ACCUSED - Thomas Sutcliffe, The Independent

Posted on 4th Sep 2012


You know from very early on who's in the dock. But you don't know exactly what has put them there until late in the drama. You move simultaneously towards a verdict and a charge, both of them tantalisingly obscured. Last night, Anna Maxwell Martin was the accused and the puzzle was a little more knotty than usual, because she played a prison guard. She was well used to being shackled to someone else in a courtroom, but usually she was the one who had the key to the handcuffs.

Jimmy McGovern's story began where last week's episode left off, with poor deranged Stephen being admitted to a young offender institute to start his sentence. Tina is the guard who arranges his transfer and in the noisy bedlam of the prison she's the only one who notices that he might be in real danger. "Frank, I think this one's a nutter," she tells a colleague, after hearing Stephen explain how he'd stabbed his stepmother on Alastair Campbell's instructions. She suggests he's put in cell with someone who can keep an eye on him, but there are staff shortages and other distractions and Frank forgets. When Tina gets back, Stephen has hanged himself and her desperate attempts to revive him are fruitless.

The contrivance of an inescapable trap for Tina's conscience wasn't without its implausibilities. Would the system really have provided so little information about a vulnerable young prisoner? Would the arrival of Stephen's father for a prison visit, still unaware that his son was dead, have been handled so clumsily? But once he's got his characters into a bind, Jimmy McGovern is very skilled at keeping his hold. He writes for bad and weak characters as persuasively as he does for good, strong ones, which means that the hurdles he sets up for his protagonists to leap over feel solid, and can bark the shins painfully if they hit them. He doesn't forget either that banal tribulations can have large effects. In this drama a broken boiler added its weight to the tip of the scales towards disaster.

I wasn't entirely convinced by Tina's decision to say nothing when she's raped by an inmate, with Frank's collusion. A narrative feels strained when it requires two incriminating silences to unfold, even if either one taken on its own is psychologically believable. And there was something a little too neat about the impulsive crime Tina eventually commits in her distress, releasing a young prisoner at the very gates of the prison. But thanks to the quality of the dialogue and the acting – including an impressive performance by John Bishop as Stephen's grieving father – the artifice still ended up delivering real feeling.

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