I was a very serious child. A real worrier. I had problems sleeping throughout my teens and, as this 100 Greatest TV Episodes series progresses, a pattern of self-inflicted televisual abuse may well become clear. While my nightmares of imminent nuclear destruction, terrifying child murderers, and dying several horrific deaths on a farm could be traced back to the factual media of late-night documentaries, Crimewatch, and public information films that are seemingly only shown in Devon, they were still hysterical and slightly fantastical nightmares. The type of things that I could convince myself only happened to someone else. We lived in a world of right and wrong, of good and outright evil.
Then in October 1994, I watched the latest series of Cracker; the Jimmy McGovern police drama starring Robbie Coltrane as the alcoholic, gambling-addicted forensic psychologist Fitz. I can just about remember the first series, but it was during the second, and the opening story ‘To Be a Somebody’ in particular, that Cracker became a one of the most-watched dramas on UK television. Coltrane’s Fitz is one of the great television ‘detectives’, with a brain sharper than anyone on the force and about 15 different vices when most flawed mystery-solvers have one or two. And I fucking loved him. When most kids my age were idolising Eric Cantona or Jon Bon Jovi, I wanted to be a forensic psychologist when I grew up. Preferably a chain-smoking, obese forensic psychologist, who spent most of his day in the pub.
But there was something that disturbed me about this particular story-line and it can be briefly summed up in two words: Robert Carlyle. Carlyle plays Albie Kinsella, a lonely but otherwise normal man struggling with the death of his father, and his recent divorce. Despite being intelligent, he does a manual job and struggles to earn the respect he feels he is owed. After work, Albie pops into a shop to buy teabags and the Guardian but, following an argument with the shopkeeper over four pence, storms out. He returns later having shaved his head, and stabs the shopkeeper in cold blood. It is this ‘snap’ and transformation from downtrodden citizen to monster that captivated and terrified me. Carlyle’s portrayal of a seemingly good man capable of acts of such violence is the first time I can remember seeing the many shades of grey that exist in this world. People weren’t necessarily ‘good’ or ‘evil’ any more.
The episode also referenced, quite controversially at the time, the Hillsborough disaster. Albie’s mission becomes an extreme ‘eye-for-an-eye’ project, intending to murder 96 people for the 96 who lost their lives in the terrible tragedy. At the time a number of survivors groups criticised the making of this episode, but I remember it being the first time I had really questioned the official version of events that we now know to be a disgraceful police cover-up. I’m not saying Cracker was the first media source to question what The Sun laughingly referred to as ‘The Truth’, but the way it invited us to empathise with Albie in spite of his crimes was incredibly powerful television.
The rest of the storyline plays out with a little more convention. Once Albie has been set up as the psychotic avenging angel, the focus shifts to the police and Fitz’s increasingly desperate attempts to stop him. It’s still compelling television though, and the death of a major character will live very long in my memory. This was probably the peak of the Cracker series, and almost certainly the one episode that everyone remembers.
It’s a shame to see how far ITV have fallen.