Until this week, if you were to ask the question “what was the big British drama this winter?”, you’d be forgiven for suggesting Netflix’s lavish royal saga The Crown, with its controversial final season, or the BBC’s iconic sci-fi Doctor Who, which returned with fan-favourite David Tennant (Good Omens) reprising the titular role before introducing Ncuti Gatwa (Sex Education) as its new lead. On both counts however, you’d be wrong, at least in terms of national impact, thanks to the shockwaves sent out across the UK by ITV’s four-parter Mr Bates vs The Post Office.
Written by acclaimed screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes (Tom Jones), directed by James Strong (Broadchurch), and starring BAFTA award-winner Toby Jones (Detectorists) in the titular role, the series turned heads with its shocking true story of the hundreds of sub-postmasters and postmistresses who were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting by The Post Office between 1999 and 2015 due to a defective IT system. Many innocent workers were prosecuted and imprisoned, their lives irreparably damaged by the scandal.
The drama was – as you might have guessed from the subject of this article – a big win for ITV, as well as its producers ITV Studios and Little Gem, premiering to an overnight audience of 3.6m (22.7%) on New Year’s Day, well over the 2.6m (18.3%) slot average. After seven days the audience for the first episode rose to 9.2m when including on-demand viewing figures. This week ITV announced that it was the broadcaster’s best performing new drama for three years, beating the Pembrokeshire Murders, which launched in January 2021 when the UK was in lockdown.
Far more impressive than the ratings however has been the programme’s real-world impact. As I write this, the drama has been out in its entirety for 10 days (the box-set received a same-day release on ITVX), and its subject matter is still dominating British news and setting the political agenda, having renewed public interest in the scandal. Over the past 24 hours alone we’ve seen ex-postal workers including the real Mr Bates interviewed on live TV; the former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells return her CBE (as demanded by a petition that accumulated over 1.2 million signatures); and the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announce a new law to “swiftly” exonerate victims of the scandal. If it wasn’t for the drama itself being the key driver behind all of this, there’d be a good argument for a second season here!
The series serves as a particularly potent example of the impact TV can have on real-life, specifically when it comes to issues with a strong public interest. This effect is understandably more commonly associated with unscripted, primarily documentaries, and we’ve seen plenty of key examples in that area over the years, from the flaws in the US criminal justice system exposed by the landmark true crime docuseries Making a Murderer (2015-18); to the dark side of pseudo religions in Korea covered by In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal (2023); and the awareness raised on plastics in our oceans by Blue Planet 2 (2017). It was only last September when an episode of Channel 4’s documentary strand Dispatches prompted huge debate with its programme on Russell Brand, which exposed how the international star was able to get away with sexual misconduct for years without repercussion. People react, attitudes may shift, and – in the most significant cases – action is taken by the viewer, be it in the form of a change in habit or even something as simple as signing a petition, which can be effective in itself, as Paula Vennells experienced yesterday.
It is rarer however for a drama to have similar real-world impact. As the K7 team reflected on other examples – such as Channel 4’s It’s a Sin (2021), which helped drive an increase in HIV testing – it became apparent rather quickly that none had gained the same level of political traction as Mr Bates vs The Post Office. Looking ahead into the future of British TV, we wonder if this could be the first in a new wave of issue-driven, true story scripted programming which drags unresolved scandals back into the spotlight. Potential candidates to be the next Mr. Bates… in the UK include Amazon’s A Very Royal Scandal, based on THAT Prince Andrew interview regarding his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, and a dramatisation of the contaminated blood scandal, in which patients contracted HIV and hepatitis from transfusions, one of which was already being written by the brother of one of its victims back in 2022.
Scripted TV has for some time now grappled with important societal and political issues, especially with the fairly recent increase in topical, factually-based series, and beyond simply raising awareness and attracting millions of viewers, Mr Bates vs The Post Office is proof that such shows can also have tangible political impact and bring about real change.