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Cracking up or cracking down

(November 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Mon, 9 p.m. ITV

The first series of Cracker, starring Robbie Coltrane as the Manchester police psychologist, held your attention but was slightly disturbing. Coltrane’s character Fitz is much more intelligent and liberal than the police he works with. But all his insights into society and its victims tend to lead to the same conclusion as black bags over people’s heads and false confessions. In one story an innocent man is sent to prison because of Fitz’s work.

Those already slightly uncomfortable at the series will have felt their unease grow with the real life acquittal of Colin Stagg. He was charged with a particularly horrific murder after police psychologists invented a suspect profile, fitted Stagg to that profile without any firm evidence linking him with the crime and then used a police woman to entrap him by encouraging him to indulge in violent sexual fantasies.

Watching the opening story in the new series only tends to reinforce this unease. A young factory worker cracks up following his father’s death. He has an argument with an Asian shopkeeper over 4p. We are supposed to believe that he goes home, shaves his head, returns dressed in combat gear brandishing a bayonet, argues with the shopkeeper that he is a ‘robbing Paki bastard’, and then stabs him to death.

In the course of the argument he claims that he is a socialist and trade unionist who has been on marches against racism but is fed up with the way he is treated. When he commits his second murder – of an academic psychologist without Fitz’s insight – he again expresses his frustration that only a handful of people went to his dad’s funeral because he was an ‘ordinary white working class bloke’. Right at the end the murderer, Albie, says that he looked to the Labour party but they were only interested in gays and blacks.

What are we to make of all this? The police assume the ‘profile’ will be unskilled working class, unemployed, connected with a group like the BNP. Fitz thinks differently – and the audience know that he is right because they have seen the murderer, Albie, working in the factory and confessing to some left wing politics in the past. So we have to look deeper.

The answer, it turns out, is that he witnessed the Hillsborough football disaster. Now, it’s perfectly understandable how that event could completely traumatise anyone. But why should it turn them from being a socialist into a racial killer, any more than it would turn Michael Portillo into an SWP member?

There seems to be a pernicious message here: we are all racists. Indeed, Fitz says as much to the Asian shopkeeper’s daughter. Even the most decent, law abiding, left wing person can be sent over the edge, and then their residual racism comes out. The horror of the modern world can make murderous bigots of us all.

And here Fitz comes in. The police are portrayed sympathetically, as decent honest people who don’t have the intelligence or insight to spot the real criminals. Fitz is not decent or honest. He is also a compulsive drinker and gambler in a miserable marriage who cannot face up to the mess in his life. But his weaknesses give him an insight into all the other misfits. He is often sympathetic to their plight, but in the end, when Fitz has cracked their story, they are handed over to the police.

The programme attempts to deal with contemporary real life issues, but only has one law and order solution to them.

Cracker has been described as a brilliant postmodern character, portraying the exact opposite of a typical hero. But that is hardly new in detective stories: look at the characters of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. The stories are well scripted and acted, but at their core is a reactionary thesis which no radical psychology can completely hide: the thin blue line – not perfect but the best we have got – is the only protection of ‘civilisation’.

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