Whenever I’m asked to name the best TV dramas of all time I have no hesitation in trotting out the holy trinity of The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad. If I’m in a ‘Top Ten’ situation, the contest for the remaining seven places is usually fought between other US shows. And then, mid-compilation, a feeling passes through me like I’ve just forgotten my nephew’s birthday, and an angry Robbie Coltrane dive-bombs into my consciousness. ‘Cracker…’ I gasp. ‘How could I have forgotten about Cracker?’
How indeed. Cracker is a beautiful and brutal cocktail of gruesome entertainment, savage social commentary and unflinching truth, brought to life by the angry genius of writer/creator Jimmy McGovern and the succulently human, career-defining performance of Robbie Coltrane as Edward ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald. Twenty years after the transmission of its first episode, Cracker remains one of the most riveting, visceral, and compelling dramas ever to grace the small screen. It shows the world that the UK was capable of out-HBOing HBO even before HBO existed.
Cracker in a nut-shell
While Cracker is contextualised by its setting in 1990s Manchester – a northern, post-industrial city with a predominantly working-class population struggling to deal with the aftershocks of Thatcherism – its themes of anger, love, betrayal, loss, grief and guilt transcend the era, and the ages. Cracker is at once of its time, and timeless. It’s also genre-busting, not least because its lead protagonist isn’t a detective, but a brilliant – and brilliantly flawed – forensic psychologist.
Too many shows in the police procedural genre are cosy, comforting and undemanding; the type of entertainment that entreats you to don your spongiest pair of slippers, and flop down on the couch with a nice cup of tea and a biscuit. ‘Come on, friend, take a load off,’ these shows whisper. ‘Sit back and enjoy a lovely wee murder for an hour.’
You know the formula: bad thing happens, good guy investigates, good guy catches bad guy, bad guy goes to jail, and at the end of the hour we can all sleep a little easier in our beds, sound in the knowledge that an abberant blip of bad behaviour has been detected and punished. Case closed. Reset, prepare to repeat ad infinitum, and we’ll see you and your kettle next week. Society has been fixed, justice has prevailed, the birds are tweeting merrily in the trees, and your Downton Abbey box-set is on its way from Amazon.
Except Cracker isn’t the kind of show that lends itself to a digestive biscuit dunked in a sugary cup of tea. You’ll more likely require a stiff, straight drink to calm your nerves before, during and after each episode. Old ladies seeking the soft, literary wit of Miss Marple or the genteel investigations of Inspector Morse need not apply. This is the sort of bloody, uncompromisingly brutal and honest show that has Daily Mail readers waking from their happy dreams of Middle England in a cold sweat. Jimmy McGovern doesn’t want to give you the cathartic experience of knowing that the boogeymen have been banished. He wants you to know – and feel – that the society we’ve constructed breeds boogeymen, and that the boogeyman under the bed, but for a quirk of fate or circumstance, could just as easily have been you. Simply put: McGovern shows us murder, then hands us a mirror.
He also never shirks from showing the devastating consequences of murder; the impact grief can have on a person, a family, a community. His writing often forces us to sympathise with – or at least understand – the reasons behind abhorrent acts, but any sympathy we may have for the show’s killers is always subservient to that which we extend to their victims. At no point is murder – or its architects – glamourised. On the contrary, McGovern shows murder for the societal grenade it is: blood, tears, guts and all.
In fact, the way in which McGovern uses Cracker‘s crimes as vehicles to expose and explore the simmering undercurrents of rage, grief and injustice that flow beneath society’s ever-shifting crust, and that doubtless flow within the author’s own veins, makes me think that a no-holds-barred, one-on-one verbal duel between McGovern and Fitz – his most famous creation – would make for the metaphysical highlight of the century.
Fitz is a brilliant psychologist, but an awful husband, father and friend. In his own words: “I smoke too much, I drink too much. I am too much.” He also cheats and gambles. He’s like Sherlock Holmes with the safety off: an imposing, easily-bored, larger-than-life, endlessly witty, charismatic, vice-infested man with voracious appetites both mental and physical. He’s always more at home going toe to toe with bad guys than he is spending time in his actual home with his increasingly estranged and exasperated family.
Fitz’s wife Judith, played by Barbara Flynn, seems to suffer unjustly from the ‘Skylar effect’: just as many Breaking Bad fans saw Skylar as a moaning wretch who liked to poop on Walt’s party, so too did many Cracker fans direct their hostility at Judith for her crime of continually criticising, and walking out on, Fitz. This despite the fact that Fitz reserves most of his most negative qualities for her, and is adept at making her feel like a failed wife, woman and mother, all at the same time: a hat-trick of self-loathing. “Men see me, they see you sitting next to me,” she tells Fitz, “Overweight, pissed, arguing with someone at the next table. Totally ignoring me until you’ve smashed him into an intellectual pulp.” It’s a shame, because Judith is a strong, deeply sympathetic and likeable character; one who understands Fitz better than anyone else in his life, and who is more than capable of holding her own against him in an intellectual spar. She puts up with a lot: his compulsive drinking and gambling, his prickly nature. I suppose it’s all a question of perspective. I love and admire Fitz as a character – despite and sometimes because of his flaws – but I dare say I’d have a different perspective were I forced to interact with him in a real-world setting. Especially if I was married to the bugger.
