Jack Thorne on the horrors of National Treasure: ‘I'm still haunted by the things I was told’

Michael Hogan
Andrea Riseborough, Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters in National Treasure - Channel 4
Andrea Riseborough, Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters in National Treasure - Channel 4

“I met Weinstein once,” recalls screenwriter Jack Thorne. “I had a ‘general’ with the General. And he really did behave like a frigging General. He was an odious individual even then, barking about what he could own, what he could control, making clear how grateful I should be for that meeting. I can't imagine what it was like for those poor women.”

We’re speaking ahead of the welcome rerun for Thorne’s award-garlanded Channel 4 drama National Treasure - inspired by Operation Yewtree, the infamous investigation into the sexual abuse perpetrated by Jimmy Savile and allegations against other light entertainment personalities.

The powerful four-parter first aired in 2016. I’ve ventured that not only was it grimly prescient of the #MeToo movement which was to follow but that its protagonist, played by Robbie Coltrane, even bears a resemblance to Harvey Weinstein - a hulking sixtysomething man in a dark suit, hobbling into court on a walking stick, outwardly frail but inwardly monstrous. 

“I don't think Robbie would like that accusation very much,” laughs Thorne. “In my opinion, he’s far better looking than that scumbag. As to whether it was prescient, well, the good thing is that justice has been served - or started to be served in Weinstein’s case - even though it's far from perfect. I was very scared from what I'd seen that it wouldn't be. There are countless women out there, and men, more than we can ever imagine, who've been taken into darkness and the justice system has failed them. Why? Because power and money still exert way too much influence on justice.”

Coltrane plays showbiz veteran Paul Finchley, once half of a beloved comedy duo and now making a comfortable living hosting TV quiz shows. His world and his family’s are flipped upside down when he’s accused of historic sex crimes - including the rape of a 15-year-old girl during the Seventies. What follows isn’t just a devastating human drama but an insightful treatise on memory, truth, doubt - and the complex nexus between celebrity, sex and power.

Writer Jack Thorne created National Treasure after the Operation Yewtree scandals - Manuel Harlan
Writer Jack Thorne created National Treasure after the Operation Yewtree scandals - Manuel Harlan

The chilling spectre of Savile looms in Thorne’s script but Savile wasn’t his initial inspiration. “No, it was a picture I saw of someone emerging from court surrounded by their family,” he explains. “I won't say who because it's complicated. It was that image - especially the women that surrounded them - that became my starting point. I wanted to understand what that felt like. I wanted to understand that unit.”

In National Treasure, those women become Julie Walters as Finchley’s loyal wife, Marie, a devout Catholic who has turned a blind eye to Paul’s philandering for decades but is now confronted with the full horror of her husband’s true nature; and Andrea Riseborough as his drug addict daughter, Dee, who might just have been another of her father’s victims. Both characters are caught in the blast radius. Both actresses deliver devastating performances. 

Prolific writer Thorne - his eclectic credits include Harry Potter & the Cursed Child, This Is England, Skins, The Virtues and His Dark Materials - conducted extensive research, including interviews with victims, their families and police officers who worked on historic abuse investigations. I ask about his memories of that process. 

“You know, I loved it and hated it all at once,” Thorne says. “I’m still haunted by a lot of the things I was told. I’m still very, very angry about the institutional and systemic sexism and bias that became so clear the more we delved into it. But it was a great privilege to get such access to people and the honesty I was shown was absolutely phenomenal. I didn't want to hear what I was being told, and they didn't want to tell it, yet they showed incredible bravery in talking to me about it.”

Robbie Coltrane and Tim McInnerny play a once beloved comedy duo - Channel 4
Robbie Coltrane and Tim McInnerny play a once beloved comedy duo - Channel 4

The result was a fearlessly written drama that’s haunting, knotty and still just as urgent as when it was first conceived six years ago. Does it depress Thorne that it feels more timely than ever? 

“Very much,” he says. “I suppose one ray of light is that some female victims have more of a voice now, due to #MeToo and #TimesUp - but that’s only a small proportion of them. Convictions for rape are still disgustingly, shockingly low. The fact that there's a spotlight upon it hasn't led to any big institutional change. We've seen some changes in the courts but nowhere near radical enough.”

How about within the entertainment industry? “We’re still learning. I’ve seen changes and I've questioned things in myself. But there's a long way to go with this, alongside structural inequalities on race and disability. We still don’t do enough to stop abuse or support victims. Things have improved, less is tolerated, but there are still predators out there as the brilliant I May Destroy You [Michaela Coel’s current BBC One series about sexual consent] attests.”

