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Pop CultureApril 5, 2024

Review: Mr. Bates vs. The Post Office is an enraging drama about righteous hope


This prestigious British drama does double duty as a real story of injustice and a reminder that hope can be found in small village halls and collective action.

An aerial camera pans over a seaside village landscape and plonks us almost immediately into a small shop on a main street that is instantly recognisable as small-town Britain. 

A blonde Julie Hesmondhalgh (Hayley from Coro), is standing behind a counter giving advice about knitting needles. Hand-knitted cardigans are pinned to the wall. Toby Jones shakes his head in shared dismay at the cost of the stamp. “28p,” he says. “How much?!?” says a shocked woman in an anorak. “I know, daylight robbery,” he replies with a lovely lilt. 

Jones is the titular Mr Alan Bates. We meet him in 2003 when he was the subpostmaster in a small north Wales town. Hesmondhalgh plays his wife, Suzanne. Both are real people, and the four-part series is based on a real story which is still playing out in the United Kingdom.

The British Post Office scandal (also referred to as the Horizon IT scandal) is widely regarded as the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history. It has had coverage here but not to the point of saturation. Watching the show will probably send you down Wikipedia rabbit holes you never knew you needed to be in. 

Between 1999 and 2015, over 900 subpostmasters were relentlessly pursued by the British Post Office for losses running into the tens of thousands of pounds caused by a faulty IT system. Many were prosecuted. Others faced financial ruin and lost family homes. Four people felt they had no other way out and took their own lives. The Post Office denied there was any issue with the Fujitsu-provided solution for years. It is still unresolved.

The story and the series warrant a David and Goliath comparison. But a Sisyphean one feels closer to the reality of a drama that revolves around a fight with the boulder of bureaucracy. It’s a testament to the writing and the cast that a series that hinges on phone calls, visuals of computer screens, binders of paper and meetings in remote country halls and bleak government offices manages to be so gripping, human and emotional. 

Monica Dolan as Jo Hamilton

The first episode puts a gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach. Jo, another postmaster prosecuted by the Post Office, sits in the dark inside her little post booth, tearful, distraught and bewildered. She’s dialled into yet another round of near-ritual humiliation via the Horizon helpline, watching her cash loss for the day double before her eyes on a computer screen.

Monica Dolan is a gritty angel in this role – resilient, feisty, innocent and vulnerable all at once. The centring of the people and the very human performances help overcome the challenge of a crime story that lacks any of the usual high drama beats of a prestige crime series. Anyone who has been made to feel very small and very stupid, especially when faced with something as seemingly banal as an IT issue, will relate. I cried hot, frustrated tears on Jo’s behalf. 

Jones is perfectly cast as Bates. He never wilts, juggling the need to perform as a dogged battler and a kind father figure with extraordinary humility as he counsels and represents a growing number of wronged postmasters all over the country. He has to be both ordinary and extraordinary. It might have been tempting to cast someone a bit grislier, but his softness brings light to scenes that would otherwise be extremely grim and possibly dull, especially as the series spans over a decade. His energy and centrality are crucial factors in giving the story and the series its hope.

It’s second only to the collective efforts of the cast and the depiction of the real-world rallying and organising of the postmasters. Scones and sandwiches are unpacked from sensible station wagons in the parking lot of a village hall in Fenny Compton (population 797, apparently picked by Bates as it’s the very middle of England), and the fightback from the postmasters begins. 

Toby Jones as Alan Bates

Ian Hart plays Bob Rutherford, a gamekeeper turned poacher investigating the issue as it becomes apparent the Post Office can’t keep ignoring it. He almost acts as a proxy for the audience as you wait for him to break under the weight of the ruined lives he’s become witness to. 

Former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells (Lia Williams) was also an ordained Church of England priest until quite recently. Williams’ owlish eyes suggest she might be grappling with the same level of moral dilemma as Pontius Pilate, surprised by the repercussions of her own lack of action. She leaves the worst dirty work up to her henchwoman, Angela van Den Bogerd (Katherine Kelly), whose blunt blonde bob and exaggerated eyebrows make her suitably officious and villainous.

There is quite a lot of exposition across the episodes. That probably hits differently in the United Kingdom, where the facts of the story and those involved are assumed to be reasonably well-known. Dramatised as they are in this series, with the impact on people at its heart and the relentless real-time experience of living through each soul-sucking phone call and placation, it seems unfair to dismiss what are genuinely shocking facts as overcooked exposition. 

Jones said he had scant knowledge of the scandal before being approached about the role of Mr Bates. The exposition feels especially qualified when you consider the series’ impact. After 15 years of chain dragging and cover-ups by the Post Office, court battles, and sporadic media coverage, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak moved swiftly to take action the day after the show aired. The Guardian issued a plea for more “state of the nation” television.

That opening moment between Bates and his village local underscores a universal understanding that runs throughout the four-part series. Beholden to faceless bureaucracy, powerless small players, public servants and the communities they serve are all being played in different ways. Taking on the game and opting out of being crushed by the grinding banality of all that is done in the name of efficiency takes real strength. 

Ultimately, the series does double duty. It brings to life a story of real and shocking injustice that will leave you feeling utterly enraged. It also reminds us that persistence, propped up by real human connection and guided by an unwavering moral core, can be a powerful weapon against a state hellbent on obfuscation and blame.

All four episodes of Mr. Bates vs. The Post Office are available to watch on TVNZ+.

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