Sunday, October 1, 2006 by

As Jimmy McGovern himself attests Cracker‘s always been about big issues: rape, racism and miscarriages of justice, and although the subject of pensions had provoked his ire enough to warrant the full Cracker treatment, he knew it just wasn’t the kind of story that would draw Fitz back from his largely reformed life in Australia.

So instead we got Iraq. In Cracker‘s Manchester, it’s everywhere, in the routines of stand-up comedians and all across our television screens. And just in case we’re too clueless to spot the “big theme” from the copious references both in the background and foreground of almost every scene, the episode kicked off with a montage of war torn footage to bludgeon the point home.

This intro was a departure for Cracker and doubtless raised concerns amongst the faithful that this revival was going to be a very different proposition from the series that had blistered its way across ITV’s screens some 10 years ago. The rather nasty new logo will have served only to deepen the gloom. However, as soon as we got into the story proper we were back on familiar (for those who remember “To Be a Somebody” some might say too familiar) territory.

Fitz’s family had all moved on from the troubled nucleus we last saw back in 1995, but McGovern felt disinclined to spend protracted screen time filling us in on the missing years and we were told little more than Fitz’s daughter was getting married. This was a good move, even though a deleted scene in which Fitz delivered an excruciating father of the bride speech (shown in the ITV4 documentary that followed) demonstrated that McGovern is still able to make the back story feel remarkably authentic in a way that seems to delude most other writers of crime drama.

But no sooner had the device by which to get the character back into Manchester been deployed, then it was discarded, in favour of sending our hero hurtling headlong into his latest adventure. In fact on the taxi ride from the church, Fitz and Judith actually crossed the path of this story’s main protagonist. This was to be the first of many coincidences, and perhaps an early indication that conventional sleuthing was to play a minor part in this story. However the significant role that coincidence has played in past episodes of Cracker has often been overlooked amidst the energy and fire of the adventure itself, and it was only in viewing this episode in isolation from the rest of the canon that it became apparent that Fitz and his quarry often seem to cross paths before the real action has begun.

Something else that this one-off special made clear was that the Cracker format isn’t quite as bomb-proof as it first seems. Much of the pre-publicity surrounding the revival centred on the fact that both McGovern and Coltrane were returning, with the implication that this meant we were in safe hands. However, perhaps more so than any other crime drama, the success of a Cracker episode relies heavily on the performance of its killer. Given motivation is the very heart of the series, when the actor fails to adequately portray the cathartic release of committing their unspeakable crimes, the authenticity of the whole show is called into question, and worse still, Fitz’s character becomes diminished by his fascination in his protagonist’s psyche.

In this respect, the one-off was blessed as Anthony Flanagan turned in a superb performance as Kenny. It helped that his Northern Ireland backstory and motivation for killing sounded utterly plausible, but in the hand of a lesser actor Kenny could’ve turned into just another veteran enraged by society’s rejection. Less well realised were the rest of the supporting cast, and in particular the police force. One of the more impressive elements of the original series of Cracker was the way in which amidst a tightly plotted crime drama, McGovern was able to waft in little elements of humanity to sketch out Billborough and the others as more than just plot conduits. This latest bunch of officers (Kenny excepted) never gave the impression of having any life outside the investigation.

But then this was all about being a big, bold, taut drama, and much like the best episodes of Cracker it felt a little like a runaway train once it going. McGovern’s customary insights into the human condition were present, but comments such as Judith’s observation on the erotic allure of a female soldier degrading a male prisoner, didn’t quite fit into the story as a whole, and the realisation that human-beings can find all sorts of things sexually arousing wasn’t really the revelation the writer seemingly thought it was.

Ostensibly though, the episode screamed “issues” from beginning to the end: the Taliban’s involvement in Manchester’s drug culture, inner city regeneration and infidelity all passed through the Cracker mincer, whilst McGovern’s perennial decrying of society’s ability not to do the decent thing underpinned most of the killer’s motivations. A number of commentators have suggested that the subject of Iraq was a little passé and that McGovern should have picked on a more contemporary target. But the reality is that most of what McGovern touched upon in these two hours could be traced back to the self same concerns he was espousing almost a decade-and-a-half ago.

With the dramatic tension working well, but the thematic concerns stuttering slightly, Cracker‘s return can only be regarded as a qualified success. What is unquestionable though is that Fitz remains a compelling figure; strong enough to divert our gaze from the weaknesses in the plot and resilient enough to withstand the didactic nature of the script. This was perhaps the episode’s only true unblemished success; McGovern’s pen, whilst a little rusty in some respects, delivered us the Fitz of old. And with Robbie Coltrane’s performance as consistently good as ever, the desire for more Cracker (which was pretty much destroyed by “White Ghost” back in 1996) has returned.


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