At the centre of National Treasure is a monumental performance by Robbie Coltrane. Now 70, the no-nonsense Scot is seldom seen on-screen nowadays but he makes his rare appearances count - none more so than here. It’s one of his triptych of classic TV turns, alongside Tutti Frutti and Cracker. It’s also entirely lacking in vanity: we hear his laboured breathing, his grunts as he sits or stands up, and see him half-naked. Finchley is exposed and stripped bare in every sense. 

The camera moves slowly around his craggy face and as Coltrane noted, he “plays it like Mount Rushmore”. Asked at the time if he considered the risks of starring in a Yewtree-themed drama, he replied: “Of course. But I don’t care. I think it’s important to do this on behalf of the women who were raped, on behalf of all the people who were abused.”

A superlative supporting cast included the likes of Tim McInnerny as Finchley’s former comedy partner, Babou Ceesay as his cynical lawyer, Kerry Fox as his ruthless barrister, and Kate Hardie and Susan Lynch as his accusers. “Landing that cast was absolutely nuts,” says Thorne with grin. “I wanted to do something different with this script, for it to feel like a chamber piece. Robbie, Julie, Andrea and Tim - in fact, the entire company - made that possible. They elevated every aspect of the writing and gave it so, so much more than I could have hoped for.”

Alongside such high-calibre thesps, a veritable green room’s worth of celebrities pop up as themselves in fleeting cameos. These include Frank Skinner, Alan Carr, Robert Webb, Lee Mack and Victoria Derbyshire. A further sheen of showbiz authenticity is added by some scenes being set in Channel 4’s own HQ. 

“It was courageous of Channel 4 to commission it, let alone allow us to shoot there,” says Thorne. “And the cameos were brave too. I enlisted my brother-in-law Frank Skinner first, then others very kindly followed. They came up to the location shoots in Leeds for very little money because they believed in the show.”

So is Paul Finchley, the titular national treasure, guilty or innocent? For much of the series, both possibilities are dangled. Viewers feel conflicted. Allegiances shift. Thorne admits that he deliberately didn’t give away all the answers because he wanted the audience to feel like a jury.

“Ultimately, though, I don't think it is ambiguous,” he says. “Marie becomes judge and jury. She sees the truth. But these cases rely on ambiguous evidence. It’s not a crime drama, you don't get to see a bloodied knife. Evidence has to be constructed out of things as difficult as school reports and teenage diaries. If we'd have shown categorical proof, we'd have cheated. I understand why people wanted to know but I think we told them all we could.”

Looking back, he’s happy with how the series ends: “I’m never content, I never think I get anything right but I think this ending was the right one - hopefully both unexpected and true.”

Netflix's When They See Us provided another powerful example of tackling difficult real-life issues - Netflix
Netflix's When They See Us provided another powerful example of tackling difficult real-life issues - Netflix

The series is also nuanced enough to explore the other side of the issue: those cases when well-known names were accused and named by the media, even though their case was eventually dropped. This was the fate suffered by Jim Davidson, Paul Gambaccini, Jimmy Tarbuck, Tony Blackburn and Cliff Richard, to name a few, and has been blamed by some on a “moral panic” post-Savile.

“I have huge sympathy for those who were named and shamed but never charged,” says Thorne. “But the truth is, publicity is vital in order to bring some monsters into the open, so doing these cases in public becomes a necessity. That doesn’t mean it's right - it’s horrible that careers of innocent people have been cut dead and lives ruined - but it might be necessary. Of course, what's actually needed is an open and just system where historic crimes are a thing of the past because they were tackled when they occurred. Sadly, that's some way off.”

Did he ever get feedback from abuse victims? “Yes, some,” he reflects. “And they felt like the show had got a lot of things right. My one regret is that some felt the victims were pushed too much to the back. I thought that because I'd told Paul’s daughter's story - and in my head, though it's never stated, she is a victim - I'd given space to it. If I did it now, I’d write it in a different way. 

“It’s so interesting to watch a show like When They See Us [last year’s acclaimed Netflix drama about the Central Park Five], where the procedural element is pushed so far back into the storytelling. That show is much more radical than anyone gives it credit for. [Film-maker] Ava DuVernay found a way to tell the story of those boys who became men that felt true to their soul. If I wrote National Treasure again, I'd try and learn from her.” 

He’s being hard on himself. The series won four BAFTAs and was nominated for six more. Whether you saw it first time around or not - and many didn’t - it’s well worth tuning into this rerun. 

Four years after National Treasure originally aired, is Thorne still proud of it? “There are things I'd correct and change, but I think it has a dark inquisitive soul to it,” he says. “I hope so anyway. It's definitely one of the better things I've done. I’m beyond delighted that it’s getting broadcast again. That’s possibly the only good thing about lockdown.” He laughs. “Maybe not for anyone else but definitely for me.” 

National Treasure is repeated Thursdays at 9pm on Channel 4

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