Accused: Tracie’s Story review

Sean Bean gives a disarmingly strong performance in Jimmy McGovern’s BBC courtroom anthology drama Accused…

2.1 Tracie’s Story

In Tracie’s Story, the first of four new one-off dramas from Jimmy McGovern’s Accused, Sean Bean did just what he presumably took the job to do; reminded anyone who needed reminding that he’s no rent-a-sword Richard Sharpe, Steward of Gondor or Lord of Winterfell, he’s a consummate actor.

As good a sword-wielding hard man as Bean is, his role as a transvestite English teacher in the courtroom drama was captivating, human, and – if you’ll forgive the vulgarity – showed more balls than any of his chainmail and tunic incarnations. The initial disconnect between the Sean Bean of the audience’s mind (longsword; death) and the character who tottered into a Manchester taxi (Dolly wig; bosom) melted within minutes as Bean did what actors do best and disappeared into someone else’s life.

That life belonged to Simon, an unremarkably beige English teacher whose nights are spent as flamboyant, flirtatious, acid-tongued Tracie, as quick with a filthy proposition as she is with a cutting insult, and every inch the man underneath her nails, hair, and Barbie glitter dresses.

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We first meet Tracie, whose appearance provokes jeers and sideways looks wherever she goes, defending herself in an easily won war of words against a drunken bigot. Bean’s combination of smart-mouthed campness and vulnerability in the scene will have closed the mouth of any viewer still gawping at the spectacle of a hard Northern bloke in a dress. The BBC, unlike other channels we could name, weren’t selling tickets to a freak show, but to a compelling character drama.

Sean Bean’s certainly not the first British actor to wriggle into a dress and heels, a long list, from Jason Isaacs to Jude Law, Cillian Murphy, David Tennant, and Michael Fassbender have all taken an on-screen walk on the wild side, though none of them are so un-androgynous, or displayed such a lack of vanity in the role as a fifty-year-old Bean. With no hope of actually passing for a woman, Tracie explains to lover Tony that instead she becomes a fantasy version, purring, lascivious, and gaudily dressed. Who better than Bean to illustrate drab Simon’s uncanny alter-ego?

Ashley Pearce’s intimate direction recorded Simon’s theatrical transformation into Tracie – a litany of shaving, moisturising, and disguising – with style, cleverly weaving in the theme of image and reflection picked up by Simon’s animated recital of The Lady of Shalott, another lass half-sick of shadows, though not of the five o clock variety. 

Tracie’s literary eloquence makes her all the more interesting as a character; part Ru Paul, part Philip Larkin. Bean’s husky delivery of lines from Manley Hopkins’ No Worst, There Is None… whilst threatening to burst out of a belted peach number and pointing a red-tipped talon for emphasis was a thrilling combination of the character’s darkness and light. Her articulate insights into Tony’s character may have been almost too perfect, too practised, but then again, she’s educated and used to performing, so McGovern can just about get away with it.

Stephen Graham, whose extraordinary performance as violent ex-con Combo in This Is England and Shane Meadows’ subsequent spin-off miniseries is a guarantee that his is a name to trust in any ensemble, was credible as in-the-closet Tony, though the show really belonged to Bean.

If there has to be a criticism, it’s that Tracie’s story – rejection, abuse, defiance, hope – and Bean’s portrayal of her, was captivating enough without the murder trial. Though Accused’s non-chronological structure and court-room opening is its master-stroke, letting us become invested in its characters while waiting for the inevitable axe to fall, this particular story could have survived as a stand-alone character piece, without Tracie ending up in the dock.

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Appreciating the limits of a sixty-minute time-slot, nothing in Tony’s character had been introduced to suggest he was capable of committing such an horrendous act, making his crime passionel the weakest link in an otherwise excellent hour of television.

Bean’s character may have survived this one, but his type-cast reputation as ye olde tough guy is now surely a goner.

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