Breaking the Code

Graham Kibble-White on ‘The Big Crunch’

First published March 2000

Ted Whitehouse’s “The Big Crunch” will always remain in that substrata of lesser Cracker stories. And that’s chiefly because it’s not scripted by Jimmy McGovern (the first Cracker, in fact, written by someone else). But it would be unfair to dismiss this story for what it is not. What it is, is something of a dramatic cul-de-sac for the series. It’s a story that’s only concerned with itself, contributing little to the overarching narrative – bar those developments imposed upon it by the writer’s brief.

Flanked by arguably the two most successful and loudest Cracker stories (“To Be A Somebody” and “Men Should Weep”) “The Big Crunch” sees a series drawing breath, reluctant to strike out in any new directions.

Whitehouse is a writer of considerable experience (certainly more so than McGovern) but perhaps something of a journeyman. His CV reveals his notable works have been in adaptation (The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, A Question of Guilt, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, most famously The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil and The Cloning of Joanna May – with Fay Weldon) and betray a talent at ease with previously established fictions and formats, and less inclined to create or innovate. In short, a capable session man. It’s unsurprising that “The Big Crunch” fails to inspire, but like the rest of the Cracker canon, it’s still superior stuff.

The story is about sex and death (as Fitz tells us). After making Joanne, a 17 year old member of his religious sect (The Fellowship) pregnant, Kenneth Trant abducts, drugs and ultimately murders her with the assistance of his wife (Virginia), his brother (Michael) and his sister-in-law (Norma); all also members. Although unambitious in scope, this was the first Cracker to set Fitz loose amongst the suburbs (it thus feels a little incongruous) and allows Whitehouse some fun with the juxtaposition of banality and dark desires. The scene where Virginia Trant lays out, amongst the tea set and macaroons, photographs of Kenneth and Joanne copulating against a tree, is a metaphor for the story as a whole; the baseness of desire besmirching the apparent conviviality and politeness of the commuter-classes. It’s a powerful image certainly, and not without humour – yet variations of this scene crop up again throughout the rest of the story (culminating in the photographs being produced during a church service) retroactively diluting that initial impact. But it is apparent that Whitehouse brings more than the hack to his work. There is real thought behind many of the elements – however in execution, he is prone to fumble. He drops the ball again when Joanne reveals she knows where the bathroom is in Virginia’s house. Initially this is a subtle moment of revelation, however Whitehouse goes on to underscore it with Virginia’s declaration: “She’s been here before!” thus hammering the point home, rather like he’s painstakingly explaining the punchline of a joke.

So there are strong ideas in evidence. Yet, other aspects of “The Big Crunch” betray a shallowness of thought. This is manifest mainly in the portrayal of the characters. It was always inevitable that anyone else’s interpretation of Fitz and company would have a certain second-hand quality to it. Cracker‘s strength is in its distinctive characterisation and in this regard the programme fares ill without McGovern. Unlike The Bill or Casualty, Cracker resists the imposition of a straightforward format or house-style that can be dictated to, and reflected by, different writers (although by series three, Paul Abbott appears to be attempting to do just this; whittling away the characters into archetypes – DCI Wise in particular, suffering the ignominy of being redrawn as a buffoonish fat policeman) and Whitehouse’s Fitz remains something of a parody. This Fitz is hungry to engage in debate and semantic sword play and comes across as a bore, desperate to exhibit his intellect. The heart of a Cracker story is Fitz’s confrontation with the suspect, wherein (not to put it too glibly) there comes a sense of revelation, as though a raw unspeakable truth is uncovered. “The Big Crunch” short-changes the viewer in this respect, as Fitz’s interrogation of Kenneth Trant devolves into wordplay and linguistics. In fact, Whitehouse seems wholly preoccupied with the idea of puzzles, leading to the rather un-Fitzlike scene where he attempts to crack the code held within the symbols that have been painted on Joanne’s body. An intellectual crossword like this serves to remove Fitz from the viscera in which he normally dirties his hands, and places him instead in the firmament of Poirot, Holmes or – dare I say it – Morse. Penhaligon fares better, and deviates little from the character established thus far, however Beck becomes an ignorant, gruff copper whose function is to pour scorn on Fitz’s (correct) theories and unfailingly lead the investigation in the wrong direction. The only moment of rapprochement for Beck is when Whitehouse touches on the story arc of Billborough’s death. The contrast of the guilt-stricken, miserable and lonely Beck, with the insouciant smiling duo of Fitz and Penhaligon (smug in their powerbase) is effective in highlighting Beck’s feeling of alienation and need for vengeance – which is, of course, explored in the following story.

But it’s not just the regulars who seem amiss – the portrayal of the Fellowship is sketchy at best. We are only permitted to meet those members who are directly involved in Joanne’s death, and get no real impression of the mores of the sect. Similarly it would have been fascinating to see how Kenneth subverts the morals of his group, and gains the assistance of these achingly “normal” people in the drugging and murder of a young woman and the ritualistic painting of her body. How did Michael Trant, for example, get to the point where he would participate in this? It is this story’s greatest weakness that Whitehouse chooses to let the process happen off-screen. It undermines the credibility of the tale and hints at a lack of ambition on his part. He instead invests everything in the character of Kenneth Trant, around whom the others orbit. Kenneth is portrayed as deeply charismatic and sexually magnetic, and yet this fails to gel somehow. Whether this is due to Jim Carter’s playing of the role, or inadequacies in the script is hard to divine. Certainly Kenneth is given some memorable moments, chiefly when he informs his wife in grave, pious tones: “Even I have enemies”, however one cannot quite believe that by the sheer force of his personality he would be able to co-opt the others into crime. In the final analysis, Kenneth Trant is probably the only character in the whole Cracker canon that Fitz is never able to affect and although this imbues him with a sense of status, if does effectively rob the programme of a certain basic core of humanity and truth that washes in the undercurrent of all the best Cracker stories.

“The Big Crunch” is about puzzles and clues. It presents a fractured picture and sets Fitz on a mission to reassemble the parts, taking in mathematical equations, hard physics and string-theory; a cold cerebral challenge. A truth is divined via the intellect but a base, fleshier truth remains undisturbed. The story ends, inevitably, with the arrest of Kenneth and the others. However, as Fitz tells Penhaligon, Kenneth will not stand trial. The others, blinded with devotion, will atone for his sins, Kenneth will go free. Whitehouse’s lack of faith in humanity, and more specifically, in the dynamics of group mentality, is wholly appropriate for Cracker and shows that despite the deficiencies of this story it is still worth watching. In a low-key way this matches the climax of “One Day A Lemming Will Fly” – another tale of sex and death. For that reason alone, “The Big Crunch” transcends any of the Paul Abbot stories that followed in the final year. Amongst the misfiring characterisations, self-contained plot and intellectual parlour games, at some basic level Ted Whitehouse cracks it.