' the way that he’s likely to risk his
Granada’s new crime drama Cracker promises a new slant on the traditional murder whodunnit. Tom Lappin picks up some forensic information from producer Gub Neal.
he police pathologist peels back a later of subcutaneous fat to reveal a clean-looking set of internal organs, nestling in congealed blood. Tenderly tapping the arteries with his scalpel he says, ‘You see that, and you know there’s a purpose to it all. That arrangement is no accident. Right?’ He looks up at the face of Fitz, a clinical psychologist played by Robbie Coltrane. Fitz stares back with a mixture of disdain and disgust. glancing at the face of the young girl laid out on the slab. ‘No,’ he says in no uncertain terms. The expression says that here is a man who’ll have no truck with divine mysteries.
Fitz, the hero of Granada’s new drama series, Cracker, doesn’t believe in God or much else. In fact, in the opening episode about the only things he trusts are the familiar adrenalin rushes he gets from whisky and gambling. The camera and the script don’t stint on telling us that Fitz is one troubled man, lingering on his angrily- twisted expression and his bullying, sarcastic speech.
‘He doesn’t cope with his feelings very well,’ understates Coltrane. ‘Like a lot of other people. he’s got an absolute terror of being ordinary. He’s frightened of getting old and soft, because he was once this young, wild crazy guy. He’s become compulsive in
entire life and future on the throw of a dice. which he does frequently.’
Cracker may look superﬁcially like another police procedural drama, with an angst-ridden menopausal protagonist, but the series has ambitions to be something radically different. For a start, Fitz is no cop, and his troubles are not darkly hinted at, but expressed very forcibly indeed. Unusually. in such a populist medium, Cracker is a wordy production, and its hero often seems the most depraved character on screen. In a genre that usually demands stark black and white moral truths, Cracker revels in ambiguity.
‘ln 3 funny kind of way the format is entirely predictable,’ says producer Gub Neal, ‘but the interpretation is hopefully quite surprising. Instead of having a central character whose vulnerability is obscure, you have a character who is hugely expressive and demonstrative, and whose anxieties are very much things that you are made directly aware of.’
Neal dreamed up the project, and swiftly abandoned the idea of making a realistic portrayal of a clinical psychologist’s work with the police, after discovering that it was a long- winded statistical job with little screen potential. Instead he decided to concentrate on characteri- sation, and recruited writer Jimmy McGovern (who wrote many of the early Brookside scripts). ‘Because of Jimmy’s very hard and uncompro- mising, very nicely Northern and cynical view of the world, I felt that he would be able to offer an interpretation of the central character that would be as far away as possible from the tame and lame detectives of the 805 and 90s.’
‘The reason people are obsessed with crime is because
they are seemingly concerned not so
much with what
differentiates us from the criminal, but what we have in common with a criminal.’
Robbie Coltrane was cast on the strength of . his performance as an , unorthodox drugs counsellor in a BBC ﬁlm Alive And Kicking. ‘That _ character was someone who was deeply flawed,’ says Neal. ‘He’d been an addict, but had given himself a reason for living. The character in Cracker is wrestling all the time with trying to ﬁnd a rationale for living. He’s a great existen- tial hero from that point of view.’
Coltrane does give a marvellous performance, uttering great howls of world-weary frustration one moment, and cracking sardonic one-liners the next. He and McGovern developed a remarkable understanding while ﬁlming the series. ‘The thing about Jimmy as a Northerner, and particularly a Liverpudlian,’ Neal explains, ‘is that he’s very open and very direct and very often is prepared to allow his characters to say things that are completely politi- cally incorrect. This is something that Fitz does all the time and because Robbie as an actor is a terriﬁc personality in his own right, regardless of his abilities as a creative performer, one of the things he has which totally coincides with Jimmy is a complete loathing of hypocrisy. The two of them are at war with everything in society that reeks of hypocrisy or lies. It’s a very interesting sublimation of two male psychologies in terms of what Robbie represents as an actor and Jimmy as a writer.’
Coltrane conﬁrms that Fitz is a character he can relate to closely. ‘He’s more cynical — or honest as Fitz would put it — than I am. I think I’m more sentimental than he is. But l used to be like that, a bit of a “boy” ’. Like him I was quite compulsive.’
Of course, Coltrane isn’t entirely known for his portrayal of tragedy and torment, but Neal had the requirements of popular drama in mind when casting. ‘We wanted someone who on the one hand could portray a character who could be quite sort of dangerous in their emotions but at the same time be approachable to a degree as well. We needed an actor who could encompass that air of being sinister and unpredictable, and have a wide appeal to a popular audience.’
The concentration on complex characterisa- tion from the outset is a welcome development in the crime drama genre, which so often concentrates on action at the expense of subtlety. As a whodunnit, Cracker is never in the Morse league, but in terms of psychological insights it wanders into territory uncharted by previous police procedurals.
‘The investigative elements of a detective series were something Jimmy and l were very keen to avoid,’ Neal explains, ‘because there is so much of it around. The idea was to create something at a rather different level. It’s a drama which really puzzles more over the whys
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than the whos in terms of criminal activity. That’s a very interesting and intriguing subject. What drives somebody to put razor blades in baby food, to commit arson, murder their wife, to rape?’
Neal and McGovern also asked themselves what was the public interest in crime that resulted in huge audience ﬁgures not only for dramas like Prime Suspect, but for factual series like Crimewatch. ‘The reason people are obsessed with crime is because they are seemingly concerned not so much with what differentiates us from the criminal, but what we have in common with a criminal. There’s a real need for an audience to distance themselves at a moral level, of course, but there is this deep voyeuristic fascination with what makes the criminal tick, with what actually drives people to these extremes.’
lf Cracker’s psychological sophistication pushes it into new areas, its depiction of the victims of crime also breaks new ground, in a way that could have our self-appointed moral guardians penning disgusted letters. Certainly in the ﬁrst story the camera does linger over the mutilated female corpses, at the scene of the crime and in the autopsy room, in a way that is disturbing.
‘You can’t duck the issue of what exactly the effect of murder is,’ Neal insists. ‘The question for me is that if you show violence then it’s gratuitous if it’s neither felt nor understood. If you encourage an audience, however painful it may be, to both understand and feel what the implication of that act is then it can actually be a positive rather than a voyeuristic experience. That’s one of the factors about the murders and crimes in the series, there is an attempt to draw the audience into an understanding of criminal behaviour. With Cracker it is surprising how disturbing and emotive a lot of the material is. What Fitz says at the beginning sums it up: ‘if you want to know, look inside yourself ﬁrst before you start looking in books.’
Fitz looks into himself, looks into books and gets his man, but such are the inviolable laws of network drama, he inevitably ends up chasing the suspect himself. In those ﬁnal reels, Cracker is no stranger to convention, and yes you will believe a fat man can jump from a moving train. ‘He’s always going to be part of the action.’ says Neal. ‘We want to say to the audience yeah it’s Robbie playing this great character and there is an element of myth about him. He's a completely gregarious bombastic outrageous character. The keyword is that he’s extraordi- nary and thank God for that.’ Cl Cracker begins on Scottish on Monday 27 September at 9pm
The List 24 September—7 October I993 15