The spectre of Operation Yewtree hangs over Jack Thorne’s powerful new drama series National Treasure

The Harry Potter and the Cursed Child writer's story is a daring study of celebrity and historical sex abuse, says James Gill

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Paul Finchley, entertainer, comedian, and *whisper it quietly* “National Treasure”, is coming to the end of a storied career.

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A legend of the entertainment circuit, he’s respected by the likes of Robert Webb and Frank Skinner and admired by the TV execs who know he can still bring in an audience. Fame may be fading and pay cheques dwindling, but life is good for Paul – until, early one morning, a knock on the door from the police threatens to destroy his career and his family.

Jack Thorne’s new Channel 4 drama about a celebrity accused of historical sex abuse sounded near the knuckle when it was first announced. After watching, it feels even closer to the real stories we’ve seen play out on the news.

In more naive hands this could have collapsed into a shock drama doc, but star Robbie Coltrane accepts the challenge of playing a possible sex offender with dead-eyed commitment.

“They think I’m Jimmy fucking Savile,” he growls, a line that would have had most actors’ agents smiling wanly before running for the hills. 

And it’s not just Coltrane: Julie Walters plays Paul’s long-suffering, long-suspecting wife Marie, nervous that she may have turned a blind eye to her husband’s misdemeanours. Andrea Riseborough is fracturingly good as their fragile daughter Dee.

Writer Thorne – who has spent most of this year embedded in a fantasy dreamworld as the playwright of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – here flips to the other side of the coin, a showbiz nightmare where fame and affection lead to suspicion and accusations.

Meet the cast of National Treasure

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He’s clearly done his homework; the opening episode is peppered with keen touches and observations. The Sun front page, suspiciously timed to coincide with the initial police interview. The smug taxi driver, who announces with glee that he’s left the meter running all the time that Paul has been fighting through the media scrum. The Channel 4 executive, who tells Paul that he’s bringing in a new face to front their daytime quiz show: “Just someone to keep your seat warm until you come back,” he says, full of forced regret.

Did he do it? Does Paul Finchley really have something terrible in his past to hide? It’s uncomfortable playing a straight whodunit game here, but that’s what the writing forces you to do: piece the evidence together, pick up the scraps of information that the drama drops you.

“Never could tell when you were joking,” Paul’s comedy partner Carl (Tim McInnerny) says pointedly. It’s a line that will resonate throughout National Treasure. Is he being straight with us? Is he being straight with himself? Is he brushing off terrible accusations the only way he knows how, with a joke? Or are we the fools for believing him?

Comedy conceals, covers over our darkest thoughts and wishes. But what happens when the laughter stops?

National Treasure begins on Channel 4 this Tuesday, 20th September, at 9pm

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Jack Thorne: I wrote National Treasure to understand Operation Yewtree – but I’m just as troubled as before

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