by Dr Elizabeth Yardley, Associate Professor of Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.

New Channel 4 drama ‘National Treasure’ began last night, which follows the story of Paul Finchley, a much-loved and ageing comedian who finds his world shaken to its foundations after an accusation of rape that dates back to the 1990s. Criminologist Dr Elizabeth Yardley shares her views on the first episode…

‘National Treasure’ steps into the dark side of the entertainment industry and one increasingly in the light after Birmingham City University alumnus and investigative reporter Mark Williams-Thomas exposed the real Jimmy Savile in October 2012.

By the end of the first episode the main character, Paul Finchley (played by Robbie Coltrane), is facing allegations from seven women that he committed sexual offences against them. Finchley is not presented as a squeaky clean family man from the outset. The writers aren’t putting him on a pedestal from which he will inevitably fall and it clear that he is flawed from the start. He is “a bit of a creep”. At an awards ceremony his glance at a woman in a low cut dress lasts a little too long and he chuckles over a lewd remark made about her by another male attendee. He Googles (actually Yahoo’s) himself – planting the seed that he’s something of a narcissist. He sleeps with women other than his wife, appears to have been doing so for some time and is not losing any sleep over that fact.

The status of a “national treasure” appears to be one that excuses Finchley’s behaviour, particularly among other men. In the programme, television executives gush over him and tell him what big fans they are. Brummie comedian Frank Skinner makes a cameo appearance and tells Finchley how great he is and taxi drivers ask Finchley to deliver his signature lines from shows and routines.

The frequent return of the camera to Finchley’s walking stick throughout the episode swung the pendulum between Finchley as a vulnerable, frail old man and a predator whose prey has come back to haunt him – a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  His wife and daughter are presented to us as damaged – by him. His wife, played by Julie Walters, is presented as a long-suffering partner who stands by him no matter what. His daughter appears to be experiencing mental health issues – and we pose the question “Is this down to him? What did he do to her?”.

What was most interesting to me though wasn’t about who was in the episode – it was about those who were not – the victims. Whilst we saw pictures of them, we never saw them in three dimensions as living, moving, speaking human beings. I would usually have a problem with this. Victims’ voices are too often silenced, drowned out by the noise of the criminal justice system and the media, who deliberate over whether they are deserving of the victim status and innocent enough to be worthy of our sympathy. However, by excluding the victims from the first episode in the way that they have, the writers have very cleverly removed our ability to judge them – focusing our attention very directly upon Finchley. Our questions aren’t about whether the victims are truthful, respectable and convincing but whether Finchley could be guilty.

By the end of the episode, the taxi drivers have gone from asking Finchley to make them laugh to asking him “Did you do it?”, a question that is sure to linger for viewers as this series unfolds.

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