It's a story that is worryingly familiar, but no less shocking in its impact. We've all seen the press photos of a celebrity under fire, it's far more common than it should be. What Jack Thorne's superb new drama does though is give viewers a glimpse behind the closed doors of those affected by such shocking accusations.
When we first meet Paul he's nervously waiting backstage at a fictional comedy awards. He's there to present his comedy partner Karl (the equally wonderful Tim McInnerny) with a lifetime achievement award. It's a clever scene that introduces us to the double act but also allows for brief cameos from Robert Webb and Frank Skinner to further drill into us the impact of Finchley's comedy on them. Finchley is an amiable enough character. He's someone who is continually told how brilliant he was/is and yet he seems uncomfortable with his level of fame. He's quite obviously nervous before presenting Karl with his award. We see him pacing up and down and then quickly mumbling "shit, shit, shit' before plastering on a smile and heading into the spotlight.
Robbie Coltrane has an incredible presence on screen. He commands every scene and instantly makes you feel for Paul. Finchley is a man with the respect of his peers, a supportive wife and the love of the entire nation, but somehow you get the sense that he is a man wanting more. When asked by his wife Marie (the wonderful Julie Walters shines every time she's on screen as Finchley's devoted and put upon wife) how the awards went he says 'fine but he got all the laughs'
Channel 4 have been trailing this long before the Paralympics so we know exactly what to expect as the doorbell goes and the camera lurches toward the door. It's a great underplayed scene as the enormity of the allegation thrown at him slowly dawns. The allegation of rape is from a woman who Finchley claims not to remember on the set of one of his shows. He is asked about his sex life and his marriage and told to leave out the back as everyone one is a pap nowadays with their mobiles. It's a scene that felt more like that from Channel 4's 24 Hours in Police Custody than one over dramatised for a fictional drama.
It's testament to both Coltrane's acting and Thorne's skilfully written script that as a viewer you feel instantly conflicted. On one hand you feel for a man who's life has come crashing down around him, but on the other Coltrane plays Finchley with an amount of ambiguity and you start to wonder if this 'national treasure' really is the perfect family man we've initially been led to believe he is.
Another scene sees Finchley visit his unstable daughter Danielle played by Andrea Riseborough. The scene further demonstrates that Finchley can be an awkward figure. His daughter has suffered depression and lives in one room which he funds. Their father and daughter relationship is a difficult one, with Finchley often visibly squirming at the things his daughter says. When he leaves Danielle Finchley's hobbles into a phonebox, picks up the receiver and says to someone on the other end 'can I trust you?'
The next scene sees our 'national treasure' sleeping with a prostitute. She is someone who he has visited in the past and when he finally stumbles home back to Marie we learn she is his doting wife is all to aware of his late night antics and his affair. Thorne cleverly drip feeds the audience with information about his lead characters which is designed to make us question the man at the centre. He's far from his wonderful public image, he's been continually unfaithful to his wife but is he a man capable of the allegations being heaped on him??
The final scene sees Finchley learn of his fresh accusers. It is here you really see the beginnings of an utter broken man. It's a fascinating tale of the modern day. Thorne's script is faultless and when you couple that with the performances from Coltrane, Walters and Risebourough this opener doesn't put a foot wrong. I'm incredibly intrigued to see where the story goes here from here and proclaim this to be one of the best dramas of the year!