In any case, Fitz’s work is the only thing that keeps his demons at bay: for when he’s not distracted by the dark art of forcing entry into the souls of murderers he seeks solace – and kicks – through chronic drinking and gambling. He can map out a man’s flaws, drives and vulnerabilities within seconds of meeting him, but seems blind to, or at least uninterested in, his own. Sometimes it seems like his intellect is both his gift and his curse: it earns him awe and respect, but isolates him from other people, especially when it’s working in conjunction with his own arrogance and conceitedness.
As well as being one of the most complex, contradictory and sympathetic fictional characters of all time, Fitz is both a Trojan horse for McGovern’s world-view – the betrayal of the white working class male; the raw, festering wound caused by Hillsborough; the power of religion to warp and fracture – and an autobiographical projection of his creator. It’s probably fair to say that Fitz is the mould for the concrete mix of McGovern’s compassion and fury (Jimmy McGovern on line one!) Taking a few liberties, there appear to be several similarities between the two: both are gifted working class men whose talents have allowed them to rise above their roots, only to find themselves in the perhaps suffocating world of the middle class bourgeoisie; both are sensitive to the plight of the dispossessed, and are capable of great compassion and understanding, but their easy affinity with the darker side of human nature often takes its toll on their own fragile connections with the world (Jimmy McGovern on line two!); both have world-views informed by their Catholic upbringing, but coloured by their ultimate rejection of, and hostility towards, the church and its beliefs; and both find it easier to observe, define and expose other people’s lives than to live their own (Jimmy McGovern on line three!) (sorry Jimmy, I only mean by virtue of you being a writer).
McGovern imagined Fitz as a thin and wiry man, physically similar to himself, which is perhaps why McGovern was initially resistant to the casting of Robbie Coltrane. McGovern later vowed that he would never again question another casting decision as long as he lived. It’s plain to see that Coltrane is the perfect fit for Fitz: a big man with a big mind, and colossal appetites. Fitz’s size also makes him physically – as well as intellectually – formidable, something that comes in especially handy when he’s pitted against an array of thugs, sociopaths and killers – and that’s just his police colleagues.
On the subject of tortured, angst-filled fat men, it’s interesting to note that James Gandolfini was one of the first actors considered for the role of Fitz when network producers were casting the American remake. I think Gandolfini would’ve made Fitz his own, and could have saved the show from oblivion, but losing Tony Soprano would have been too high a price to pay to see it happen.
Preaching to the unconverted
When we first meet Fitz – before a too-close-to-home murder leads to him consulting for the police – he’s lecturing to a class of students. Perhaps ‘lecturing’ conveys something rather too staid and conventional given how Fitz approaches the task in hand. He begins by chucking a selection of books by great thinkers into the auditorium. Students dodge and duck, probably wondering if their university has mistakenly hired a bona fide lunatic instead of a qualified doctor.
“Spinoza, Descarte, Hobbes,” Fitz shouts, punctuating each name with a hurled book. “Locke… Freud.” What he’s trying to say, through the medium of academic projectiles, is that reading a book is no substitute for an honest appraisal of your own feelings; that the true answer to the question of what makes a man tick is usually staring him in the face: his own face.
“Go and lock yourself in a room for a couple of days, and study what is here,” says Fitz, beating his heart. “The things that you really feel, not all that crap that you’re supposed to feel. And when you’ve studied, when you’ve shed a little light on the dark recesses of your soul, that’s the time to pick up a book.”
For a man who harbours such hostility towards the church, Fitz’s outlook on life, and humanity’s place in it, is noticeably inspired by his Catholic upbringing. He summons the truth of a motivation by gazing deep within his own sin-soaked heart, and then projecting that same naked sin onto others. If you feel it, I feel it. We’re all creatures of sin. Indeed, there is a definite correlation between Fitz’s work and that of a priest: both involve a pre-occupation with dredging the ‘soul’, and both are concerned with confessions: the major difference being that where a priest offers absolution, Fitz offers understanding. Which I suppose is its own form of absolution. What greater release than to be understood: to have someone ‘get’ you?
You’re nicked, son
There’s a problem that many shows with super-smart – but prickly – mavericks as their protagonists share, especially in the case of police procedurals. In order to maintain dramatic tension, the status quo that makes the protagonist an outsider has to be preserved , which usually necessitates a quick press of the re-set button at the end of each episode. Phew, hey presto, everything back to normal. Nobody’s changed or learned anything, and the main character gets to remain on the fringes; still the loveably unlovable underdog we all remember from last week. The regrettable, credibility-stretching side effect of this reset is that all of the other characters on the show seem to forget instantly about the six-billion murders the protagonist has already solved. What on earth does this heroic guy or gal still have to prove? This sort of thing happens most frequently in long-running series of crime novels, where in book twenty-eight you just want the detective to grab his superior by the lapels and holler: ’What do you mean you don’t agree with me on this one? I’ve literally never been wrong in thirty years, you moron! I should be Chief Inspector of the bloody Universe by now.’
