Looking Back At CRACKER - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

Looking Back At CRACKER

Tony’s cracking up.
From at least the invention of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, there’s been a fascination among crime fans for people with amazing minds who solve seemingly uncrackable problems. The fascination has always been doubled when those detectives have had deeply flawed or unorthodox personal lives, secret sorrows, hidden addictions, or harmful coping strategies for life in general, and their gifts in particular.

From Holmes and his sincere cocaine habit to the stereotypical gumshoe with the bottle of whisky in their desk drawer, something about the brilliance of our favourite detectives has always made more satisfying sense to their audience if it’s been balanced with some darkness or addictive behaviour. In a way, it allows the audience a little relief and smugness, to say “Sure, he’s brilliant, but you wouldn’t want to BE him, would you?”

Enter probably the most perfect 20th century example of this duality, the genius and the shambles: Dr Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald, played by Robbie Coltrane in ITV’s Cracker.
The series was created by Jimmy McGovern, who also wrote most of the first two series. That means you can be sure of a handful of things. It’s probably going to be Northern (Cracker is set in Manchester), it’s definitely going to be gritty, and it’s going to be both uncomfortable, uncompromising, and utterly compelling.

You can also be sure it’s going to have a fantastic cast, because in the early 90s (and in fact today), actors would cut their right hands off for the chance to say McGovern’s powerful, real, brutal, funny words.

Written at least partially as a reaction to Prime Suspect by Lynda La Plante, which played police procedural about as straight as you could get it, Cracker does two things. It keeps the police procedural as accurate as it can possibly be – and then it drops an atom bomb of intoxicating character right in the middle of it, very much as Sherlock Holmes drops an atom bomb of character right into the life and work of Inspector Lestrade.

In fact, that’s pretty much the essence of Cracker in a nutshell – Imagine Sherlock Holmes without Watson’s adoring biographing, told from Lestrade’s point of view, and mercilessly showing the effects of the brilliant nightmare of a man on everyone around him.

Robbie Coltrane in the early Nineties was best known for his comedy work, so there was a crackle of interest when it was announced he would be the lead not only in a crime drama, but a JIMMY McGOVERN crime drama. The question was whether the Scottish comedy actor would convincingly fit into the kind of hard-bitten world-building for which McGovern was and is famous.

Nobody wondered about that after Cracker was done.

Coltrane as Fitz was a revelation to most of his existing fan base, and to most of McGovern’s too.

Fitz is a man who more or less wears his unusual brain as both a curse and an excuse for unhealthy, self-destructive behaviour and abrasive honesty that cuts other people down in his path. As he describes himself in one of Cracker’s storylines, Brotherly Love, “I drink too much, I smoke too much, I gamble too much, I AM too much.”

Like all the most manipulative creative or analytical people, he will dive into the easy explanations for his own actions at the drop of a hat, demanding that he be allowed his vices, because they’re what sustains the necessary brilliance that everyone demands of him.

Because that’s the ugly truth at the heart of Cracker. Fitz is an absolutely brilliant criminal psychologist, with an ability to walk into a room and do the same thing as Holmes, and Poirot, and to some extent Miss Marple – to see it as the criminal sees it, rather than as it appears to all the seemingly so SLOW guardians of the law or of socially decent behaviour. He strips it down instinctively, so it’s the same room, but seen through the mind of this type of aberrant personality or that, and from an analysis of WHICH type of aberrant personality is responsible for the crime, he gives the police new and breathtaking insight into what type of killer they’re looking for.

He can also, when given the chance, sit across a table from a seemingly innocent person and strip them right down to the core of their psychology, persuading them he knows what they’re thinking, how they feel, what’s important to them, so that they talk to him about things they would never say to anyone else – and ultimately, confess to their crimes. That combination – walking in the mind of a murderer, and getting the connection with them that ‘cracks’ them, is the genius that Fitz takes through the world.

The trouble, as those who try to like or love him find, is that he’s by no means above using that same skill in a non-official capacity. How do you have a domestic argument with someone who can – and will, without compunction – explain and unravel your issues with your mother as a way of undermining your position in the quarrel? How do you have a lover’s tiff with someone like that? How do you chastise them if you’re a Detective Chief Inspector and they’ve just set your case accidentally back by months?

See? Atom bomb of character.
For that to work, you have to have the kind of cast McGovern’s writing could command. So Fitz’s first ‘Lestrade’ was none other than Christopher Eccleston as DCI David Billborough. That was casting that reassured McGovern fans. Barbara Flynn coming in as Fitz’s wife, Judith, was another good sign that there would be plenty of acting chops surrounding Coltrane in the show. Geraldine Somerville was a relatively fresh name in 1993 when the show began, and as Detective Sergeant Jane Penhaligon, she would go on to rock the show as first Fitz’s ‘handler,’ and then his mistress, and ultimately, having a horrifying storyline of her own, his spur to merciless action. Lorcan Cranitch leant a sneering contempt to DS Jimmy Beck, who preferred old-fashioned police work to all the fancy psychological ‘detective work’ that Fitz brings to their cases.

