We’re going to attempt to do a few weekly features and this – #tbt, or throw-back Thursday – is designed to celebrate crime drama series from yesteryear. If you have any particular favourites do get in touch with suggestions, and we’re happy to dig into the ones you’ve put forward. But, to kick things off, we’ve decided to go for a stalwart from the 1990s. Written by Jimmy McGovern, and starring Robbie Coltrane, Cracker was a rule-breaker and a huge ratings success.
It’s almost easy to forget that when Robbie Coltrane landed the role of Edward Fitzgerald, it raised more eyebrows than a Roger Moore fan convention. Coltrane had previously been thought of as a comic actor, thanks to his work at the forefront of the 1980s Alternative Comedy boom, especially his appearances in the Comic Strip series.
Jimmy McGovern, on the other hand, had come from writing for Brookside to garnering a reputation for hard-hitting drama of the kind that hadn’t been seen since Alan Bleasdale. And then came Cracker.
It told the story of a deeply flawed criminal psychologist, or profiler, whose methods weren’t exactly textbook and his personal life was a mess of epic proportions. His famous quote, “I smoke too much, I drink too much, I gamble too much… I am too much” never told a truer story.
Cracker introduced the British public to a new kind of crime character – the anti-hero. This man, this brilliant man, was as easy to hate as he was to love and audiences were conflicted as to what to feel for him. Sympathy? Pity? Loathing? Fitz could quite easily provide oodles of loathing himself, but this paradigm of the anti-hero broke the mould of hero detectives hitherto endemic on British television. Cracker was different. Instead it ushered in a new method of investigation – profiling – and saw Fitz get into the mind of rapists, murderers and the very worst and twisted parts of society. No wonder Fitz couldn’t get it together to lead a ‘normal’ family life.
It was these twisted parts of society that McGovern seemed to revel in. His stories strongly and explicitly suggested that society – an unjust and unforgiven society driven by greed spawned villains. But the villains in Crackers weren’t any old villains. They were fully formed, human characters that had been mangled by cruel social circumstance. McGovern always gave a reason for their murderous exertions, another way the series broke moulds.
The stories were ingenious exercises in ways to test Fitz and his playful and incisive intellect. Over time the characters he had to evaluate – and the crimes they committed gnawed away at his soul – to the extent that the job broke him and his ability to fashion loving relationships his natural charm and wit led him into. In the end the work destroyed him, but it was only the work that mattered.
With Manchester as a foreboding backdrop, sparkling dialogue, intriguing peripheral characters, perfectly cast actors who revelled in McGovern’s skill and some noteable, villains with affecting stories, Cracker (and Prime Suspect) was a class apart in the 1990s. Watching it now it does feel a bit dated – rooted as it was in the issues and social maladies of the day – but there’s no doubt that Cracker was indeed a cracker and a genuine influence for crime dramas in years to come.