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Mr Bates vs the Post Office review: ITV drama focuses too much on the story and too little on the telling

Jones and a fine assembly of British television actors bring the Post Office scandal to life

Nick Hilton
Monday 01 January 2024 22:00 GMT
Mr Bates vs the Post Office trailer released

There is a trite phrase occasionally rolled out when discussing journalism or other factual programming. “The truth,” they say, “is stranger than fiction.” It is a shortcut to describing those extraordinary stories that seem to defy the banality of ordinary life. But its occasional deployment also speaks to an inverse reality: that fiction is, usually, stranger than the truth. ITV’s Mr Bates vs the Post Office is the perfect example of this. The true story of a group of regular people, falsely accused of fraud after an IT error, taking on a massive corporation. It is a story you don’t really need to see to believe.

Alien vs Predator, Freddy vs Jason, Kramer vs Kramer: now there’s a new fight to the death in town. Mr Bates vs the Post Office follows the efforts of Alan Bates (Toby Jones), a Post Office sub-postmaster, to bring together a ragtag group of fellow professionals who have been accused of criminality following errors in their accounting software. This is the real-life story of an injustice perpetrated by a combination of incompetence and malevolence. The road to justice is long, covering many years of campaigning, but victorious. “If we’re going to walk away,” Bates tells his wife Suzanne (Julie Hesmondhalgh), “we’ll do it with our heads held high.”

Jones leads the cast, playing another mild-mannered yet resilient man, but it is a fine assembly of British television actors. Adam James, Shaun Dooley, Monica Dolan, Will Mellor, Alex Jennings and many more: all imbue the men and women embroiled in the scandal with humanity and dignity. What’s less explicable is the decision to allow Nadhim Zahawi – a serving MP who was dismissed as a minister earlier this year, following accusations of financial indiscretions – to play himself. If the point of Mr Bates vs the Post Office is, in part, to correct the record (“They won’t ever put another picture in the paper to say I’m innocent,” Krupa Pattani’s Saman laments), then allowing a disgraced politician to launder his reputation seems a bit off.

It is the sort of strange decision that the show otherwise eschews. Action opens in media res, with the “Horizon system” throwing up issues and lives being destroyed. “My savings are already gone, my credit cards maxed out,” weeps Dolan’s Jo. “Nobody else has these problems,” a succession of sub-postmasters are told by disembodied technical support. But it is happening, and while it’s hard to make the act of digital bookkeeping visually dynamic, the ramifications are clear and painful. “They want to close me down to shut me up,” Bates tells the police. “Because they don’t want people to know what I know.”

The danger with a show like this is succumbing to the expository urge and allowing the detail of a story that has previously been told via a series of Panorama exposés (not to mention books and podcasts) to swamp the storytelling. In its earnest and well-intentioned desire to vindicate the sub-postmasters, Mr Bates vs the Post Office focuses too much on the story and too little on the telling. “Past master and liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Arbitrators,” Bates says, introducing a new character, “and board of the Inland Revenue’s chief prosecuting and investigating accountant.” That is the sort of clanging dialogue used to usher in new people and propel the plot along.

Sustaining tension over the course of four hour-long episodes is a tricky business: conveying the technicalities of the “institutional obstinacy” that led to a series of wrongful convictions, and lives destroyed, is fiddly. Getting into the nuts and bolts of the Horizon system, spelling out for audiences exactly what happened, isn’t conducive to dramatic programming. It is hard to imagine many will stick with Mr Bates vs the Post Office for the full duration of its four-night run.

Thankfully, for those with a more limited attention span, ITV is also broadcasting a one-hour documentary about the scandal, titled Mr Bates vs the Post Office: The Real Story. This telling involves interviews with the real-life characters (“It was diabolical,” says the real Alan Bates, “something had to be done about it”) and integrates scenes from the show, much as Crimewatch utilised dramatisations. The more limited scope of the documentary goes some way to solving the dramatic sagginess of its sibling.

Perhaps the key issue for Toby Jones and company lies in Mr Bates vs the Post Office’s oppositional title. Bates might be a suitable everyman, but he’s used as a vague proxy for a group of mistreated sub-postmasters. His crusade is a bureaucratic one; his enemy an institutional one. The Post Office’s CEO at the time, Paula Vennells (Lia Williams), gives a human face to the attempt to close ranks against the wrongly accused franchisees, but the Post Office is a slippery, unsatisfying villain. Through odd creative decisions and the technical nature of the intrigue, Mr Bates vs the Post Office ends up being a human drama that could use a bit more drama.

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