The Big Number Crunch

Jack Kibble-White rates Cracker

First published March 2000

So we’ve had all the analytical angles, but the big question is which is the best Cracker story? Actually such questions are usually derided as being trivial and inappropriate for a piece of work that transcends mere TV. Doctor Who fans are constantly berating each other for labelling stories as “classics”. However, this is really the action of people perpetually intent on convincing themselves (and others) that the object of their affection is something meaningful and substantial and therefore above such crude beauty contesting. To them I say : Bring them on! Surely Fitz can withstand a bit of gratuitous Top 10-ing? After all we did it with practically everything at the end of last century.

So, with much vulgarity, here I go:

McGovern’s sharpest and most subversive script. I must confess I did not discover Cracker until the furore over “To Be A Somebody”, however I recall overhearing strangers commenting on the audacity of the last five minutes of this story. Best of all, this was not some structural jiggery pokery on the part of McG, instead Cassidy’s unconfession is the logical consequence of Fitz’s attempts to unpeel the man’s facade. We believe Cassidy immediately because – in retrospect – his actions throughout the entire story suddenly make absolute sense. Great downbeat ending, and as a conclusion to the first series – perfect. Also, Beck is at the absolute height of his powers.

2. MEN SHOULD WEEP (series 2)
A big, dramatic grotesque monster of a story. Floyd’s scene with his victim in part one is unmatched in its starkness by any other primetime cop show. McGovern’s tub thumping a bit here, but the suspense is built such that you are swept along. Once again, on the streets and in the pubs we could be heard discussing the possible motivations behind such violent crimes as we all tried to beat Fitz to an answer. Another series closer and – in truth – the last great Cracker story.

Funnily enough, the least sensational story was the first one. I urge you to re-watch it because it is better then you remember. From Coltrane’s first appearance, McGovern is already forging new territory in the primetime detective genre. Fitz’s treatment of his suspect is intense and believable, we are made to understand that Fitz will do whatever is required to solve the puzzle.

4. TO SAY I LOVE YOU (series 1)
TV can never “do” youth convincingly, and Cracker is no different here. Teenage disaffection is always a poor motive, and the Natural Born Killers premise here weakens Cracker‘s second outing. However, Fitz’s domestic shenanigans are starting to make for an entertaining subplot, his reticence to enter a potentially booby-trapped house is played very realistically, providing a satisfying conclusion to a slightly shaky central concept.

5. TO BE A SOMEBODY (series 2)
This may have been the story that brought Cracker into the public’s consciousness, and there is much to commend: the bomb scene (rightfully identified by Observer readers as one of TV’s top 100 moments), the stunning death of Billsborough (always Cracker‘s most “normal”, heroic character) and the career launching performance of Carlisle. However Albie’s socio-political motivation remains befuddled allowing us on occasion to hear McGovern’s voice coming out of Carlisle’s mouth.

6. BROTHERLY LOVE (series 3)
The worst McGovern story. Essentially because the case Fitz is investigating is basically ordinary. This story reminds us that the Cracker soap-opera back stories only ever work in conjunction with a strong primary plot. Thus, this is McGovern’s most self-indulgent, maudlin story, with too much Catholic guilt. Yet at times it still crackles with his trademark wit. The official end of Cracker. Everything from here on is Free as a Bird.

7. TRUE ROMANCE (series 3)
Perhaps the best of the non McGovern’s. If only for the scene between Mark and Fitz (always Cracker’s most believable relationship) in the burger bar and the series finale (as Fitz leaves Judith at the hospital). A by-numbers plot which thanks to its nature allows Abbott to reveal plot points to characters in the most arbitrary of ways. Massively obvious climax. Abbott attempts to imitate McGovern’s operatic finales, but fails to match either “Men Should Weep” or “To Say I Love You”.

8. WHITE GHOST (1996 special)
By this stage our expectations for Cracker were pretty low. Plus, relocating the character (what was the reason behind this?), ensured that we weren’t expecting anything like Cracker. What we got was a rather run of the mill, albeit competent, crime drama. Suddenly Cracker is Touching Evil.

9. THE BIG CRUNCH (series 2)
Following immediately from a story in which the collected ephemera of the main suspect allows us to gain an insight in to their criminal motivation, Ted Whitehead attempts the same trick to allow us into the mind of a cult leader. Already we are working outside Fitz’s normal hunting ground and this foray into the suburbs appears particularly twee after Albie. Perhaps football just makes for a more believable religion. Also, Whitehead is unable to engineer a psychological battle for Fitz to engage in (always an essential part of Cracker). Therefore, a confession – of sorts – is extracted through the simple tactic of “outing”.

10. BEST BOYS (series 3)
Abbott’s first attempt at Cracker fails because its success hinges upon us finding his two protagonists interesting. The central relationship is never sketched out in sufficient detail to allow us to believe that this particular killing couple would literally do anything for each other. Sadly, on this occasion we cannot share Fitz’s fascination, and this strangely diminishes even his fictional stature. This is an unforgivable crime. Probably the worst we have seen on Cracker.