This year an inquiry finally ended decades of unfinished business around the legality of 1989’s Hillsborough disaster. It took nearly 25 years for the ultimate verdict to be announced – that the worst disaster in British sport, with 96 deaths and hundreds of injuries, was the result of gross negligence by the emergency services combined with the layout of the stadium.
Two decades ago, when crime drama Cracker took Hillsborough as its subject, the deaths were only considered ‘accidental’. The psychological scars that verdict left on Liverpool, the north of England and the country as a whole were too deep for even the worthiest prime time entertainment, with one exception. That kind of mass, cultural turmoil was Cracker’s bread and butter.
If that sounds a bit heavy, it is, but the show knew that it was entertainment at its core, and had more than enough tricks to remain compulsive viewing. Front and centre was the unmissable Robbie Coltrane, whose physical bulk and cheeky comic roots combined to bring a larger than life charisma to the central role. He was just as believable and authoritative when gambling and getting drunk as when schooling the police on how to do their jobs, and between the melodrama of his home life and his way with a one-liner, the surface of every Cracker episode had enough humour and emotional weight to transcend the grim-up-north stereotypes it used to pull in viewers.
It wasn’t only Robbie Coltrane who excelled across the board. The writing itself was the show’s other all-rounder, succeeding at those small comic moments, at the cop show genre work that was the meat of each individual episode, and of course at hitting the big cultural and philosophical touch points that distinguished Cracker from the competition.
Jimmy McGovern is a storyteller who takes his craft seriously. He famously once said that he prized “narrative simplicity and emotional complexity”. It was a defence against accusations that Cracker never had a firm enough grasp on the police procedure that makes up the bulk of crime programming now just as it did then (the show’s archnemesis was Prime Suspect, nowadays it would be fighting a transatlantic battle against the offspring of Law & Order), but as a growing number of shows and films seem to find a complex story easier to produce than a consistently believable character, it looks increasingly like an noble if unfashionable stand.
While keeping the plot’s police work simple, the complexity came not just from characters but from the way it echoed that national psychological scarring. Tackling Hillsborough was the show’s finest moment, but its mini-series structure let it take a long hard look – with differing results – into a whole range of the 90s’ key issues and fears. That ranged from a ripped-from-the-headlines story about religious cults and kidnapping, to a long and emotionally exhausting arc about the rape of one of its primary characters – again, for all of Coltrane’s entertaining, childlike flash, the show’s heart was always a dark and genuinely adult one.
Along the way some strands felt more incidental than others. One mini-series about a gay killer highlighted a conflict that was at the heart of Cracker’s storytelling – its sympathetic portraits of issues were regularly encapsulated within characters who were killers. There was a lot it could do with that concept – Albie Kinsella, from the Hillsborough arc, is knowingly and effectively made as loathable as he is sympathetic, piling on all sorts of ideas about spirals of demonisation and how people succeed and fail to relate to each other. Sometimes though, when those thematic goals would fall short and the exposition would get too heavy, it was hard to ignore that any worthy issues were being raised by a crazed killer.
Of course, Cracker let its heroes be flawed too. It went about as deep into antihero territory as the best of the following decade’s dangerous men, although flaws were usually more emotional than criminal, more Don Draper than Walter White.
Aside from its recurring penchant for bad men who were also sympathetic, it anticipated a few other ideas that would become 21st century norms. The mini-series structure was far from groundbreaking, but the effect it now conjures up feels a lot like today’s American anthology shows – True Detective might be the closest relative on today’s televisions for that reason, although in tone the BBC may have finally started to follow its lead with shows like Happy Valley. Most importantly though, the show approached the level of literate, theme-heavy quality that made up the following decade’s golden age.
When everything came together, Cracker was basically unbeatable at bringing together comedy, tragedy and shrewd intelligence. Even when it failed, either overreaching or steadying itself by falling too far back onto its genre structure, it still had some of the noblest aims ever committed to British television, while remaining a classic piece of crime programming. At this point in history, the key reason to give it a watch might be as a reminder that excellent, emotionally adult programming existed before The Sopranos.
Created by: Jimmy McGovern
Cast: Robbie Coltrane, Geraldine Somerville, Christopher Eccleston, Ricky Tomlinson, Lorcan Cranitch, Barbara Flynn, Kieran O’Brien
Prd: Sally Head, Gub Neal, Paul Abbott, Hilary Bevan Jones, John Chapman
Country: United Kingdom
Runtime: 50 minutes per episode (series 1-3), 120 minutes per episode (series 4-5)