McGovern manages to avoid this narrative pitfall by occasionally showing Fitz to be wrong: in one case spectacularly so. In the first series’ (season, series? Damn you, Americans!) episode One Day a Lemming Will Fly, Fitz demonstrates that he is not immune to the thought-crime of confirmation bias he so despises in his police co-workers. Blinded by arrogance and fuelled by a powerful belief in his own intellectual infallibility, Fitz misinterprets a suspect’s feelings of shame, grief and guilt as evidence of his culpability in the murder of a schoolboy, and helps the police elicit a confession, which turns out to be false. Worse still, the coppers seem unconcerned with this truth, and are happy to see the man sent down for the sake of a good result, and for the peace of mind afforded by a pacified public and media. Truth versus justice is a common theme in Cracker, as is an exploration of the very notions of ‘justice’ and ‘motive’ – and where better to explore such things than in the bosom of the Manchester police.
Fitz may be the star of the show, but Cracker‘s supporting cast of coppers consists of fully-fleshed, engaging characters with their own competing drives and desires. They are integral to the unfolding narrative, but McGovern never sacrifices their verisimilitude on the altar of plot. Like Fitz, they appear to possess a humanity that is independent of their fictional existence, and that’s as much a testament to the superior acting skills of the cast as it is to McGovern’s writing.
The performances are uniformly excellent. There’s Christopher Ecclestone as DCI Bilborough, the decent, but harassed and self-righteous boss of the Manchester station in which Fitz finds himself ensconced; Geraldine Sommerville as DS Jane Penhaligon, the feisty but vulnerable copper who fights to prove herself against the backdrop of institutional laddism and chauvinism, and quickly finds herself falling for Fitz’s ego and intellect (Cracker is the only TV show that lets you imagine what it would be like if Hagrid screwed Harry Potter’s mum); Ricky Tomlinson as DCI Wise, Bilborough’s scruffy, no-nonsense replacement, and Lorcan Cranitch as DS Jimmy Beck, a volatile, bullying throwback to a bygone age of policing; a man who would much rather be bending the law in Gene Hunt’s nick than struggling to stay relevant in a modern, trying-to-get-in-touch-with-its-feelings metropolitan police force. Without dropping any major spoilers, I will say that the narrative thread connecting Fitz and Penhaligon, and later Beck, provides one of the strongest and most satisfying – yet deeply harrowing – storylines of the entire series.
In any case, Cracker demonstrates the right way to texture a TV show. Showtime’s Dexter may be dead and buried, but I wish its writing staff had been forced to watch Cracker before putting finger to keyboard; perhaps they would have learned how to surround their eponymous anti-hero with human beings, as opposed to talking cardboard cut-outs and cliched chess pieces (‘Excellent! Vince Masouka’s long lost daughter has turned up for… absolutely… no reason at all! Good job!’). If Cracker out-HBOed HBO, then it thoroughly showed up Showtime.
The American remake of Cracker was a critical and commercial flop; it was too sanitised, too full of beautiful people, too network-y. Jarringly, the American Fitz was in reasonably good physical condition, and seemed content to limit his excesses to the odd whiskey every now and again. The powers-that-be in USTV Land clearly made the mistake of confusing Cracker with the formulaic and cliched procedurals its original creator had taken great pains to avoid emulating. In the end, and this is meant as a supreme compliment, there was also too much of McGovern in the character of Fitz – and too much of his rage and sadness weaved through the British show itself – for the American remake to have any chance of independent success or survival.
This McGovern-ness is also a large part of the reason why the show’s quality perceptibly dipped once Paul Abbot took over as writer and show-runner during Cracker‘s third series. In Abbot’s defence, Fitz and McGovern were so melded that any writer would have struggled to bring Fitz to life with the same raw authenticity (even though Ted Whitehead did a fine job with his script for The Big Crunch in series two). In Abbott’s hands, Fitz became a ‘Cravatar’ (if you’ll allow me to reference James Cameron for one spurious moment). It was almost as if Abbott knew the words but not the ‘music’ of the character. Fitz didn’t sound or act like Fitz any more – not really. The big man seemed more like a caricature, and exhibited uncharacteristic levels both of callousness and sentimentality. It’s telling that after three series and a one-off, ho-hum Hong Kong special, Coltrane said that he would only come back for another crack at Cracker if Jimmy McGovern was the man breathing life into Fitz.
Even though Fitz did return for a decent 2006 Cracker special, further outings for the character seem unlikely, not least because a man of Fitz’s size and vices would undoubtedly have keeled over dead by now; luck, like money, comes and goes around, but there’s only one winner when you’re gambling with your health, and he wears a long, black cloak.
Whatever the fate of Fitz – and you can decide that for yourself – Cracker will endure. It’s a series that richly deserves its place in the pantheon of TV greats, and one that demonstrates that when we Brits put our minds and black hearts to it, we can produce drama that rivals – and indeed excels – the quality of our favourite American imports. So the next time you’re building a ‘best of’ list, remember to save a space for Fitz. Cracker – and this cheap pun can be resisted no longer – is a cracking show, and one that deserves to be passed down like an heirloom from generation to generation.
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