There were moments during Accused when the fourth wall collapsed, leaving in its place a drizzling curtain of ‘hard-hitting TV drama’ Matrix code: ‘INSERT BIG NAME PLAYING AGAINST TYPE’ said one strand, ‘INSERT STEPHEN GRAHAM/EDDIE MARSAN AS POTENTIAL PSYCHOTIC’ said another. Yet, though visible throughout, these constituent threads were woven together with a surgeon’s precision; this was award-winning TV down to its very core, just as it was intended to be. This is Jimmy McGovern, after all.
Sean Bean played Simon, a secondary school English teacher who didn’t exist; a shell, a fraud, a baritone voice and drab countenance acting as little more than an affectatious front. Simon was far too busy being Tracie, a brash, outwardly confident, good-time transvestite.
We meet Tracie as she’s preparing to hit the town. She ventures out alone with Pavlovian rituality: the taxi, the bar, the drink with dry witticism to match, the pithy, passive-aggressive deflections. This is her life, the routine she’s followed through to middle age; only tonight Tracy’s appearance in the bar provokes the ire of a Stella-chugging lout. Nothing too out of the ordinary here, until Stephen Graham’s Tony intervenes, sparking a relationship between the two: initially one of sex, as Tracy brings forth Tony’s latent predilections with muscle-memory certainty; and then one of recurrence, tenderness, and, eventually, turmoil. It was a story with heart, insight and tragedy, albeit one with little in the way of surprise. But then, the plot was never the prime focus here.
Sean Bean’s appointment was a shameless piece of stunt casting. The producers knew the prospect of Ned Stark in a dress was all would take to attract legions of curious, otherwise disinterested viewers.
Sean Bean’s appointment was a shameless piece of stunt casting. The producers knew the prospect of Ned Stark in a dress was all would take to attract legions of curious, otherwise disinterested viewers, but after five minutes in the presence of Tracie the artifice of Accused’s construction simply didn’t matter. Bean’s performance throughout was nothing short of extraordinary: both roles, Simon and Tracy, were the same person, but they lay fathoms apart from one another. Bean oozed a tense, pessimistic vulnerability in both guises, yet the bolshy defence mechanisms Tracy had devised to disguise hers couldn’t have sat further at odds with Simon’s restrained faux-masculinity and quietly emotive outbursts. With every bite of the lip or coquettish smile, Tracie came completely to life; we shared her pain, fleeting joy and crushing disappointment – all mannerisms which were visibly suppressed by Simon’s stifling, distracted self-control. Bean was a revelation.
Stephen Graham was also reliably magnetic as Tony, though his role was a far more conventional one for the actor. We’ve seen him play this part before (This Is England’s Combo instantly sprang to mind) yet this shouldn’t preclude him from due praise for the confidence with which he hit each individual beat of the character, from the giddy curiosity of the first meeting to the contortional tragedy of the last. Stephen Graham is like a reliable car: so good so often that he can be taken for granted. In fact, the only downside to his inclusion in anything is the inevitability of his descent into violence - if Stephen Graham appears on screen you know something is going to hit the fan sooner or later. But as the programme was called Accused, and it opened with Simon locked in a cell, we were under no misapprehension that they would ever buy a yacht and sail off into a Mediterranean sunset.
Stephen Graham was also reliably magnetic as Tony, though his role was a far more conventional one for the actor.
With two leads on as superb form as they were here, the rest of the hour fell into place without much additional effort. Accused looked fantastic - never have small interior locations seemed so lonely and distant – but its occasional penchant for clubbing you with emotional cues was sometimes frustrating. ‘Could You Be The One’ by The Stereophonics was played over a scene which saw Tracie ponder Graham’s motives, just in case we the audience couldn’t work out what question might be on Tracie’s mind. The obtrusive peppering of slow-mo flashbacks, to remind us of prominent points in the relationship, also took up time which might have been better used by showing more of the development of the relationship itself.
Real cracks only began to show as the narrative hurtled towards climax. It wouldn’t have been possible to signpost a ‘body in the boot of a car’ revelation any more without a tub of paint and a huge blank surface, and the pursuit across the barren hills of the Lake District was obtusely daft, though it did culminate in the pinnacle of Graham’s performance as he broke down under the immense weight of his actions. The arc of Simon / Tracie also felt slightly curtailed, as we were left with little idea as to the effects these events had on Simon’s career, or whether Tony’s brother would seek retribution. The idea was that Tracie’s existence continued as it ever had, only with more in the way of emotional baggage, yet truly satisfying closure never came.
Nevertheless, Accused succeeded emphatically as a showcase of what British drama can be. It may have been a pointed exercise in award-chasing box-ticking, but characters with depth, portrayed by actors who believe in them, is what real drama is all about. Those boxes are there to be ticked for a reason.
If McGovern’s can maintain the standard he’s set here across this second series of his crime dramas, the licence fee will, for a while, feel like very good value indeed.
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