What the Papers Said

Graham Kibble-White compiles contemporary reviews of ‘The Mad Woman in the Attic’

First published March 2000

Granada launched Cracker with a flurry of the usual propaganda, declaring the series to be gritty, brave and different. Of course, in the context of ITVs programming in 1993, “different” subtly equated to “good”. And as the programme has since borne out, this time we could believe the hype. Yet contemporary reviewers looked on “The Mad Woman In The Attic” (Cracker‘s first story) with jaundiced eyes – understandable when one bears in mind that previously ITV had brought us a two part Sinatra biopic and Cocoon: The Return in that Monday night slot. As the following illustrates, Cracker was uniformly well-received, but cautiously so. Thus note the sense of disbelief in these reviews at how good this first episode actually was, and the guarded manner in which our critics make their praise.

Characters who ditch their first names are suspect. Eddie Fitzgerald, the psychologist and compulsive gambler in Cracker (Granada) is always called Fitz. Billed as a guest lecturer, late because he waited to check that yet another bet had gone down, Fitz throws the books at the students; everything from Spinoza to Jung, an act of philosophic vandalism that leaves the audience stunned. Though not by the flying volumes, crashing among them like spattered game birds.

Meanwhile the police are into a very messy murder of a young woman on a train. Not the Orient Express, the Sheffield to Manchester chugger, and the man lying injured beside the tracks is pleading amnesia, although his prints are all over the blood splashed carriage. Fitz offers his services to tickle the suspect’s memory (“I’ve forgotten more about amnesia than you’ve ever known.”) Amnesiac or not, the suspect guesses – don’t we all? – that it’s Fitz who needs a psychologist. Cracker combines blood by the litre with a series of sly parody allusions woven into Jimmy McGovern’s script, with the character of Fitz built around Robbie Coltrane; a writer’s equivalent of wrapping the Albert Hall. It’s this parody that shows through, not Coltrane’s solemn vision of Fitz as a man with a mission to explain.

The investigator has keen instincts about other people’s lives and makes a hash of his own. Thank you Morse and all your tribe. There’s a Professor Higgins figure, a voice expert listening to the tape of an interview and pronouncing with an accent like a mixed grill: “Originally Irish, brought up round ‘ere; I’d say spent a year or two abroad – Spain, Italy, Portugal – and the last 14 – 15 years down south. This man is educated – ‘e knows how to ‘andle his participles.” You may confidently expect to meet a pathologist talking about the meaning of life and God while excavating the victim’s viscera. Morse, where are you now?

McGovern and director Michael Winterbottom do it with deadpan comic boldness that works well. Though it has not yet got me on Fitz’s side.

A woman is found brutally murdered on a train and a man is found near the railway track suffering from amnesia. He is cut about the face and there are traces of the woman’s blood on his clothes. It looks like an open and shut case …

So rigid are the conventions of television drama that it is practically axiomatic in such scenarios that the man will turn out to be innocent. The more evidence is stacked against a murder suspect, the more we admire the ingenuity of Inspector Morse or Poirot or whoever as they demonstrate that the suspect is cut about his face because he forgot to feed his rottweiler, say, and he had the woman’s blood on his clothes because he works as a dry-cleaner’s. These Houdini-like escapes can be entertaining at a basic level but they also leave a residue of dissatisfaction: manipulation by the scriptwriter is too blatant.

For me, the acid test of Cracker (ITV) will be whether the man charged with the murder is miraculously exculpated in the next episode. If he isn’t, I shall say three cheers for writer Jimmy McGovern for bucking the trend and coming to grips with real issues – not who commits crimes of violence, but why.

The most powerful scene last night featured a confrontation between the “murderer” and a criminal psychologist who was almost as mad – and as violent – as he was. With the implied moral that the men were just two sides of the same coin, there was a real dramatic potency in their relationship, which would be dissipated if it turned out that someone else had committed the crime. Robbie Coltrane as the psychologist turned in a beautifully judged performance. Nine actors out of 10 would use a new starring vehicle to try to augment their personal popularity: even if the characters they are playing have warts, these are portrayed as mere blemishes in an otherwise likeable personality. Coltrane avoided this: he behaved really badly, and it took a long time to warm to him. His drinking wasn’t just an eccentricity, nor his gambling just a charming quirk: they were the ugly manifestations of a deeper disorder.

Ralph Richardson was once asked what quality Olivier’s acting had which he thought his own lacked. “A sense of danger.” he replied. Coltrane exuded the same danger last night, and confirmed himself as one of our most excitingly versatile performers. This series may really scale the heights.

Delivering a lecture to freshman psychology students, Dr Fitzgerald first pelts them with the standard textbooks and then urges them to begin their education by seeking the darkness within. You would have to be a few A-levels short of a conditional offer not to notice Dr Fitzgerald doesn’t have to travel far to reach his own inner gloom. In the first 10 minutes of Jimmy McGovern’s excellent script for Cracker (ITV), he has lost a heavy bet, some old friends and his long-suffering wife, who goes home to mother after discovering that he’s forged her signature to put a chunk of the mortgage on the horses. The man’s a raging mess, played with paradoxical neatness by Robbie Coltrane, an actor who uses fastidious precision to create an absolute shambles, a criminal psychologist whose behaviour is positively criminal.

He’s soon helping the police with their inquiries, having shouldered his way into the investigation of a brutal murder on a train. The police have an excellent suspect, a man found semi-conscious and blood-boltered by the track. His fingerprints are all over the crime scene and he matches the witnesses’ descriptions, but he now claims to have total amnesia. The tension is in the hunt for certainty not for a culprit.

