In the review of “Mr Bates vs the Post Office,” Toby Jones delivers a flawless performance in a powerful story about a widespread scandal.
The television network has enlisted top performers for the show Mr Bates vs the Post Office, and rightfully so. The scandal surrounding the Post Office has been labeled as the most widespread injustice in the history of British law, making it astonishing that it has taken so long for this tragic tale to be adapted for the screen. This portrayal depicts the two-decade-long battle for vindication, as numerous subpostmasters were falsely accused of mishandling funds, resulting in hundreds being convicted and imprisoned, and causing immeasurable damage to countless lives. However, it was not the subpostmasters at fault, but rather the problematic Horizon computer system which proved to be a costly failure.
While certain names have been altered and certain moments fictionalized, we are informed from the beginning that this is an accurate account. For those unfamiliar with the specifics of the controversy, it serves as a helpful reminder that these seemingly unbelievable occurrences, steeped in corporate greed and malice, truly occurred. Toby Jones portrays the main character, Alan Bates, whose post office is adorned with a banner reading “Justice for Post Office Victims” from the very beginning. Over the course of two decades, he becomes a determined leader for those who were wrongly accused and suffered the loss of their livelihoods, reputations, freedom, and in some cases, their lives.
The unfolding of events in this story is reminiscent of an episode from the TV show Black Mirror, and it is just as distressing as the bleakest of those imagined dystopian worlds. Jo, played by Monica Dolan, is a beloved member of her small village community, responsible for managing the post office and cafe. The aroma of her homemade scones is almost tangible through the screen. Although she admits to not being great with finances, she seeks assistance from a Horizon phoneline when discrepancies in the Post Office’s finances become increasingly difficult to explain. However, she is reassured that the situation will resolve itself. When the deficit on the screen suddenly doubles right before her eyes, it is truly horrifying, like a scene from a horror movie.
Since we are aware that there has been a gradual process towards absolving the innocent, but not towards assigning blame, it becomes easier to endure, although the initial episode is difficult to sit through. The injustice is so severe and apparent that it gradually tightens a knot in one’s stomach, growing increasingly sickening as more individuals are falsely accused. Lee, played by Will Mellor, is perplexed by the recurring discrepancies in his financial records and frustrated by the response he receives from the helpline, constantly being told that no one else is experiencing similar issues. “We must have faith in the British justice system,” he tells his wife, a strategy that ultimately proves to be tragically optimistic.
This narrative is reminiscent of the biblical story of David and Goliath, except in this case, the Goliath is a complex entity with multiple heads, representing a combination of traditional institutional power and modern corporate practices. The prosecution of the post office operators did not require involvement from the police, as the Post Office has been responsible for conducting its own criminal investigations for the past three centuries. Evidence has revealed that Fujitsu, the Japanese technology company that supplies the Horizon software, was aware of flaws in the system but chose to conceal this information. The fact that the victims were able to challenge and overcome these powerful forces is truly impressive, and their triumph is just as inspiring as it should be.
Selecting Jones and Dolan as our representatives for the human toll of this appalling corporate deceit is an impeccable decision. However, there were numerous individuals who were manipulated by a helpline, and the cast is extensive and exceptional. Julie Hesmondhalgh portrays Alan’s partner, Suzanne, who stands by him throughout his lengthy fight for justice, even if it means sacrificing her sewing room to boxes of evidence. As the narrative progresses from individual post offices to the media, the political system, the boardrooms, and the courts, other recognizable faces emerge, including Ian Hart, Shaun Dooley, Katherine Kelly, Lia Williams, and Adam James. It is a remarkable ensemble.
Although the drama may occasionally use broad strokes and emphasize significant moments, it is understandable. The hard-earned triumphs deserve to be celebrated and highlighted with dramatic music. The ongoing Post Office scandal can sometimes get lost in the overwhelming amount of details, but this approach humanizes it and highlights the injustice done to many innocent individuals.