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The Hope of Innocence

In what turned out to be fortuitous timing, Hulu recently got the exclusive US streaming rights to the British miniseries National Treasure. I say it’s fortuitous because even though it was released last year, it’s a perfectly 2017 show. It tells the story of Paul Finchley (Robert Coltrane), a British entertainer who suddenly faces a host of rape allegations. A more topical production hasn’t been released.

The trailers (and the series title) suggest that Finchley is a nationally beloved comedian like Bill Cosby, but that’s only half true. He is the lesser half of a comedy team. The Abbot to somebody else’s Costello. The show opens with him introducing his (knighted) partner Sir Karl Jenkins (Tim McInnerny) for a lifetime achievement award that he himself didn’t get. It also establishes pretty early on that he is growing somewhat resentful of his old age. “At what point do comics stop being funny and start being sweet?” he asks his wife, referring to age. He deals with this the way a lot of comedians do, through humor. In his case, somewhat wry humor (his partner being Mr Slapstick).

While that aspect of the character remains relevant, for the most part it gives him an underdog appeal. You feel for him a bit. You also see a family man, married to the same woman over all the years, and with her playing an active role in caring for their grandchildren. His house is large, but not ostentatious. His life is comfortable, until the police arrive for an interview and everything goes sideways for his family.

Of course we quickly discover there are other things beneath the surface. He is a serial philanderer, though apparently honest about it with his wife. Their daughter Dee (Andrea Riseborough) is in a mental hospital, wading through a number of issues. When the accusation flies, even his wife isn’t sure what to think. “The times you came home smelling of whichever woman and I’d understand. Well, this is not one of those times. It can’t be.” His infidelity, tolerant of it she has been, has brought the police into her home.

He vociferously denies having done any of it, but, as he later points out, that is exactly what he would do whether he was guilty or innocent. He also observes, when revealing his own sexual abuse as a child, how that could make him more likely or less likely to be guilty. Between these observations and his straightforwardness with his wife (he sees a prostitute and discloses it to his wife the next day), he exudes a sort of honesty. And with his plaintive denials and obvious love of his wife and daughter, you desperately want to believe him? It’s the question that hangs over the entire show. But did he do it?

I mention several allegations, but there are only two that are explored. The first is the original complainant, a woman named Rebecca Thornton who claims that he forcibly raped her in his trailer on the set of a movie a long time ago. The second is a babysitter, who claims a “consensual” (but illegal) tryst when she was fifteen. Both stories have holes, and the rest are dismissed as mostly a PR problem because no charges are likely to be filed. The legal defense is indifferent to his innocence or guilt. As a consultant outlines it, “[Seven accusers is] a pretty typical number, nothing to be too concerned about. They could be fame seekers. They could be money seekers. They could have convinced themselves it’s true… or it could be true.”

He responds with dismay and horror at the very thought. And there we are, wanting to believe him. And by extension, wanting to believe that the women making the accusations are lying, deluded, or both. That’s an uncomfortable feeling. Then, lurking in the background of all of this, there’s his daughter. She has a faulty memory. She has a lot of problems. Her relationship with her father alternates between sweet and… something else. Something tense. A tenseness that could be as simple as the apple and tree sharing a wavelength provided by genetics, or something else. Even Dee is unsure at first.

The ultimate adjudicator here isn’t the eventual jury so much as his wife. When she is with him, Dee is with him. We are with him, too. But we see it through her eyes. When she thinks he might have done it, we all but have to concede that he might have done it.

Then, it becomes more difficult when we meet and get to know his victims a little. We watch them tell their stories, on the edge of tears or swimming in them. There are reasons not to believe them. There are holes in their stories and other details that provide an out to anyone that wants one bad enough. It reaches a point where as a viewer I am asking myself how badly I want to believe him (and by extension, how much I don’t want to believe them).

This is almost certainly how Bill Cosby got away with what he did for so long. Nobody wanted to believe it, so people didn’t. Or they put it out of their mind. We knew him, and we didn’t really know the accusers. Not really, anyway. And to whatever extent we did know them, it was through the lens of the accusation. In contrast to Bill Cosby, who we knew far more extensively. This is also how Bill Clinton got away with a lot of things people have every reason to believe he did. And in all of the cases, we end up asking ourselves the question, “Well, how bad is it, exactly?”

Which, when it comes to a lot of these things, is a question we should never really have to ask.

One of the outcomes of this past month is precisely how hard the news cycles have made it to avoid and conveniently forget things. Though it wasn’t as far a fall from grace as many of the others, George H Bush was one of the ones that hit me the hardest. Early on, I wanted to attribute it to misunderstanding or come to some conclusion other than the most obvious: He had an issue respecting female body autonomy. And whatever political disagreements I had with Al Gore, I always respected him as being the man Bill Clinton wasn’t. But revisiting the accusations that I was willing to leave put with a question mark, if I am being honest with myself — he probably did it. That’s three of our last five presidents, including the husband of the most recent’s opponent, plus a winner of the popular vote.

Believing every accuser is not tenable, and certainly in courts of law and adjudication we must have standards of proof, but there is only so much we can rest on the hope of innocence.


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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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9 thoughts on “The Hope of Innocence

  1. National Treasure might be a thinly fictionalized version of the Jimmy Saville saga. Jimmy Saville was a beloved entertainer/national master of ceremonies of sorts for Great Britain. After he died it was revealed that his extracurricular activities involved raping lots of underage girls. In one particular brazen case he found a runaway teenage girl at a club he was at and told the police that he will return the girl in the morning. The number of victims seemed staggering. Worse yet, the BBC and the British police knew about this criminal activity and did nothing. It was institutional failure at every level. Making a bad situation worse, reporters went through past interviews and found that Mr. Saville was giving hints about his criminal life through out his career. A posthumous biography of him was entitled “In Plain Sight.”

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  2. There was some attention paid to this in the very long comment thread on Mike Dwyer’s post about Bill Clinton, but going back to a lot of allegations previously dismissed as implausible with contemporary eyes make them look much different. “Holes” in victims’ stories that would once have been treated as utterly discrediting now perhaps just introduce a measure of doubt, and “holes” in victims’ stories that would have introduced a measure of doubt are generally not regarded as serious issues.

    I remember basically believing none of the allegations of assault and harassment against Clinton at the time. This wasn’t out of partisanship, because I identified as a Republican, disliked his politics, and still thought he was detestable on a personal level.

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  3. The differences between this fictionalized version and the real Jimmy Saville was that Saville was really guilty as sin and that his crimes were a lot worse because of the very young age of his victims. Like I mentioned above, the number of victims was vast. I think in the donzes.

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  4. I really appreciated this piece, Will, and I think you’ve hit one of the reasons for widespread disbelief square on. No one wants to believe the person they love could have harmed other people in such a low manner.

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  5. You’d think that after so many repetitions of the cycle, we’d have eventually grown numb and used to the notion that people we admire are also falliable and indeed likely have questionable events in their histories. Sometimes more than “questionable.” Complex opinions are hard to hold, harder to sustain, and ultimately deeply dissatisfactory.

    Longing for a hero doesn’t mean that your chosen hero is going to be worthy of that honor. Perhaps we simply need to ratchet down the sorts of roles that heroes play in our lives.

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