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ABOUT THE SERIES (Contains Spoilers)


Cracker first hit british screens on ITV back in 1993, the brainchild of Granada Television and Jimmy McGovern. It ran officially as series until 1995, with a one off special screened in late 1996 (with a new one-off special now due in 2005) and went on to win numerous awards around the world, with Robbie Coltrane picking up the BAFTA award for Best Actor three years running. It centered around Dr Edward Fitzgerald, otherwise known as Fitz, a criminal psychologist bought into assist the Manchester Police Force profile and catch killers. Cracker, during it's UK run was a phenomenal success. So successful it has since spun an american remake. The premise of the show was both topical and ingenious: topical because in 1993 police forces in Britain were beginning to use more and more criminal psychologists to help with their investigations, and ingenious because with the combination of the officers of the Greater Manchester Police and 'consultant psychologist' Fitz, there was the potential to combine the more conventional crime thriller elements and the question of 'whodunnit' with the deeper and more disturbing question of 'why'. 



The ingenious twist to this already winning formula was the controversial choice of lead actor. Glaswegian giant Robbie Coltrane known primarily for his comedy roles and stand up routines, was a choice many people saw as odd (Robert Lindsey was the first suggested name), but it didn't take long for his skills as straight actor to become dramatically apparent.  For the next two years, Coltrane would walk away from the BAFTAs with the title of Best Actor. Between them, Jimmy McGovern (who wrote the entire first series, and two stories from the second series) and Coltrane captured the imagination of millions of viewers as the character of Dr Edward Fitzgerald - 'Fitz'. Despite the importance of Fitz's character, Cracker has never been a one man show. Much of the runaway success of its first series was down to the group of officers he worked for, notably DCI Bilborough, DS Beck and DS Penhaligon. The young DCI was played by Christopher Eccleston who has since found fame as a movie star (he played the murderous accountant in Shallow Grave and the title role in Jude). Bilborough's energetic, forceful and often deeply flawed style of policing made him an excellent foil for Fitz, and the arguments between them added an extra tension to the series. Fitz was often critical of him, but saved his most disparaging comments for Jimmy Beck (played by Lorcan Cranitch), a copper in the traditionalist, aggressive mould who would become more important in later series. For now, he and Bilborough represented the dangers of a certain kind of policing, in an unusually critical take on detective work. 


One episode in particular brings home the danger of going for a 'result', (i.e. A successful prosecution) rather than trying to find the truth. In another, Beck is scathing of Fitz's suggestion that a man they have in custody should have psychological treatment - he even claims he's not at all interested in preventing crimes rather than solving them - but, later on, the same is responsible for several murders. Again and again the police are shown to make fundamental mistake, and Fitz's involvement's doesn't always solve their problems. The first story set the standard for future plotlines, with Fitz going along the right lines to get the truth despite a difference of opinion with Bilborough. The only police officer on Fitz's side is Jane Penhaligon (Geraldine Somerville), who undoubtedly becomes the most important character to the show next to Fitz, appearing in all the episodes so far expect for the Hong Kong special. When we first see her, she's been ordered by Bilborough to inform a murdered girl's parents that their daughter has been killed - a job with which, we come to learn, she is very often lumbered. Partly because of the raw deal she gets from Bilborough, Penhaligon is soon persuaded to work with Fitz and the two start a friendship which before long develops into an on/off affair.

There is definitely some 'soap opera' appeal to Cracker: the 'personal' storylines about the regular characters often take up almost as much space in an episode as the crimes being investigated. Fitz and Penhaligon's relationship is one running storyline, along with turbulence of his marriage, in the midst of gambling, drinking, and smoking habits that would test the patience of a saint. Fitz's wife Judith, played by the brilliant Barbara Flynn, completes an impressive line up of well rounded and believable characters, who made the show compelling to watch even before any crimes had been committed. Series One of Cracker, broadcast in 1993, followed a format of two two part serials and one three parter - all of which would later be repeated in 'film length' edited versions. Although the whole series was of an extremely high quality - in terms of script writing, acting, photography and music among other things - and won an impressive range of BAFTAs awards, the three parter To Say I Love You was undoubtedly the best of the stories. 



