never conceivably occur in ‘our’ professional military (proving yet again to the rank and file what clueless plonkers their brass are). Meanwhile the opening plot had already set an unfortunate tone thanks to a preponderance of outrageous melodramatic contrivances mortally wounding credibility, and such a thorough asshole of an antihero that it was difficult to imagine ‘there but for the grace of god go I’.
With separate stories polished by McGovern as in The Street (BBC1, 2006-9; reviewed in Freedom, 15th March 2008 and 12th September 2009), Accused recalls his Cracker (ITV, 1993-5) in twisting crime fiction conventions. There, rather than merely mapping brushes with the law, the unequivocal villains were nailed by the writer’s omnisciently humble alter ego – Robbie Coltrane’s flawed genius police psychologist empathising with gamuts of damaged, inadequate, and usually downright awful proletarian masculinity. But, not being seriously evil racist murderers, misogynist serial killers or the like, the present bunch simply appear depressingly unlucky, surprisingly naïve, mundanely stupid, and often so infuriatingly self-righteous as to invite condemnation on those grounds alone. Real-world parallels seem scarcely more fascinating than deficits of commonsense, social support, and competent briefs – the latter with some currency as legal aid disappears under the Tories, but hardly doing justice to working-class collective savvy about police and judicial ‘fairness’. Equally, the two (female) defendants who get off – thanks to perverse jury and Keystone Cops stitch-up respectively – may please the crowds, but contradict generally higher conviction rates and heavier sentences for lesser offences committed by women. Otherwise, that viewers almost seem encouraged – presumably inadvertently – to approximate conservative ‘flog ‘em, hang ‘em’ attitudes implies that the road to representational hell may be paved with good social-realist intentions.
Accused will be released on DVD in October.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 72, No. 3, February 2011.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:
www.variant.org.uk
www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk