Jack Thorne’s new Channel 4 drama National Treasure is about a fictional faded entertainer called Paul Finchley (played by Robbie Coltrane) accused of grotesque historic sexual crimes.
His wife Marie (Julie Walters) has always been aware that he has never been a faithful husband; but the claims made against him rock both their worlds (and that of their daughter, Andrea Riseborough’s Dee) when he is put on trial.
While Finchley and his story is entirely made up, the drama’s production team has made no secret that it is influenced by many of the real life cases that have rocked the British entertainment industry, from Jimmy Savile to Operation Yewtree.
Thorne (pictured, below) tells RadioTimes.com that he wanted to write the drama in order to explore questions he didn’t fully understand about the many real life cases of historic sexual abuse – cases where people have been convicted, and those where they have been acquitted.
But the writer – whose Harry Potter plays The Cursed Child is also currently playing in the West End – believes that even after penning four hours of gruelling drama and seeing it rendered on the small screen, he is just “as confused” as he was before.
“It’s something that really confuses me, about power and sex and the abuse of power,” says Thorne, whose other credits include Skins, This is England, The Fades and The Last Panthers.
“Yewtree is a journey into the past. It was the opportunity to shed light on something I didn’t understand, this whole question about whether you publicise names, how justice is pursued in these cases, the difficulties of memory, the way that these cases are put together…
“These all felt like things that I didn’t understand, and I always sort of feel like that is a very good place to start from as a writer. So I went on a journey to try and understand it and pose the questions along the way.
“You know what? I’m still just as, I um…,” he trails off and thinks carefully about what he is about to say next.
He continues: “Robbie [Coltrane]’s come out and said he feels like these names need to be publicised. And you sort of go, ‘I understand why you would think that because the victims of these crimes are carrying around scars that have lived with them their entire lives and if something helps them to come forward and address those scars then that is a wonderful thing’.
“But at the same time that question of innocent until proven guilty in today’s media world – mud sticks, and so you’ve got people who perhaps are not guilty of these crimes that have been tarnished by it forever. So I am just as confused as I was.”
The drama makes no bones about being inspired by real life cases. Jimmy Savile is name checked in episode one (“they think I’m Jimmy f*****g Savile” says Finchley after his arrest). The case of DJ and writer Paul Gambaccini (who was arrested but never charged by Operation Yewtree detectives) is mentioned in episode two.
Real life comedians also make appearances on screen. Frank Skinner congratulates Finchley at an awards reception in episode one (the ceremony is hosted by Alan Carr). While entirely fictional, the decision was made to clearly ground this in a very direct reality. Why?
“It felt it would be wrong not to use the name Jimmy Savile at some point in this show and we talked about Paul Gambaccini in episode two, and if you’re doing that then setting him in a context I think helps understand where he is in life. So the fact that Frank [Skinner] is a fan is very useful for telling the audience exactly where he’s at. The fact that we’ve got Alan Carr presenting the awards just gives it all a sort of authenticity. Lee Mack turns up later on, it sort of grounds it in a way but it also gives us license to use those names without it seeming strange.”
But, Thorne adds, the production team were keen not to base the Finchley case on anyone real. For one thing, he admits, there would be serious legal difficulties if they took this approach (plus we would know the outcome of his trial).
“It would just be a dramatic reconstruction which would give less opportunities to really give a sense of understanding of this issue. If you’re reconstructing one case, then you’re sort of trying to give an understanding of that case, whereas what we were aiming to do was to make sense of what’s happening at the moment in some weird way.”
He didn’t speak to a single person accused or convicted of crimes (again, this could have thrown up legal difficulties); but he did speak to the police, barristers, and victims of abuse.
And while he is still in the dark about the moral questions it throws up, he feels confident in the power of the real police to deal with these extremely difficult cases.
“The thing is that it comes down to a question of morality, and that morality is one that the police have to exercise,” he adds. “So we’ve got the police making very nuanced moral judgments, and every police officer we talked to in this case I would be happy for them to make those judgments, because I actually found them incredibly intelligent, incredibly empathetic human beings – but it’s a big ask.”
Thorne also says that by the end of the drama viewers will be in “no doubt “ about the truth of what Finchley did or didn’t do, but that other questions will remain.
“This is not a drama with lots of answers about how we should be behaving or what the correct response is to these incredibly delicate situations. But it was one where it felt like posing the right questions was hugely important.
“The ending is important. We’re not a sort of whodunit, we’re not a sort of thriller by any means. But it is a character study and it is one where we want the audience to feel like a jury in order to engage them in this issue – though of course I don’t want to give a sense of the ending away.”
National Treasure begins on Channel 4 on Tuesday September 20 at 9pm