OPINION: Cracker: A look at what made ITV’s crime drama so groundbreaking

by | Oct 7, 2021 | All, Opinions

A Look back at possibly the most important and influential British crime drama of the 90s’

“I rehearsed the death of my father for years. I even got a little bored. I knew all my lines but he was still alive!”  Eddie ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerlad Cracker ‘The Mad Woman in the Attic. Written by Jimmy McGovern. 

First aired Monday 27 September 1993 on ITV. 

Contributed by Nick Bartlett

The renegade detective is almost a cliché nowadays, with countless Sherlock Holmes adaptations and obvious replicas like HouseThe Mentalist and Lie To Me. Most are pretty good but they’re all very much of a type – a quirky, unconventional problem solver who butts heads with law enforcement, they might not play by the rules but by God they get the job done!

Cracker, Jimmy McGovern’s seminal crime drama, is different. On the surface it fits with the cliché; Fitz,(Robbie Coltrane) an overweight, alcoholic, gambling addict also happens to be a brilliant psychologist, who is drawn in to assist the Manchester police department solve various murders. 

However, where Cracker differs from other dramas is the depth of the writing and the breadth of the stories. McGovern uses the crime drama format to really dig into themes that interested him, and some of the flights of fancy that obviously preoccupied him (such as the idea of changing your mind halfway down after jumping off a building). As Christopher Eccleston himself has put it: Cracker was a Trojan Horse. [It} purported to be an average police procedural drama, but actually became a debating ground for racism, misogyny, homophobia, the issues of the day” as well as giving memorable guest roles to Adrian Dunbar, Christopher Fulford and early starring roles for the likes of Samantha Morton, John Simm, Susan Lynch, Liam Cunningham and of course, Robert Carlyle.

This was never one hour and done series; the cases were generally spread over 2 to three episodes, allowing the story and characters room to breathe. Even if the cases themselves aren’t that engrossing, more often than not there is excellent drama to be found in the lives of the central characters, be it Fitz’s turbulent home life, his romantic entanglements, or the more sinister issues that take hold of the supporting cast. More importantly, even when the perpetrator is caught, the story is rarely wrapped up conclusively – Cracker burrows under your skin and stays with you in a way most procedurals just don’t. 

Robbie Coltrane gives his defining performance as Fitz. Initially, by today’s standards, his introduction may seem a tad over the top, flinging books on philosophy into a room full of university students, but it soon becomes clear that this is who he is. A larger than life, damaged, often obnoxious character – in his oft-quoted description of himself I smoke too much, I drink too much. I am too much”. It’s an incredible performance, at once funny, devastatingly intelligent and full of charisma – you never once question the attraction of DS Penhaligan (Geraldine Somerville) to him despite the obvious disparity in looks. He has a tenacious, brilliant mind, and is genuinely funny, responding to an impromptu party at his home with a wry “I’ve noticed there are one or two strangers in the house”. Despite all this, he lacks the sentimentality that often appears at the heart of the detectives who would come after. That’s not to say he’s heartless, in fact, he is full of pathos, even when he’s acting abominably. The eulogy he gives his mum in Brotherly Love is one of the most realistic and powerful depictions of someone just about keeping it together I’ve seen on TV, but even this isn’t mined for “cheap sentimentality” and is quickly undercut by a spiteful row with his brother at the pub.

I don’t think Cracker could be made today, but not for the reasons you might think. It’s not that Fitz is so unbearably un-PC in his candour, his gambling and his drinking – most of these are par for the course nowadays. It’s more his human failings that I don’t think you’d see on television today, at least not in the lead character. He cheats on his wife, squanders her money, and barely notices his children – and he doesn’t treat Penhaligan any better, jilting her on more than one occasion, and never making up for it. He is brilliant, but also genuinely obnoxious – and it’s not a charming affectation,  as evidenced by the friends and strangers he alienates through his pig-headedness. He’s also not infallible when it comes to his job – In One Day A Lemming Will Fly he is convinced that he’s got his man, only to have the rug pulled out from under him when it’s revealed he’s sent the wrong man down, and the police don’t care. It’s one of the most powerful episodes of the series, ending with him in utter despair – how many episodes of Sherlock end like that?

Another aspect that sets Cracker apart from the imitations and even some contemporary crime dramas (like Prime Suspect) is the depth granted to the supporting cast. Barbara Flynn is a strong foil for Coltrane as Fitz’s long-suffering wife Judith and is afforded a great deal more agency than the wife characters generally get in similar shows. McGovern clearly sympathises with her and makes her more than a match for Fitz intellectually. The same goes for Penhaligan, (affectionately nicknamed Panhandle by Fitz) the sharp, intelligent Detective Sergeant who is constantly undervalued by her colleagues but is treated with respect by Fitz, who sees her as a much more competent detective than her colleagues. Somerville is perfect for this role, using her melancholy features to devastating effect in later episodes. She navigates every tonal shift her character goes through perfectly, and ends up being the closest thing to a relatable character the show has to offer.

Finally, there’s the rest of the police force – initially led by Christopher Eccleston’s DCI Bilborough, a young, impulsive boss who regularly butts head with Fitz, and succeeded by Ricky Tomlinson as Wise, an altogether more level-headed, seasoned copper, who enjoys a much more congenial relationship with him. Most notably there is Lorcan Cranitch’s incredible performance as DS Jimmy Beck, Initially introduced as a fairly stereotypical bulldog detective, he is soon revealed to be every bit as fascinating as Fitz himself.

While the show never makes excuses for the numerous antagonists, McGovern goes to great pains to show the reasons for their actions. They are all shown to be distinctly human – monsters yes but human nonetheless. Unlike many crime thrillers, Cracker isn’t a whodunnit (more often than not we see the murderer’s circumstances leading up to the first murder) McGovern does a great job of putting the audience in the murderers’ shoes, forcing you to examine how you would behave in the same circumstances.

