Channel 4 can always be relied upon to produce interesting, topical and thought-provoking drama in every genre, with each one possessing a very particular style (almost a house style). National Treasure is the latest in a long line of these dramas. It has a heavyweight cast, and examines a subject that’s both uncomfortable to watch as it is topical. But with all that in mind, is it any good?
NB: There are spoilers in this review
Written by the excellent Jack Thorne, it stars Robbie Coltrane as entertainment legend Paul Finchley, one half of a much-loved, decades-old comedy double act. We see him first at an awards ceremony, his hulking frame standing in the shadows off-stage, shaking with nerves. With the aid of a walking stick, he shuffles his way to the podium to present a lifetime achievement award to his double-act partner, and the two trade gags as the young crowd – who have grown up with Finchley and his partner, Karl (Tim McInnerney) – rediscover their love for the pair. Backstage there’s a bit of professional rivalry there, too, with Finchley displaying an undercurrent of bitterness towards his partner (although the feeling seems mutual). That’s the first moment when you think that there are other layers to his avuncular personality unseen, hidden.
With a valedictory appearance in front of a national TV audience under his belt, Finchley feels happy. He goes back to his mansion to update his long-standing (and soon to be revealed, long-suffering) wife, Marie (Julie Walters), on the night’s activities and settle back down into domesticity. Until there’s a knock on the door the next day – when his grandchildren are visiting, no less – from the police, who want to take him in for questioning – someone has alleged historical sex offences against him.
From then on we’re on a bit of a rollercoaster ride. Finchley maintains his innocence and initially we’re with him. How could this kindly, funny, jovial man be anything other than a kindly, funny, jovial man? But, mirroring real-life cases, Thorne chooses to reveal secrets about Finchley that, throughout the rest of episode, make us think again. Slowly but surely, the patina of respectability starts to crumble. They find porn on his computer, he goes to see prostitutes, and Marie decides that she doesn’t want him to sleep in the same room when she finds out about the visit to the prostitute, citing that this – this – when he’s just been interviewed by the police for sex offences. She’s not wrong. It’s odd, compulsive and almost self-destructive behaviour. Finchley is revealed to be someone who has an enormous sexual appetite, one that Marie has been content – until now – to let him quench whenever he pleases. But he’s just stepped over that line, both for Marie and us.
In fact, Coltrane displays a lot of raw sexuality in this role. He’s pictured with his clothes off on a few occasions. Because of his enormity, he’s not necessarily someone you’d like to see without his clothes but I found him to be charismatic and magnetic. Like he was in Cracker, he was eminently fanciable because of these qualities. He’s like Tony Soprano and what many would call a weird crush. And, like Cracker, there’s always menace bubbling under the surface of Paul Finchley, some dark corners that stay covered. He’s likeable, but dangerous. Coltrane is the perfect person to play this role, however hard a part it might have been to play. You believe him and you want to believe in him, especially when he shows vulnerability (like the moment he broke down, sobbing into the arms of Karl, saying that he didn’t think he had the strength to fight this). But then he coldly goes and visits a sex worker when the news has broken. Why did he do this? Does this mean he’s always had these compulsions? Does this mean that whenever he feels the need he takes what he wants from whoever he pleases? Does this mean he abused his position of fame to rape and sexually assault whoever he wanted?
It’s uncomfortable viewing. No one likes the rug pulled from under them, especially when it comes to someone you love and have grown up with. No one likes to be lied to and no one likes having a pre-conceived notion of someone destroyed because they are a disgusting predator. Because you trusted them, you somehow you feel guilt, anger and, well, a little bit grubby. How could I have trusted them? How could I have loved them?
Prepare to feel queasy and sad by the end of it, even though it’s only the first episode.