ACCUSED - Tim Dowling, The Guardian

Posted on 5th Sep 2012

The last film in the Accused (BBC1) series, Jimmy McGovern's collection of stand-alone dramas, wasn't quite stand-alone: it was connected by a narrative thread to the previous film. This one opened with prison officer Tina (Anna Maxwell Martin) escorting Stephen to his six-year stretch in a young offenders' institute for stabbing his stepmother. He explained he'd only been following orders.

"Oh right, someone told you to do it," she said. "Who?"

"Alastair Campbell."

That was the very last laugh on offer, and if you saw last week's unremittingly bleak installment concerning the stabbing, you might not have found it all that funny. But this film was bleaker still: before you knew it, Stephen had hanged himself in his cell. The attempted resuscitation scene that followed was positively numbing. Meanwhile Stephen's father (a remarkable and straight-faced turn from comedian John Bishop) was left alone in the visiting area, unaware of what the officers already knew: his son was dead.

It got worse. The story centred on Tina's colleague Frank's failure to monitor the boy prior to his death, and Frank's insistence that Tina cover up for him. Tina is no hero; her determination to be honest was down to protecting her job – she has kids, and besides, she needed a new boiler. Frank, it was clear, would do a lot to save his own skin, and the drama was obviously not taking place in a moral sphere where people routinely got rewarded for doing the right thing.

Without wishing to give too much away in case you missed it and wish to see it, it all went steeply downhill from there, although not predictably. The disjointed structure made for a few surprises, and every unsparing detail was finely wrought, from the rote recitation of prison rules that serves as an induction ("Don't damage prison property, don't kick your door, don't shout out the window, don't push your panic button unless you're dying, don't seal your outgoing mail ..."), to the chilly atmosphere of Tina's freezing house, all seemingly designed to drive you to the depths of despair. The performances were all brilliant, but in particular Maxwell Martin managed to make Tina both vulnerable and implacable.

The film did finish on a final, optimistic note, but you had to get there first. By the end, your idea of what counted as a happy outcome had shifted pretty dramatically.


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