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Television review of Mr Bates vs The Post Office, By Frances Wilson

Arts | By Frances Wilson

TV history: Toby Jones as Alan Bates in Mr Bates vs The Post Office

Television has suddenly become the country’s principal instrument of social justice.

I refer to Mr Bates vs The Post Office, the ITV drama that, in four hours, stirred the Government into repairing a wrong they had known about for 20 years.

Television has suddenly become the country’s principal instrument of social justice.

I refer to Mr Bates vs The Post Office, the ITV drama that, in four hours, stirred the Government into repairing a wrong they had known about for 20 years.

No one was more surprised by the audience reaction than Gwyneth Hughes, the scriptwriter. Having spent three years interviewing victims of the Post Office witch hunt, she assumed the series would generate as little attention as the scandal itself.

What made it so powerful? The plot lines didn’t always tie up. We were denied the final court case. It wasn’t explained why the employees in the basement at Fujitsu would want to interfere in the sub-postmasters’ end-of-the-week book-balancing.

One reason it took off as it did is that Mr Bates, like I’m a Celebrity, was interactive entertainment. Before episode four had even aired, a million people had signed an online petition voting Paula Vennells, former CEO of the Post Office, into relinquishing her CBE. What with this being an election year, we could vote out a good number of the other people who turned a blind eye to the miscarriage of justice.

Interactive theatre has always broken box-office records. Ninety years ago, a courtroom drama called Night of January 16th, written by Ayn Rand, invited the audience to take the part of the jury and decide whether the defendant was guilty or not guilty. More recently, a musical adaptation of Dickens’s unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, asked the audience to decide on one of seven endings.

Tell Them You Love Me might be described as an interactive documentary. Commissioned by Mindhouse, Louis Theroux’s production company, it has already received the Best Documentary Feature award at the Hamptons International Film Festival and will continue to generate debate.

It’s based on interviews with Anna Stubblefield, an able-bodied, white disability-rights activist and former philosophy professor at Rutgers University, and the family of Derrick Johnson, a 30-year-old African-American with severe cerebral palsy. Two sides of a complex case of sexual abuse are presented.

Anna Stubblefield was married with two children when she met Derrick, who has the communication skills of a six-month-old baby. Derrick’s mother, Daisy, felt there ‘was something more going on’ in his mind. So Anna introduced the idea of ‘facilitated communication’, a keyboard on which non-verbal people and those with minimal control over their limbs can be taught to express their locked-in thoughts.

According to Anna, who held Derrick’s hand as he typed his sentences, he was an intellectually sophisticated man imprisoned by his body. He wanted to love and be loved, drink fine wine, listen to classical music, enjoy a vegetarian diet, do a university degree, feel Anna’s breasts and have her take his virginity, which she did. Not only was Derrick capable of consent, Anna argued, but it was he who seduced her.

According to Daisy – who called the police when Anna announced that she and Derrick were in love – her son has no emotional needs that are not met by her, drinks beer, listens to Gospel singing and eats fried chicken.

‘He’s my baby. He is my baby,’ Daisy says of the adult in diapers by her side. What most appals Daisy is that, since being introduced to sex, Derrick has started to masturbate. According to Derrick’s brother, himself a university professor, Anna was imposing her own white-saviour, ableist agenda on a vulnerable man in order to satisfy her monstrous ego and perverted desires.

Experts on facilitated communication argue that far from untapping the thoughts of non-verbal people, the system records the thoughts of the facilitator. We might compare it to the movement of letters on a Ouija board. In that case, Anna, albeit unconsciously, guided Derrick’s fingers and wrote herself into a romance.

The trial was one of the most divisive of the century. Derrick was displayed to the court like a circus freak and the judge, refusing to hear evidence in defence of facilitated communication, gave Anna a 12-year sentence for sexual assault. This was 11 years, nine months longer than the punishment meted out to former Stanford student Brock Turner who raped an unconscious woman. Anna’s sentence was overturned on appeal after 22 months; she will spend the rest of her life on the sexual offenders register.

The viewer is left to decide whether she was guilty of a crime or simply, as one reporter put it, ‘entrapped by the grandiosity of her good intentions’. In my own judgement, the jury is still out.

This story was from March 2023 issue. Subscribe Now