It’s a very strange thing, the Post Office scandal. I know there are people still suffering horribly, and in silence, about what they went through. There are no laughs, or jokes, or good times for them.
As someone not directly connected to what happened, there is a fear that if you ever use humour about any element of this disaster you are disrespecting those whose lives have been traduced and ruined.
Nothing I have ever experienced comes remotely close to knowing what it is like to lose my business and reputation due to forces beyond my control – to be powerless, or crushed and tossed aside by institutions I might once have believed in.
I take it seriously. But I can sometimes be glib, or lapse into sarcasm. And I realise that sometimes when I write a jolly newsletter, or make silly comment on twitter, I am running the risk of upsetting the very last people I would want to upset.
I would fully understand if a large number of people affected by the scandal cannot find any humour in what happened, and don’t want to see or hear glib comments. They want straight reporting, or, as the barristers questioning the witnesses to the Post Office Horizon inquiry are demonstrating – forensic and persistent pursuit of the facts.
Getting the right note
For these reasons (and many, many more) I have shied away from a number of overtures I’ve received about getting involved in theatrical presentations of the Post Office Horizon scandal. I have pursued a couple where I thought there was an absolute commitment to getting it right, but ultimately I’ve turned things down.
I realise that by writing a book about the scandal I could be accused of profiting (or, at least, breaking even) from other peoples’ misery. A balance needs to be struck between legitimate public interest and respecting peoples’ rights to tell their own stories. I’m not trying to take any moral high ground. This is difficult, and complicated. Especially if you decide you’re going down a satirical/theatrical route. Live theatre is a dangerous place to play.
When I became aware of the play False Accounts I was absolutely delighted not to have anything to do with it. I spoke to the people involved out of curiosity, and when I suggested I give them the once over on our Investigating the Post Office Scandal podcast, they were more than willing. A good sign. That and the fact that the writer and co-director, Lance Nielsen (working with his Outcasts Creative co-founder, Dickon Tolson), had a track record of dealing with difficult matters. From speaking to Lance at length I was happy to accept that he’d done the work, and he’d done the thinking.
The podcast interview seemed to go well, and the attitude on social media from the cast and crew were relentlessly respectful towards the Postmasters’ experience, coupled with a determination to make their production land right.
When it became apparent several people with direct involvement in the story were going to go to the first week’s run in Birmingham (on till 22 Oct), I thought I might drop them a line to see if they’d send me their hot takes, or even write a review.
I am delighted to say the amazing Wendy Buffrey, whose conviction was quashed last year, very kindly sent the following review from last night’s performance:
After listening to Nick and Rebecca talk to the one of the writers of the satirical play False Accounts, I thought – if they are supporting us, the least I can do is go and support the cast.
My sister Trudy agreed to come with me and off we went to Birmingham. We arrived, parked the car and made our way to The Old Joint Stock Theatre. It’s a beautiful building inside and out. It was extremely busy in the pub downstairs and the noise from other conversations were extremely loud, but as we moved through the theatre door and up the stairs silence fell. I will admit I felt very nervous as did the other postmasters who were there.
I don’t know if any of us were sure what to expect. We all huddled together at one end of the small auditorium as we waited for the play to start.
A monologue set the scene. The first few minutes were fast and loud. We all looked at each other in horror. They didn’t get what we had all been through. It wasn’t funny. How could they make jokes like that!
Then it changed. We started to recognise ourselves and some of the things we had said.
My sister turned to me and said: ‘This is so powerful, Sis.’
We then sat there, completely engaged. At one point the audience were either close to, or in tears. And in the second half we were laughing along with everyone else. Please, if you get the chance to see this play, don’t miss out.
We met the cast after, which was lovely, with special mention to Alan Wales, William Hayes, Balbir Rallmil, Cathy Odusanya (whose portrayal of her subpostmaster was fantastic) and Elaine Ward who played Paula Vennells, and got her sneer perfectly. I could go on, as each of the cast were brilliant.
Thank you to Lance and Anthony for their writing. I know you were worried about the right balance and not upsetting any of the subbies watching. That is a hard job, but I believe you have.
Thank you all for supporting us.
If I were an actor or director and I got a notice like that. I would be very pleased.
Tracy Felstead, whose conviction was also quashed last year, got in touch to say:
Excellent acting and really heartbreaking in places, funny in others. Really enjoyed it. They did us proud.
On twitter, Janet Skinner, another subpostmaster whose conviction has been quashed, said:
You did an excellent job last night. You and the cast should be very proud of what you have achieved. Well done to you all.
If it’s good, it gets you, right? Last night, one of the stars of False Accounts, Graham MacDonnell, tweeted:
Tonight I experienced something truly unique and special at the curtain call, I realised that many of our audience actually lived the story we had told. I’ve never felt so humbled, and privileged to be an actor.
I realise the play probably won’t be for everyone, but art has its place. It allows people to experience things they cannot express or see in an inquiry, or a TV news piece, or a book, or even in private, when no one is looking.
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