Mr. Bates goes to London: The Post Office scandal exposed on a TV series
The sub postmaster’s alliance call to prosecute post office bosses.

Thus far a simple four-part television series, Mr. Bates vs The Post Office, has prompted the head of that agency to give back her title as a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for her part in wreaking havoc in her corner of the “empire,” has led to the proposal of special legislation to immediately compensate wrongly accused post office employees with £600,000 each, and has now involved every major political party including the Conservatives for being connected to the global corporation Fujitsu that produced the faulty system, and Keir Starmer, head of the so called “Labour” Party, for falsely prosecuting postal employees.

The series which has the whole country in an uproar over what has been called one of the biggest “miscarriages of justice in British history,” details not only the unfairness of one particular system but also—and this may be what it has struck a chord as well—the looming and present attack on service industry workers and the communities they represent and strengthen through the now accelerated automation which Artificial Intelligence is promising.

Mr. Bates opens innocently enough with Toby Jones’s Welsh small town Post Office manager agreeing with a customer over a complaint about the high price of stamps that indeed it is “daylight robbery”—ironic because we’re about to witness a systemic daylight robbery—and assuring an elderly woman who cannot remember where she put her pension certificate that he has been keeping it for her. We then move to Hampshire where Jo, whose post office is also a bakery and fruit and vegetable stand, arrives with fresh buns, and finally to Yorkshire, where a third subpostmaster, Lee, who, like Alan and |Jo, is accused of stealing by the new Horizon automated system. Lee represents himself in court, believing in the fundamental fairness of the British judicial system and leaves owing not only the money he is accused of not balancing but also the legal costs of the trial for a total of £321,000.

Each of the three is told that they alone are to blame, that it could not possibly be the Horizon system, implemented by Fujitsu, the largest IT company in Europe. They bear the brunt of the prosecution alone. Jo is told it is particularly heinous that she is stealing from public funds. Finally, Alan gets all the subpostmasters together in the small town of Fenny Compton, itself a symbol of little people fighting back, which the investigating “suits” have never heard of. He tells them that they “never have to worry about being alone again.” And thus begins a legal struggle which is now at the heart of British politics.

The series is terrific at spotlighting, not only a particular miscarriage of justice, but also a more systematic attack on both the collectivity of workers in the service industry and the almost gloating sneer at their being replaced by cold, impersonal machines which claim to be more accurate but in fact are as prone to error as any human. As opposed to Jo’s baking and Alan’s kindness and understanding with his customers, the Horizon black box lights and beeps, responding only with a recorded “Thank you for waiting.” An array of “suits” from the Post Office hierarchy then show up to accuse Jo of stealing because their system has inaccurately double posted, reminiscent of the suits that appear as well in apartment buildings that have now been purchased by even greedier landlords and announce a propitious increase in rent. Jo and Alan are priests, confessors, therapists and promoters of collectivity in their small part of the world while the machines and the impersonal corporate forces behind them are cold and ultimately, when they err, irrational.

Toby Jones leads a stellar cast

The automation, defended by the Post Office director Paula Vennells as perfect, is instead prone to error, recalling a recent article in The Financial Times which clams that the hurried rollout of AI, in the haste to replace employees, is now being delayed by what the article calls an “alarming” tendency to return inaccurate information and “hallucinate” by “generating plausible-sounding responses that have little relation to reality.”

Mr. Bates also represents a progressive trend in series TV where the British documentary tradition, going back to John Grierson, one of whose most famous films, Night Mail, details the work of the Post Office, is now being incorporated into fiction. This series takes its place alongside last year’s This England, about the inhuman, costly bungling of Covid policy by Boris Johnson and the Conservatives, as demonstrating the impact on audiences that a well-constructed and politically acute series can have, while all the while countering the American documentary series trend which at the moment is floundering and obsessed only with “true crime.” Kudos also to Toby Jones, who goes back and forth between HBO big-budget series, Game of Thrones, and playing stalwart, down-to-earth types in British series such as Don’t Forget the Driver, and who here leads but does not overwhelm a stellar group of actors.  These are the kinds of series we need more of, and it is hoped that the series’ effect on political life will redound on television producers and foster the creation of more series like this one.

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Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe, a film, television and art critic, is also the author of the Harry Palmer LA Mysteries, the latest volume of which, The House That Buff Built, is about the real estate industry, dispossession, and appropriation in the shaping of “modern” Los Angeles.