Innocent Until Proven Guilty?

examines recent Channel 4 drama National Treasure and what it means for the perception of sex crime in society

Image: Channel 4

Image: Channel 4

[TW: rape, sexual violence]

The world of showbiz in 2016 is rife with sexual abuse. Cases involving people of all ages have been coming to light in an unprecedented manner since the discovery of Jimmy Savile’s abhorrent crimes. Previously adored famous faces are being exposed as vile predators, one of the most notable being former musician and entertainer Rolf Harris. National Treasure, Channel 4’s four-part drama series follows Paul Finchley, a universally loved funny man accused of a historical rape. Inspired by the ongoing Operation Yewtree, it is shaped specifically to make its audience question their own views on the central issues of sexual consent and rape trials in the UK, as well as the happenings of the story itself.

From the very beginning, the show does very well to fully immerse the audience in Finchley’s world, introducing him backstage at an awards ceremony in a dark and smoky room, being called on stage to present a lifetime achievement award to his long-term comedy partner. It gives you a real sense of his life, having frequent compliments from real life celebrities, and more ordinary fans like a demanding taxi driver begging for him to parrot his catchphrase: “do it for me, go on.” It is entirely possible that writer Jack Horne, of This is England fame, is attempting to build an affinity between Finchley and the viewer through the consistent praise, a rising liking that is easily detectable while you watch. The casting of Robbie Coltrane further helps this subliminal development; his most famous role is of Hagrid, one of the most loveable characters in the Harry Potter film franchise. The introduction of Paul’s family: wife Marie (Julie Walters), along with grandchildren Billy and Frances, is done in the same scene as the revelation that he has been accused of rape. The impact and sense of severity of the accusation is increased by the presence of the innocent youths, and the genuine concern of the police to keep their young minds out of what becomes a very dark investigation: “we didn’t realise your grandchildren would be in your home with you.”

Those who commit horrendous crimes are presented with fame in place of the cages they deserve

This series explicitly addresses the issue of sexual violence and how criminal cases of this kind are handled in the UK. The purpose of National Treasure was to highlight how such cases progress, and the impact they have on all those involved. In the first half of the series there is a belief that Finchley is definitively innocent and that the accusations brought against him are entirely unjust, a belief which is portrayed through various flashbacks to key dates in question during the trial. He slowly begins to lose everything he holds dear, most importantly his afternoon game show Smuggle, before any kind of verdict has taken place. Everything that happens to him provokes the idea that the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” does not really exist in practice. This reflects a real issue in the UK today, with accused men losing so much due to false accusations. One of the most high profile cases is that of Cliff Richard, who is suing the BBC for a live broadcast of the police raid of his home in relation to Operation Yewtree and child sex offences.

The overarching aim of the series however, is reflecting the disrespect that is shown towards women who report rape and sexual abuse. In the second episode, one of the eight women accusing Paul of abuse, Christina (Susan Lynch), the babysitter of the Finchley’s, is dismissed by Marie as “a fantasist [who] always did try to act older than she was”. Similarly, Rebecca Thornton (Kate Hardie), is portrayed in court as an obsessive fan, saying in a letter a year after being raped by Finchley, “sorry I missed you, I’ll see you soon”. She pleads that the trauma she suffered in the wake of her rape caused obsession with her abuser; this consequence of serious sexual abuse is not at all uncommon, especially given her young age at the time of the alleged crime. The entire basis of the defence is trying to find ways to slander or degrade the character of the women accusing their client, rather than to find genuine evidence of Finchley’s innocence, which is a sad reflection on the justice system we must try to put our absolute faith in. It was only this month that we saw the sexual history of an anonymous woman who was allegedly raped by footballer Ched Evans have her case questionably discredited.

By the end of the final episode and the series as a whole, it is known that Paul Finchley is guilty: guilty of being a serial adulterer, abuser, and rapist. The flashbacks to key times that made the audience believe Finchley couldn’t possibly be guilty return, and show what happened after we returned to the present. He didn’t send fifteen year old Christina home in the taxi, he took advantage of her in his home with his unknowing daughter upstairs. Rebecca repeatedly pleads “no thank you… I’m a fan”. Paul darkly replies, “oh I’m a fan of you deary”, before proceeding to jump at her. Cut to a shot outside the trailer, where comedy partner and friend Karl is pacing up and down waiting for him to conclude his deed. Just like in the real world of show business there is a dark sense of protectionism, where those who commit horrendous crimes and damage their victims hugely, often beyond full repair, are kept hidden and presented with fame, money, and lifetime achievement awards in place of the cages they deserve. The series achieves its aim of making you wonder who else could remain hidden. The series ends with Finchley calling hopelessly into the garden for his wife, perhaps the only one who can now see him for what he really is.

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