After a decade of judicial miscarriages, it’s hardly surprising that the whodunit should given way to the didhedoit (the same device gave the first Prime Suspect its real charge). But it was handled with real inventiveness here, both in the script and direction. The scenes in which Kelly is arrested and driven off, for example, had a bustling aggression to them which left you in a slight daze yourself – the camera crowding and jostling, the soundtrack delivering two simultaneous harangues (tough cop and soft cop) which rattles you enough to be grateful for the sudden silence that followed the slam of the cell door. Then, like a cherry on the top, McGovern added this cynical little exchange: “Don’t know about him but you terrified me.”

Only in the self-consciously set-piece speeches (an emotional appeal from the dead girl’s mother and Fitz’s confrontation with the suspect, in which he reconstructs the murder’s thoughts with a disturbing fluency) did the writing falter from the casual veracity it showed elsewhere. It didn’t really matter because the plot was so solidly constructed, offering you a whole range of pleasures from the brisk procedural (the scene in which Coltrane snapped through a word association test was a small masterpiece of sly revelation) to a sense of lives extending beyond the frame of the story.

The details were great too: Coltrane’s waspish exchange with an anti-smoking taxi-driver; the forgetful enthusiasm of the forensic scientist who wants to be snapped pointing to a “classic” arterial blood spray: DCI Billsborough being ticked off by his female superior for sloppy language. This, and restive, ingenuous camerawork continually gave you the sense that Cracker hadn’t been exhausted, like most genre television, by its one passage before your eyes. They got away with that title.

Perhaps Robbie Coltrane is too big for any part. He occupies it to bursting point. But as the learned psychologist in Cracker (ITV), he is positively gross m’dears.

I mean this in the nicest possible way. Robbie is quite the most overwhelming, unspeakable, prodigious and unbelievable psychologist who ever nobbled a neurosis. He is a bolshie, bloody-minded, bad-tempered psychologist. But somehow, he overfills the bill perfectly. Cracker is a seven-week series divided into three stories and the first of these opening last night, “The Mad Woman In The Attic”, centres on the horrific razor-killing of a young woman on a train. Really horrific and really bloody. The Kensington gore factory must have been out of stock for weeks afterwards.

Yet here we sit, idiots that we are, laughing at the one-liners which Coltrane delivers as few others can. For example: The taxi-driver who says politely: “I’d prefer you not to smoke, sir.” Coltrane: “Tough.” The waitress who asks: “Would you like anything to start?” Coltrane: “Another ashtray please, heh heh.”

There are a lot of anti-ASH jokes. Coltrane is playing the part of Dr (Fitz) Fitzgerald, an academic whose private life is a total disaster. He is unbearably rude, preferably in public, drinking, smoking, overspending and spouting with such bombast that his friends, and his wife (Barbara Flynn) soon have enough.

Then we see Fitz trying to cope with his massive, teenage son. If he doesn’t get up instead of lying in his bed all day (says the highly-qualified mind-scientist) he’ll throw a bucket of water over him. The irony might cross the threshold of ludicrousness, but it is highly entertaining.

The great enigma here is the conflict between comedy and tragedy. We have to keep crossing this barrier between sombre nastiness and mad flippancy. It’s a kind of compartmentalised viewing experience: with Coltrane, the comedy has the upper hand.

As an example, there was his questioning of No 1 suspect (Adrian Dunbar), who professed amnesia. Fitz launched into a resoundingly shocking piece of psycho-speak, explaining why any man could be understood for having attacked any woman. The suspect looked at him dully, and said: “I think it’s you who needs a psychologist.”

Because of the writing and Coltrane – mainly because of Coltrane – this blackest of comedies is excellent television. I will watch it to the bitter end, possibly because I have been hopelessly brutalised.

Robbie Coltrane arrived at wherever he is now from a starting point labelled “alternative comedian”. He has always been about as comfortable with that tag as he looks in a suit, a discomfort shared by most of the breed. I once asked Ben Elton what he was an alternative to, and he said: “Going down the pub”.

Of course the Persil commercials have finished Coltrane with the right-on, upstairs-room-in-a-pub denizens of alternative comedy, but he couldn’t care less, I dare say. Now Coltrane is a bit of an actor, a word which he pronounces in interviews with self-mocking irony: “Ac-tor”. In fact he has turned into an accomplished ac-tor. He can act, and more than a bit. The worry about Cracker, which began last night, is not Coltrane, who is excellent, but the structure of the piece. On the evidence of episode one (of seven), Cracker may be suffering an identity crisis.

Coltrane plays Fitz, a criminal psychologist who does too much of most things, especially smoking, drinking and spending money. Consequently, his wife and children are at the end of their respective tethers.

The departure leaves Fitz free to pursue his principal activities, which are finding new places to cash cheques and helping the police to find a murderer. In particular, the police are anxious for help in their enquiries as to who left a young woman bloodily murdered on a train.

Is it the man found unconscious beside the track? He claims amnesia, a likely tale. Cracker‘s most powerful moments so far have been the interviews between Fitz and the suspect, which include the latter being asked a series of multiple-choice questions such as who is the prime minister and who is the England football manager. Apparently the fact that the suspect gets them all wrong is suspicious, a worry for those of us who work hard at trying to forget the names of the prime minister and the England manager.

Cracker‘s identity problem revolves around its attempt to tell two stories at once. Fitz as played by Coltrane is clearly a series in itself, a far more interesting strand than girl-killed-on train plus suspect-claims-amnesia. This is pure cinematic cliché, not helped by the fact that the police involved exclude without a second thought the possibility that the suspect fell off the train and banged his head.

Perhaps it will all pull together in the coming weeks. One hopes that even people who insist on Coltrane being funny will stay to see if it does. The writing and acting make the effort worthwhile. And after all, there is wit if not jokes, as when a Glasgow tram inspector asks Coltrane where he got on. “Eh … it was that door over there.”