Cracker – a ‘lost’ telly gambling classic
When we compiled our guide to the greatest gambling TV shows a short while ago, there was a programme that caused us a problem. Created by Jimmy McGovern (The Lakes, Hillsborough), Cracker is many things but what it isn’t is a programme about gambling. However, in the formidable form of Robbie Coltrane’s forensic psychologist Eddie ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, it more than any other television programme accurately reflected the life of a man for whom gambling has become a crippling habit rather than a hobby.
If you haven’t seen Cracker – and if you haven’t, you’re in for an astonishing, albeit incredibly grim, treat – it’s important to stress that the wagering is far from the drama’s principle concern. No, make no mistake about it, this is a programme about crime – and astonishingly bloody crime at that. People are killed in Cracker in ways that are rarely encountered on commercial television – the series aired on ITV1 in the mid-1990s with an unsatisfying one-off screening in 2006. As for those investigating said crimes they include a very fresh-faced Christopher Eccleston, a pre-Jim Royle Ricky Tomlinson, Hornblower’s Lorcan Cranitch and Harry Potter’s mum Geraldine Somerville.
And then there’s Fitz. Loved by children the world over having brought Hagrid to life, Robbie Coltrane received a hat-trick of BAFTAs for his portrayal of a man who accurately self-diagnoses himself thus – “I drink too much. I smoke too much. I gamble too much. I am too much.”
Gambling is certainly a big part of Fitz’s life. The first time we meet him, he is on the phone listening to the outcome of a horse race. From there, we’re lead on an unsavoury tour of Manchester’s pubs, casinos and bookmakers. We see him win big at a gaming house only to be mugged in the car park. We also watch him shower his wife Judith – Barbara Flynn – with his casino winnings, only to take the money back from her and stick it on a horse which sheds its rider the moment it leaves the starting gate.
As appalling a gambler as he is, Fitz can’t rid himself of his habit. Things have got so bad that he’s taken to forging his wife’s signature to get hold of money set aside for their mortgage. And when he attends a Gamblers Anonymous meeting under duress, he makes such a strong case for the wonders of wagering that it’s only a matter of minutes before a deck of cards is produced and the money starts changing hands.
Of course, it’s doesn’t help that this particular GA group is chaired by the new man in Judith’s life, Graham (David Haig). “Gamblers Anonymous?” Fitz rants. “That’s created by wankers for wankers!” “Graham is the leader of the local chapter,” Judith replies, teeing Fitz up perfectly for the coup de grace – “I rest my case.”
Since it has so much to say about the woes of addiction, one could make a case for having included Cracker in our earlier survey. The thing is, Cracker – for whatever it might to say about gambling, relationships or parenthood – is indisputably a crime drama. More accurately, it’s a drama about murder. Two lovers bumping off everyone who’s done them wrong; a Liverpool fan (a never-better Robert Carlyle) out to avenge the Hillsborough disaster; a Catholic bent on killing prostitutes – the subject matter is so black, the grey Manchester skylines seem sunny by comparison.
And there at the heart of everything is Fitz, infuriating the police with his refusal to bow to authority (“You’re a bit like a doctor, aren’t you?” he informs one particularly inept detective sergeant. “You tend to bury your mistakes”) and cracking seemingly impenetrable cases by pulling apart the guilty party’s psyche the way a chef might a cooked chicken.
Featuring episodes written by Paul Abbott (Shameless, State Of Play) and directed by Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) and Julian Jarrold (Red Riding), Cracker’s reputation as a classic television programme has never dimmed. Only Prime Suspect can rival it in the field of crime drama, but that didn’t feature a fascinating subplot about how the shrink who can unmask demons is powerless when it comes to taming his own.
And for all the blood, bludgeoning and human misery, Cracker never forgot to be funny. “So, you don’t drink, you don’t smoke and you don’t gamble,” says Fitz to a suspect mid-grilling. “What do you do, then? C’mon, there must be something for you to confess. A little wank on the sofa during Baywatch isn’t a mortal sin.”