The crime // Between 1999 and 2015, the British Post Office (“Britain’s most trusted brand”) prosecuted over 900 subpostmasters for financial fraud.
Subpostmasters were responsible for any loss shown by the newly-installed Horizon IT system, which the Post Office insisted was robust and functional.
After a twenty-year campaign lead by activists, including ex-subpostmaster Alan Bates, it was revealed that Horizon had never worked properly, and that the Post Office knew this even when it was pushing for convictions.
The story // In 1997’s arty horror film Cube, the titular cube is a giant murderous contraption that destroys people in slow, unrelenting ways.
Turns out that’s how the British Post Office has been operating for the last two decades.
In the opening scenes of ITV’s mini-series, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, we’re shown a series of local post offices operated out of places like wool stores, cafes, and corner shops.
These subpostmasters are the most cuddly, apple-cheeked, tea-quaffing Brits you can imagine, like they’ve been ported over from The Great British Baking Show to sell stamps. You are about to watch them enter the Cube.
Here’s Jo (Monica Dolan), who carries freshly-baked scones (told you) into her shop, trying to settle up the books at the end of the day. She’s apologising to the IT helpline because she doesn’t know what’s wrong, but it’s showing that she’s out thousands of pounds. According to her agreement with the Post Office, she must pay the discrepancy herself.
This is also happening to another subpostmaster, Lee (Will Mellor), now on his 91st call. The helpline tells him he’s the only one having problems.
Alan Bates, an ornery subpostmaster in Wales, knew that there was something wrong with the IT — cut to the first of many ominous HAL-style shots of a computer terminal. Toby Jones, already a genre hall-of-famer thanks to an underrated turn as Truman Capote in Infamous, plays Bates, who cannot believe that he is being blamed for the discrepancies, and gets booted by Post Office “thugs” from his shop.
Meanwhile, Jo wonders when the police will come for her after being accused of theft. Her lawyer says they won’t: “The Post Office has the right to run its own criminal investigations, all the way to the Crown Court. It’s been that way for 300 years.”
If you’re going to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, then bring in the Best of British to undermine an institution as established as the Post Office.
ITV has serious armament here: cosy cottages, scenic pubs, locations named Fenny Compton, and a cast packed with comforting character actors who run the scale from “familiar faces” to “beloved National Treasures,” particularly Jones as Alan Bates and Julie Hesmondhalgh as his wife Suzanne.
Assembled as carefully as a bomb, the story lights the fuse of a dedicated David (our hero Mr. Bates) versus a despicable Goliath. Because of the Post Office’s refusal to accept that Horizon is a pile of dog shit, even when their own auditors point it out (one, played superbly by Ian Hart, quickly defects to Mr Bates), the Cube kept going.
Screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes has said she felt “morally compelled to quote [then-CEO] Paula Vennells entirely accurately from what she said on public record,” giving Lia Williams as Vennells the opportunity to deliver smug corporatese straight from the source. She’s chilling, like every overly chummy manager you’ve ever had who would instantly stab you in the back to ensure shareholder value.
Allow for some clunky dialogue, plus the most blatant heartstring-tugging since Old Yeller, and watch these four episodes knowing you’re in safe hands.
Toby Jones as Mr Bates is Erin Brockovich in the Welsh countryside, just with real ale instead of visible bra straps. Even given the other press coverage of the story, it makes sense that this pacy and emotional drama is what detonated widespread public outrage.