NATIONAL TREASURE on Channel 4 tackles the dark underbelly of celebrity life, blurring the line between fact and fiction.
Operation Yewtree was clearly at the forefront of everybody’s mind as Channel 4 aired its latest controversial drama. Never ones to shy away from producing provocative series but tackling the delicate and potentially inflammatory topic of historical sexual abuse has the prospect to be a make or break decision. Luckily, with Jack Thorne (script writer for Skins and This is England) at the helm, this is a delicately handled and thought-provoking show.
The gloomy opening shots of long corridors and warehouse like vastness propels the viewer into a sense of melancholic nervousness that doesn’t lift for the duration of the episode. There’s a sense of unease from the off as the camera follows Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane) through the neon lit back halls of a theatre and we see what he does – the slim figure of the young woman walking ahead of him, the dragging gait of his own hindered walk, and the iron bars covering the doors; a hint at prison life to come perhaps.
Coltrane has always seemed the go-to actor for a nice chap with a creeping darkness lurking in the background, indeed the entire series of Cracker revolved around his back-and-forth between pedestrian family man and outright nutter. Here he remains on the nice side of the line, but only just.
Finchley is an aging comedian who has just bestowed a lifetime achievement award on his friend and former comic partner; their show sounds a bit like Morcambe and Wise, a point brought awkwardly home when the detective interviewing Finchley admits to watching the re-runs every Christmas. And so we have our ‘star’, a comedian now hosting a daytime quiz show, and his loyal wife Marie (Julie Walters – oddly left with little to do in this first episode) who seems to know about, and ignore, his extra-marital sex life.
The script is cleverly woven with tiny clues, or possible red herrings: the late night scene of Finchley’s huge pale face bathed in the eerie blue light of his laptop; we don’t know what he’s watching and Coltrane’s unreadable expression makes it difficult to form judgement. The detective’s small but perhaps significant question relating to the relationship with Finchley’s own father, and then there’s the daughter. Andrea Riseborough is virtually unrecognisable as Dee Finchley, with matted hair and an anxious twitch meaning she can’t sit still for more than three minutes. The conversation between herself and her father is perhaps the most unsettling and gripping as we traverse a maze of past mistakes and potential memories submerged within the daughter’s troubling dreams.
This first episode does what is required, raising more questions than it answers and crafting a suitably murky world where we hope Finchley is innocent but we wouldn’t be all together surprised if he wasn’t. But then, that’s the nature of the celebrity culture isn’t it? They might be human but they’re not altogether real and watching their lives unfold on the covers of The Daily Mail is about as entertaining, if not more so, than watching them in a damn good series.
The cameos of Channel 4 alumni like Alan Carr and Robert Webb is a clever nod to how quickly a ‘respected’ member of the establishment can fall and the lurking score, rising and falling like a threatening wave, is used consciously throughout.
This isn’t a nice watch but it’s a good one with all involved on the top of their game and perhaps very aware of the links with Saville and the like; there’s no attempt to shy away from that or disguise this entirely as fiction. It may not be actual fact but it’s close enough for you to wonder.