National Treasure (Channel 4, Tuesdays, 9pm) is one of the most Catholic dramas we’ve seen in a while. Robbie Coltrane plays Paul Finchley, a retired comedian accused of raping several women long ago – one of them an underage babysitter. Whether he did it is unclear. In a sense it doesn’t matter. Writer Jack Thorne implies that Finchley could have done it. Coltrane plays the accused as if he fears that he did. The show is enveloped in guilt.
We live in the wake of Savile, and Edenic memories of youth have been shattered. Beloved clowns have been exposed as child abusers. We weren’t being entertained; we were being groomed. And as often happens in abuse cases, the sense of responsibility goes far and wide. Was it, upon reflection, obvious what was going on? By failing to spot a crime, do we share responsibility for it?
Finchley’s wife – a devoted Catholic played by Julie Walters – says that she “chooses to believe” her husband, and the alternative implies that she tolerated evil. Her daughter asks: “Did it happen to me and I’ve repressed the memory?” It would make sense of her drug addiction and her own failed relationships. And Finchley poses himself the most awful question of all: “Did I do something terrible and not realise or, worse, care?” Finchley chases women, watches violent porn and uses prostitutes. In a flashback, he visits his teenage daughter in bed and tells her that he’s a bad man but he tries to be good – for her.
This is one of many scenes of confession. Confession to betrayed wives, confession to the police, confession to the press. In the confessional, we Catholics ask forgiveness for things we’ve done, failed to do and – crucially – for things we can’t remember. The characters here are fallen children. Even if they didn’t do the terrible things of which they are accused, they lived in a time when people did do them and they failed to stop it.
The show puts one man in the dock, but really it’s about all of us. It articulates the way we feel whenever we catch an old clip of Jimmy Savile on television and think: “Good God, could nobody see?”
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