Cracker has never been afraid to take risks - to make its villains sympathetic, to show that the police can mistakes - and that's one of the reasons why is makes such good drama. It may also be a reason why its been so controversial and received its fair share of complaints in addition to millions of fans. Critics have occasionally cited it as a show that glamorized violence - but on the other hand, its violence is never sanitized or separated from its effects. For every scene that follows a killer with some degree of sympathy there are many more where we see the victims or their families and friends and are left in no doubt of the harm they've suffered. The violence and its effects are often horrific - almost the very first scene is of the inside of a train carriage covered in blood and the forensic expert describing in vivid detail how the victim would of died.

For the second series, in 1994, Cracker's run was extended to nine episodes - three stories of three episodes each. The quality, again, was extremely high, although the second story (about a suburban cult surrounding a school headmaster who was having an affair with one of his students) was noticeably the weakest of the three (and the first not to have been written by the shows creator, Jimmy McGovern). The first story, To Be A Somebody, risked controversy again with its treatment of a difficult subject - the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. It was a subject close to McGovern's heart, which he later further developed as a separate docu-drama. The result was arguably the best and most moving Cracker story, helped by an award winning performance by Robert Carlyle as Albie. Once again, the story pulled off the balance between understanding Albie's story and his suffering, and seeing the horrific results of his crime. This time the damage hit closer to home - because Albie's third victim was Bilborough himself. In an intensely dramatic and painful sequence, Bilborough is led to Albie's flat and stabbed by him, dying within minutes while his colleagues desperately race to reach him. Ironically DS Beck had already interviewed Albie and let him go, so he was partly to blame for the death.


The episode shocked regular and casual viewers alike, and the repercussions of Bilborough's death lasted well beyond the end of the story. Bilborough's replacement was DCI Wise, a more experienced officer than Bilborough, a more confident personality. Played by Ricky Tomlinson, Wise brought some more humour to the show and developed a more affable relationship with Fitz. While Fitz, Wise and Penhaligon began to work more closely together, Beck became increasingly isolated, racked with guilt over the death of Bilborough. In story three of the second series, Men Should Weep, his emotional turmoil spills over into violence. During a series of rapes, Beck himself puts on a mask identical to the one the rapist wears and rapes Penhaligon, threatening her with a knife. Penhaligon's reaction to the rape and then to the discovery that her attacker was Beck is extremely well played by Geraldine Somerville, and the storylines is sensitively handled in a serial that is another strong contender for the best Cracker story.



Series three continues the storylines, with Lorcan Cranitch taking centre stage as Beck for much of the first story, Brotherly Love. Meanwhile, Fitz is joined at home by his brother Danny with news of their mother's death. By this time, it seemed that the regular characters were far more interesting than the crime stories. With Beck's final confession that he had raped Penhaligon and his subsequent dramatic suicide, Cracker crossed the line between a show about crime with strong regular characters, and an epic tragedy involving most of the Manchester police and members of Fitz's family. In general, series three was not of as high a standard as the others, although some very good individual scenes and plot lines stood out from the rest - in particular Beck's funeral, and the interesting put on the Bonnie & Clyde idea in Best Boys. But with the run again curtailed to seven episodes, the series had a very rushed feel to it - a blossoming relationship between Judith and Danny suddenly comes to nothing and in the final episode, Penhaligon unexpectedly announces her resignation in a short scene. 


Despite being a series of even stronger violence than the first, the most controversy Cracker caused in 1995 was with its scheduling. With an extra 15 minutes in its first episode, the show threatened to push the News at Ten forward to 10.15pm, until ITV were told firmly that their franchise required the news to be shown in peak time on weekdays. Brotherly Love episode one was subsequently moved to a Sunday night slot, but the fact that ITV had been prepared to break the rules for the show was an indication of how valuable it now was to the network. Robbie Coltrane's insistence that he would not star in another series was therefore not well received by Granada. Convinced that there was still mileage in the idea, they settled for Coltrane's offer to do one off specials instead. 


The first of these was White Ghost, seen in October 1996, a 2 hour edition set in Hong Kong. Many of Cracker's hallmarks were there but without Judith, Penhaligon, or the gritty backdrop of Manchester, White Ghost didn't feel as much like Cracker as it ought to have done.  In years to come, Cracker will no doubt be remembered not just as one of a genre, but as a truly unique show: at best a stylish, impeccably written, superbly acted drama with some dark, disturbing and dangerous storylines. There may never be a shortage of crime drama on television, but Cracker really is something special.

Many Thanks to the ETV Guide for the above write up.


The Unofficial Guide To Cracker 1999-2006