National Treasure ep 1

Ageing British entertainer Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane) is a recognisable type: half of a double-act; UK showbiz to the cuffs of his Pringle sweater; fading a little, perhaps, but with an afternoon TV game show to keep his career ticking over. He is, as the title would have it, a national and much-loved treasure; everyone he meets, including police officers, is at pains to tell him that they’re a fan. We first encounter him presenting a lifetime achievement award to Karl (Tim McInnerny), his comedy partner, who we are invited to infer to have been a little more successful of late.

Nonetheless, life is good, at least until the police are at the door of the house he shares with Marie (Julie Walters), his wife of 41 years, telling him he’s been accused of a rape in 1993. All very Yewtree. He denies the allegation, and is assisted at a police interview by lawyer Jerome Sharpe (an electrifying Babou Ceesay).

At first, and because Coltrane’s portrayal is so sympathetic, the protestation of innocence is all we have to go on. There’s more, though: it isn’t long before we find out about Paul’s serial infidelities, past and – as it turns out – present. There’s “violent” porn on his phone. His recovering addict daughter Dee (a brilliantly unsettling Andrea Riseborough) is in a halfway house, and during a remarkable scene recounts to Paul a dream she had about him, which hints at brutality and sexual abuse. And by the end of this first episode there are seven allegations of sexual crimes against him, including one made by the family babysitter, who would have been underage at the time. “They think”, Paul concludes, “I’m Jimmy fucking Savile”.

I’m always a little sceptical about British TV drama. I’d have to say, though, that National Treasure is comfortably one of the better ones I’ve seen over the past few years. Jack Thorne’s writing is on-point, with most of the scenes hitting the mark. The plotting, thus far, is intriguingly ambiguous. And the acting is excellent, particularly the two leads: Coltrane is entirely plausible as a larger-than-life entertainer with a hint of something darker, and Walters excels as the supportive and tolerant wife, evidently beginning to wonder whether by knowing about and accepting Paul’s unfaithfulness she has perhaps been overlooking or facilitating something much worse. The pacing is a little ponderous in places, in my view; but it’s British, after all, and at the end of the fourth episode I fully expect to be saying that it could have been done in three. That aside, though, I thought it was excellent.

For what it’s worth, my bet is that the series will end with Finchley’s guilt having been determined by the legal system one way or another, but with the viewer left in doubt as to what he actually did or didn’t do. The greater mystery, though, and it will endure, is why Robbie Coltrane – a powerful and subtle dramatic actor, a versatile comic actor, and a brooding, magnetic screen presence – hasn’t quite had the parts, or the career, that he should have had. He last won a BAFTA in 1996; the third of three, back-to-back, for his performance as Fitz in Cracker. If he’s as good in the next three episodes, I’d say a nomination at least is on the cards. This man is a proper star.

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