Nowhere is this more clear than in To Be A Somebody – often held up as one of the most powerful episodes of television, and rightly so. The murderer, Albie (Robert Carlyle) does some appalling things over the course of the episode, but tied into his motivations is the grief over losing his dad, and the trauma and anger surrounding the events at Hillsborough. Combine this with Carlyle’s often vulnerable performance, and Albie becomes a much more complicated character, one who the audience has conflicted feelings about.

This episode also features a genuine watershed moment – the murder of DI Bilborough (Christopher Eccleston). Unlike today, when actors would announce their departure from a series, Bilborough’s death was kept heavily under wraps until the episode transmitted, resulting in one of the most truly shocking moments in TV history, and it’s executed perfectly. The sound drops out as Albie attacks Bilborough, the oh-so relatable way Bilborough hasn’t paid attention to where he is, and the agonising crawl to the door, as Penhaligin plaintively shouts down the police radio for him to stop moving. Every time I watch it I’m willing him to make it, to just hold on a few more seconds until backup arrives. It’s a brutal scene, but even more impressive is the way it serves as a catalyst for future episodes: Beck’s guilt over failing his boss leads to him spiralling irreversibly, while Penhaligan blames Beck for what happened, all of which comes to a head in Men Should Weep – potentially the most powerful episode of the series.

Penhaligon’s rape in Men Should Weep, and the subsequent realisation that it was Beck who raped her, are some of the most traumatic and devastating moments of the series. What’s so interesting about the episode, (and Brotherly Love, which deals with the fall-out) is the way McGovern refuses to portray Beck as an out and out villain. What he does is unforgivable, but he’s also guilt-ridden, and pathetic. However, the sympathy you might feel for him evaporates whenever Penhaligan appears, and you can see the damage he’s done to her.

One of my favourite elements to McGovern’s writing is that none of his characters are wholly evil or wholly virtuous. Judith is presented as level-headed and generally well-meaning but is unforgivably horrible to Penhaligon. Bilborough is a good man and charismatic but is weak-willed and a terrible boss. Nobody is just one thing, and no character encapsulates this better than Jimmy Beck.

Beck is one of McGovern’s finest creations – he’s irredeemable but sympathetic. However low he sinks – bullying suspects, making homophobic, misogynistic comments at every opportunity – you still get the impression that there’s a good man in there, but he just went wrong somewhere. The fact he constantly beats himself up is enough to make you think he might not be a completely lost cause. The ending of To Be A Somebody should have been a heroic moment for his character. I still get a thrill when watching the scene where he finally recognises Albie, and the subsequent foot chase is a great sequence, mirroring Bilborough’s chase except this time he does it by the book –barking street names down the police radio as he gives pursuit. He does everything right until he inevitably ruins it all by brutally assaulting Albie. In any other series, Cranitch’s performance would have won all the accolades, but in Cracker he was just one of a superlative ensemble, all of whom are at the top of their game.

McGovern clearly finds Beck as fascinating as I do – I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two share a first name, or that Fitz ultimately names his newborn baby Jimmy too, or even that Beck’s final episode is also the last one written by McGovern. It’s the last truly great episode of the series. After McGovern’s departure, Paul Abbott took the reins for the final two episodes of series 3, and while Best Boys and True Romance have their moments, they too often resemble a much more conventional procedural than what came before. Worse, it seems like he didn’t really understand the characters – Fitz and McGovern are so entwined that to a degree this is understandable, but it often felt like Abbott didn’t know what to do with Penhaligon either, and the once crucial character ends up being something of an afterthought, and criminally sidelined.

Nuance is all too often missing from TV nowadays, but it could well be the defining feature of Cracker. The line between criminals and those chasing them is one that would go on to be explored a lot more explicitly in other shows, the whole “We’re not so very different, you and I” cliché is absent here – Fitz doesn’t hold any mutual respect for the criminals he questions, he despises them – in To Say I Love You, he talks to Tina about the ending of Bonnie And Clyde, the romanticised death scene, he makes it seem like he sympathises, only to brutally pull the rug out from under her with a well-aimed speech: “I wept buckets. I thought it was one of the worst moments in the entire history of Hollywood. I wept buckets for all the victims and all the families of the victims. You see, I’ve been to their homes Tina. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen what violent death does in a family”.

It’s dark for sure, but the power of Cracker doesn’t lie in the unpleasant murders, but rather in the psychology of the characters, in the social commentary, and the way that lines between criminals and law enforcement are constantly blurred. To paraphrase Fitz, Cracker is a show that confronts “The things that you really feel, not all that crap that you’re supposed to feel”. Brotherly Love is superficially about a series of horrible murders, but it also examines the fraught relationship between Fitz and his uptight brother, as well as his (and McGovern’s) attitude towards Catholicism; To Say I Love You features a wannabe Bonnie and Clyde, but beneath it lies a commentary on sibling rivalry, To Be A Somebody is sensational television, but the shadow of Hillsborough hangs over it throughout.

While crime dramas nowadays are often quite comfortable affairs – think Foyle’s War, Lewis or Vera – Cracker was never easy viewing, and often proved to be traumatising, as any depiction of violent crime should be. It’s such an iconic series that it’s easy to forget that there are only 3 series  (I’m choosing to ignore the two one off specials, which barely resemble the show in it’s prime) consisting of 9 stories, but the 6 written by McGovern are some of the best written crime stories ever seen on British television, and they still pack an emotional punch, despite being made well over 20 years ago.

                                Cracker is now Streaming on BritBox.

Nick Bartlett

Nick Bartlett



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