In what turned out to be fortuitous timing, Hulu recently got the exclusive US streaming rights to the British miniseries National Treasure. I say it’s fortuitous because even though it was released last year, it’s a perfectly 2017 show. It tells the story of Paul Finchley (Robert Coltrane), a British entertainer who suddenly faces a host of rape allegations. A more topical production hasn’t been released.
The trailers (and the series title) suggest that Finchley is a nationally beloved comedian like Bill Cosby, but that’s only half true. He is the lesser half of a comedy team. The Abbot to somebody else’s Costello. The show opens with him introducing his (knighted) partner Sir Karl Jenkins (Tim McInnerny) for a lifetime achievement award that he himself didn’t get. It also establishes pretty early on that he is growing somewhat resentful of his old age. “At what point do comics stop being funny and start being sweet?” he asks his wife, referring to age. He deals with this the way a lot of comedians do, through humor. In his case, somewhat wry humor (his partner being Mr Slapstick).
While that aspect of the character remains relevant, for the most part it gives him an underdog appeal. You feel for him a bit. You also see a family man, married to the same woman over all the years, and with her playing an active role in caring for their grandchildren. His house is large, but not ostentatious. His life is comfortable, until the police arrive for an interview and everything goes sideways for his family.
Of course we quickly discover there are other things beneath the surface. He is a serial philanderer, though apparently honest about it with his wife. Their daughter Dee (Andrea Riseborough) is in a mental hospital, wading through a number of issues. When the accusation flies, even his wife isn’t sure what to think. “The times you came home smelling of whichever woman and I’d understand. Well, this is not one of those times. It can’t be.” His infidelity, tolerant of it she has been, has brought the police into her home.
He vociferously denies having done any of it, but, as he later points out, that is exactly what he would do whether he was guilty or innocent. He also observes, when revealing his own sexual abuse as a child, how that could make him more likely or less likely to be guilty. Between these observations and his straightforwardness with his wife (he sees a prostitute and discloses it to his wife the next day), he exudes a sort of honesty. And with his plaintive denials and obvious love of his wife and daughter, you desperately want to believe him? It’s the question that hangs over the entire show. But did he do it?
I mention several allegations, but there are only two that are explored. The first is the original complainant, a woman named Rebecca Thornton who claims that he forcibly raped her in his trailer on the set of a movie a long time ago. The second is a babysitter, who claims a “consensual” (but illegal) tryst when she was fifteen. Both stories have holes, and the rest are dismissed as mostly a PR problem because no charges are likely to be filed. The legal defense is indifferent to his innocence or guilt. As a consultant outlines it, “[Seven accusers is] a pretty typical number, nothing to be too concerned about. They could be fame seekers. They could be money seekers. They could have convinced themselves it’s true… or it could be true.”
He responds with dismay and horror at the very thought. And there we are, wanting to believe him. And by extension, wanting to believe that the women making the accusations are lying, deluded, or both. That’s an uncomfortable feeling. Then, lurking in the background of all of this, there’s his daughter. She has a faulty memory. She has a lot of problems. Her relationship with her father alternates between sweet and… something else. Something tense. A tenseness that could be as simple as the apple and tree sharing a wavelength provided by genetics, or something else. Even Dee is unsure at first.
The ultimate adjudicator here isn’t the eventual jury so much as his wife. When she is with him, Dee is with him. We are with him, too. But we see it through her eyes. When she thinks he might have done it, we all but have to concede that he might have done it.
Then, it becomes more difficult when we meet and get to know his victims a little. We watch them tell their stories, on the edge of tears or swimming in them. There are reasons not to believe them. There are holes in their stories and other details that provide an out to anyone that wants one bad enough. It reaches a point where as a viewer I am asking myself how badly I want to believe him (and by extension, how much I don’t want to believe them).
This is almost certainly how Bill Cosby got away with what he did for so long. Nobody wanted to believe it, so people didn’t. Or they put it out of their mind. We knew him, and we didn’t really know the accusers. Not really, anyway. And to whatever extent we did know them, it was through the lens of the accusation. In contrast to Bill Cosby, who we knew far more extensively. This is also how Bill Clinton got away with a lot of things people have every reason to believe he did. And in all of the cases, we end up asking ourselves the question, “Well, how bad is it, exactly?”
Which, when it comes to a lot of these things, is a question we should never really have to ask.
One of the outcomes of this past month is precisely how hard the news cycles have made it to avoid and conveniently forget things. Though it wasn’t as far a fall from grace as many of the others, George H Bush was one of the ones that hit me the hardest. Early on, I wanted to attribute it to misunderstanding or come to some conclusion other than the most obvious: He had an issue respecting female body autonomy. And whatever political disagreements I had with Al Gore, I always respected him as being the man Bill Clinton wasn’t. But revisiting the accusations that I was willing to leave put with a question mark, if I am being honest with myself — he probably did it. That’s three of our last five presidents, including the husband of the most recent’s opponent, plus a winner of the popular vote.
Believing every accuser is not tenable, and certainly in courts of law and adjudication we must have standards of proof, but there is only so much we can rest on the hope of innocence.