Angry and Ugly

Jack Kibble-White with an introduction to Cracker

First published March 2000

27 September, 1993 was the date of the first broadcast of “The Mad Woman In The Attic”; the first episode of Cracker. For 24 episodes over two years it arguably obtained a unique position in broadcasting history. Ostensibly a crime drama of the formulaic construction viewers were used to, Cracker obtained equally massive ratings and credibility. Given that it was also a series transmitted on ITV, its achievements are all the more exemplary.

Cracker was at turns led by contemporary social issues (like a soap opera), a dyed in the wool crime series and a platform for emotional analyses. On a Tuesday, workmates would try and piece together, during their lunch break, questions of motive that Fitz was also attempting to fathom, yet they also appreciated and recognised the puerile banter exchanged between Fitz (Robbie Coltrane) and his son Mark (Kieran O’Brien). In short, Cracker was able to marry traditional episodic dramatic structure, high drama and an ear for authentic dialogue within the confines of one serial.

The distinctions between Cracker and its most obvious bedfellows are obvious but also instructive. Prime Suspect depicted a world that at times matched Fitz’s Manchester for gothic terror, yet LaPlant’s characters were not only drawn from obvious archetypes, but also existent only to serve the relentless pursuit of the plot. Inspector Morse presented crime as a crossword puzzle. Any emotional exploration was neutered, cultured and cerebral. Between the Lines operated in a pleasingly grey world, yet the complicated moral examination was all encompassing. In this company, the apparent freewill of the characters that populated Cracker becomes more apparent. McGovern’s skill was not only to weave engaging, original stories whilst adhering to the dramatic convention of the genre, but also to allow his characters to find their own way within the plot. This honesty of characterisation allowed McGovern to create theatrical crescendos without betraying his contrivances. The second series ended with Fitz’s main suspect threatening his wife (Barbara Flynn) whilst colleague and mistress Penhaligon (Geraldine Somerville) simultaneously pulled a gun on her rapist and workmate Jimmy Beck (Lorcan Cranitch). Over the top and sensationalist surely, yet avowedly not in execution. Like Paul McCartney one suspects that McGovern suffers from an inability to accurately evaluate his own work, yet here all the elements cohered splendidly. We never expected to get such visceral thrills from a work as worthy as this. Cracker encompassed a great deal and was able to deliver on a wide range of levels unmatched by any other drama which has positioned itself so resolutely within the mainstream.

All our crime dramas should be made this way. They should be mercurial, expansive and angry and ugly. And written by Jimmy McGovern.