And while the length of the series and the nature of the storytelling didn’t allow Cracker to be quite the regular melting pot of British acting talent that the likes of Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, or David Suchet’s Poirot, or Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple series did, some of the more intensely talented stars of British film and theatre turned out for Cracker, including John Simm, Adrian Dunbar, Jim Carter, James Fleet and Robert Carlyle, many of them as either the killers, or as people SUSPECTED of being the killers. In a delicious note for a show that aimed to blow Prime Suspect out of the water, in its second storyline, To Say I Love You, Cracker had a Bonnie and Clyde pair of lovers as killers, one of whom was played by Susan Lynch, and the other by Andrew Tiernan – who had also starred as DC Rosper, one of the traditional detectives who had initially been against Jane Tennyson taking over the first case in Prime Suspect!

The talent was lined up, and McGovern (and other writers like Ted Whitehead and Paul Abbott) delivered scripts that gave their killers particular and different psychologies. Perhaps more than ever before in British TV crime drama, those psychologies were KEY to the storytelling, because they were what Fitz would use to crack the cases and put them away.

And then Robbie Coltrane stepped forward. From his very first major scene, Coltrane, it turned out, was spellbinding. Able to convince as someone who could see the world through the mind of any psychological make-up depending on the facts at hand, he was the lynchpin that allowed the show to work, that gave everyone else things to react to.

And a combination of the writers’ intention and Coltrane’s barnstorming performances meant you could never be sure what Fitz’s next move would be, what his next statement would contain, and on what level it would be pitched – helpful, playful, morose, self-hating, moral and certain or understanding the desire to kill.

Equally believable as the alcoholic and gambling addict as he was as the shining psychological mind – and on at least one occasion, utterly helpless when outwitted by an INNOCENT man, Robbie Coltrane carved himself a legend and a legacy in TV history as the ultimate gritty antihero of TV crime detection.

The intensity in the room when you put Coltrane’s Fitz across a table from any of the murder suspects was like a bow being played on your nervous system, and without either the cleverness of the writing or the focused performances from everyone concerned, it would never have worked.

But the character drama is as much of a reason to watch Cracker as the psychological crime drama, though. Barbara Flynn as Judith is able to give as good as she gets, and cut down Fitz’s own protestations of his genius. Geraldine Somerville’s Penhaligon develops richly from scepticism to belief in what Fitz can do, but never lets it too easy or fun to have a relationship with the man. When she’s involved in a then-controversial but now impressive rape storyline, she’s unnervingly perfect. Eccleston – and later the surprising Ricky Tomlinson as his successor, DCI Wise – balance furious irritation with Fitz’s addictions with a greater sense of public duty that recognises his usefulness.
When, after the first three series (for which Coltrane won three consecutive BAFTA awards) the show came back with a 100-minute Hong Kong-based special the following year, it felt almost odd and gimmicky. Though written by regular writer Paul Abbott, White Ghost (as the special was called) felt almost like an excuse to do Cracker abroad, and after it, Coltrane bowed out, allegedly refusing to do any more unless or until Jimmy McGovern returned to write them.

As such, the show ended on a crest of popularity from which it never had much reason to wane. Those three series of intense crime drama, with the unusual capstone of White Ghost, were regarded as being a pretty much perfect storm of crime drama and emotionally tangled personality drama that gave a new spin on police detective work and the unpredictable genius.

Then, as if out of nowhere, ten years on, McGovern and Coltrane returned for one last Cracker. With Fitz having made a definitive decision on what he really wanted out of life, he’d spent a decade with Judith in Australia, getting a handle on his excesses. When there’s a chance to make a difference, cracking one last case in Manchester is too good an opportunity to miss. Nine Eleven, that final episode, felt like both a potential reinvigoration for the show with a Fitz more determined to keep a lid on his wilder side, and a fitting end to a show that had been beloved and compulsive viewing.
With Robbie Coltrane in the lead, and a range of highly believable actors around him, Cracker was both familiar in its police procedural storylines, fresh in the degree of attention it paid to the psychology of the killers, and a new take on the Sherlock Holmes dilemma of a brilliant brain and a frequently ungovernable temperament combined into an impossibly annoying but infuriatingly necessary human being.

It’s not by any means an EASY rewatch – Jimmy McGovern always demands a good deal of strapping in for a rough ride, both in his scenarios and his characters. But it is at all points a rewarding one, and one that will remind you of what can happen when crime dramas balance gritty realism with the sheer power of a genius at the heart of the story.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad