There was a time when a lot of the British TV drama we saw over here amounted to a variation on the kitchen-sink-drama genre. The characters were unglamorous, often working-class, the locale was presented as gritty, not pretty, and characters talked with broad regional accents.
Such dramas as Prime Suspect and Cracker, mainly seen on PBS, helped inspire a Golden Age of U.S cable drama when HBO and other outlets allowed writers to transcend network-TV limitations. The kitchen-sink drama never died in Britain, but it did go out of fashion. It has returned to the fore in recent years with Happy Valley, National Treasure and other productions.
The Accident (starts on Super Channel, Thursday, 9 p.m. and Super Channel on demand after that) is the latest and one of the most powerful in this particular category. It could be called a legal drama, and a mystery-thriller, in that it’s about a lawsuit brought against a big corporation. But it’s really about a small, deprived community, the raw human emotions of its citizens, their failing marriages and resentments, and how they have been taken for granted by both government and large corporations.
Its energy comes from the confrontational anger of the characters and the writer’s anger at injustice. The four-part series seethes with the exasperation and repressed vexations that simmer in small towns left behind when traditional industries fail and the rest of the world moves on. In fairness, it is also a mystery because what exactly happened isn’t clear for most of its length.
In the fictional Welsh town of Glyngolau, people are taking a day off, giddy with excitement because a new factory, employing hundreds of locals, is about to open. There are balloons, speeches and a celebration at the new factory’s site. Among the celebrants is Polly (Sarah Lancashire), a local hairdresser whose husband is Iwan (Mark Lewis Jones), a local councillor who helped persuade a huge corporation to put the factory in the community. Then things go terribly, terribly wrong.
Lancashire is the embodiment of this new strain of tough British drama, having played the central figure in two seasons of Happy Valley. She embodies rough decency and plain dignity. Here, she’s the engine that drives the drama. From the opening scene, in which she calmly tosses out of her house a young man who just slept with her 15-year-old daughter, she’s an icon of pragmatism.
What goes awry is doubly shocking. As the locals gaze at the new factory, there’s an explosion in the building, followed by the collapse of a large part of it. Then the horrified onlookers realize that a group of the town’s teenagers were in the building. The viewer knows this already, as that 15-year-old daughter, Leona (Jade Croot), has led a group of her pals into the site to have a party and make teenage mischief. Only some of them will survive the explosion and collapse.
But what happened? Was it an accident? Was it caused by the teenagers or was the ownership at fault in constructing a dangerously cheap infrastructure? From the outset, Polly accuses the corporation. In the opening episode, when she sees the corporate handler sent to the site, Polly screams, “This was done as cheap as chips and you know it!” What Polly sees is corporate manslaughter.
It’s not that simple, of course. The town is mad with grief and reluctant to accept that its children might be to blame for the explosion and collapse. Raw human emotions come to the surface as accusations are made and secrets revealed. It’s not easy viewing, nor was it meant to be. There is a scene of stunning anger in the opening episode, when Iwan turns on Polly with physical violence for what he calls “making a show of yourself on television.”
The handling of the corporate side of the story is, at times, a bit ungainly. The corporate villains are at first monsters and then humanized, but never fully. When the town launches a lawsuit, the corporate strategy is to smear and demean people who are already traumatized by grief. It’s a very loaded story.
The Accident was written by Jack Thorne, who also wrote National Treasure. He has said that his idea for the story was influenced by the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017. In that incident, 72 people died when a fire roared through a residential tower block in London, and it was later found that the exterior did not comply with building regulations. Thorne also cites the Aberfan disaster of 1966 as inspiration. In that case (heavily featured in the third episode of the third season of The Crown), a mass of waste from a coal mine collapsed on a Welsh village, killing 116 children.
In its four episodes, The Accident aims for a tense exploration of trauma and often does it with aplomb, and it’s gritty, not pretty, in the tradition.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.