How a TV drama shook up Britain – in just a week

Hughes’ story did more than just attract attention; it galvanised action. The Post Office CEO at the time of the scandal, Paula Vennells, was played so convincingly in the show by Lia Williams, that within days of the finale on 4 January, more than a million people signed a petition demanding she hand back her CBE, given to her by Queen Elizabeth II in 2019. On 9 January, she did just that. And a day later, the Government stepped in. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he would bring in a new law to “swiftly exonerate and compensate victims”.

Mr Bates is once again proof of the ability of the small screen to change the narrative of real-life events, and when it connects with an audience, what instrumental changes can arise from it. This power was arguably first harnessed back in 1966, when the British drama Cathy Come Home deftly and impactfully brought awareness to the issue of housing and homelessness, which led to the problem being discussed in the House of Commons and the homeless charity Shelter being formed.

The power of drama

Ava DuVernay chose a drama format for her 2019 mini-series, When They See Us, which fictionalised the case of the Central Park Five, five men falsely convicted of rape who eventually had their conviction overturned. Although the men were exonerated in 2002, the series – streamed by 23 million people in the first month – served to highlight the US judicial system failing those accused, and helped to make reparations to the people whose lives were ruined, in the hope it won’t happen again. As Vulture‘s Jen Chaney wrote: “More than anything, this miniseries reminds us that what happened to those five boys three decades ago could just as easily happen today, in the name of what some powerful figures would perceive as justice.”

Two recent LGBTQ+ series in the UK and US both took on the Aids crisis of the 80s, Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin and Ryan Murphy’s Pose, highlighting how the government and the medical services failed to act quickly enough in response to a disease that was killing gay and trans people, and how those who contracted the virus were ostracised and pilloried. In one shocking scene in It’s a Sin, a character diagnosed with Aids is physically locked up in a hospital ward, legally, under a Public Service Act of the time. As well as educating a younger generation on the issue – lead actor Olly Alexander told the BBC at the time: “Young gay people can’t believe it happened” – it also led to an upsurge in testing, with the Terrence Higgins Trust charity reporting that 8,200 HIV testing kits were ordered in a single day, helping towards the target of ending new HIV cases by 2030.

Pose changed the way that the trans community was received: it’s been called “the most groundbreaking LGBTQ+ show ever” and in 2022, Michaela Jae Rodriguez (who played Blanca in the series) became the first ever trans actor to win a Golden Globe. Variety said the impact of the show had “paved the way for better TV representation – in front of and behind the camera”.

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