The titular national treasure in the new UK drama four-parter is Paul Finchley, one half of a much-loved comedy double act who is accused of a rape in a case dating back to the 1970s.
The series apes real-life events in the UK, where Operation Yewtree and subsequent investigations into allegations of historical sex abuse by celebrities and well-known public figures have dominated headlines.
National Treasure is, however, complete fiction. “We didn’t intend to make something that was a thinly veiled version of a real person and events, or one of the huge trials that have taken place,” says George Ormond, series executive producer at The Forge, which made the show. “The series is very current, but is not in any way a factual drama. It has a fictional constellation of characters and that allowed us to really explore what we wanted to explore.”
The Forge is the UK prodco established by Company Pictures cofounder George Faber in 2014, with backing from All3Media, whose sales arm, All3Media International, is handling distribution and launching the show at MIPCOM.
Faber came up with the original outline of the idea for the show, which behind with the story of the fictional Finchley after he gets a knock on the door from the police, is accused of an historical sex crime, and is put trial.
After development, The Last Panthers scribe Jack Thorne came on board, with a clear vision for the series, says Ormond. “What excited him was exploring questions of doubt – how families cope if someone close is accused of a terrible crime – and the world of celebrity and its distorting lens.”
When the show was commissioned, Thorne said: “What I’ve always loved about Channel 4 is that it’s a place to discuss big ideas. National Treasure is a piece about doubt, about the smell of abuse, about how we as a society live in Yewtree times.”
Piers Wenger, now at the BBC, ordered the show in his former role as Channel 4 head of drama. Commissioning the series, he said National Treasure would be “a powerful drama that goes beyond recent headlines, exploring the human and emotional impact when a whole life is called into question”.
Finchley is played by Robbie Coltrane (Cracker), his wife Marie by Julie Walters (Indian Summers). The star’s daughter, Dee, is played by Andrea Riseborough, and National Treasure reunited the actor with director Marc Munden, after the pair worked together on gritty period drama The Devil’s Whore.
Ormond says that while the characters are made up, the producers endeavoured to get the procedural details right to heighten the realism. “The characters and story are entirely fictional, but we looked at the realities of the process, how the police operate, and why these cases are so difficult to investigate and try,” he says.
The four-part, highly serialised format would lend itself to being stripped, but commissioning broadcaster Channel 4 in the UK decided to play it in weekly instalments.
Playing out chronologically, Thorne’s story sees a particular focus on the three main characters through each of the first three instalments, with Finchley examined in episode one, Marie in two, and Dee in three. The guilt or otherwise of the star is revealed, but not until the fourth episode, which is given over to the trial.
The story is on the one hand very UK-centric, but it also has elements that will give it an appeal further afield, the producers say. “There are lots of ways in which it is very British,” Ormond says. “It is responding to something that has happened here, but unfortunately that’s not something unique to Britain.
“The currency of the story is the abuse of power. The best stories are rooted in something very specific that also have a universal quality – this is about what would you do if someone close to you was accused of something like this, and how well can you ever really know the people you are close to. The audience is put in the place of Finchley’s daughter and wife.”
The producer: The Forge
The distributor: All3Media International
The broadcaster: Channel 4 (UK)
The concept: Four-parter following events after a well-known celebrity is accused of a sex crime dating back decades, and the effect on him and his family