The story of an aging, much-beloved British comedian accused of multiple sexual assaults, National Treasure — the four-part drama that begins streaming on Hulu on Wednesday — is a marvelously acted piece. If the subject matter sounds grim, it is, but the production is exciting: well-acted, suspenseful, and moving.
Robbie Coltrane — best known for his roles in movies such as Harry Potter’s Hagrid and, for Anglophile TV watchers, the title role in the 1990s hit TV series Cracker — plays Paul Finchley, half of a veteran comedy duo. Paul is the “national treasure” of the title, a widely admired star of a long-gone sitcom, which he starred in with his partner-in-laughs, Karl, played by Tim McInnerny. (Again: Fans of British TV, you will know him from the great Rowan Atkinson series Blackadder.)
Paul is accused of assaulting a number of underage girls, and, now in his 60s and reduced to hosting an afternoon game show, the veteran performer foresees that what little fame and respect he has left is about to vanish. Hurt in this high-profile scandal is Paul’s wife, Marie, played by the great Julie Walters (Billy Elliot, as well as her own Harry Potter role, Molly Weasley). The two have a troubled adult daughter, Dee (Andrea Riseborough), who may or may not have been preyed upon by her father as well.
Treasure shows the way the police and the media build damning cases against celebrities, and the show is also excellent at demonstrating the weasely ways the showbiz industry has of instantly distancing itself from anyone who might hurt profits. Loyalty — whether from Paul’s wife or his employers — is shown to be a tricky, elusive thing. Then again, Paul’s loyalty — as a husband and a public figure granted some public trust — is just as elusive.
The series writer, Jack Thorne, has clearly based his plot on the real-life scandal of Jimmy Saville, a national treasure of a comedian for decades in Britain whose career was smashed by revelations of many sexual assaults over a long period of time. This British-made production must have been especially vivid for its viewers. (Here in America, we may think more readily about the Bill Cosby nightmare.) But you can come to National Treasure without knowledge of the Saville scandal and still be caught up in Paul’s awful plight, can still feel wrenched about whether or not to believe his protestations of innocence. Coltrane’s performance is flawless — you understand why so many people are so fond of him, while also seeing that he may be capable of committing monstrous acts.
National Treasure is streaming now on Hulu.