Rishi Sunak’s knowledge of Post Office scandal ‘irritated me’ – producer

A producer who was behind ITV’s acclaimed drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office has spoken of her “irritation” at watching Prime Minister Rishi Sunak talk about the scandal.

Hundreds of subpostmasters were wrongly accused of faulty accounting by the Post Office following issues with the body’s Horizon IT system.

Rishi Sunak visit to Rotherham
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Carl Recine/PA)

The ITV series, which starred Toby Jones and Monica Dolan, shone a spotlight on the Post Office workers fighting for justice which prompted the Government to take action and former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells to hand back her CBE.

Explaining the moment when they realised the show was a big deal, Natasha Bondy, executive producer at Little Gem, told a Royal Television Society (RTS)  panel discussion: “One day, I can’t remember what day it was. But Rishi Sunak has been sort of doorstepped at a flood and they (the journalists) were like ‘What about the Post Office?’.

“And he was like ‘Oh well that happened in the 1990s’. And that irritated me because I don’t think he still (has) quite understood it didn’t (just) happen in the 1990s.”

She added that this was “a big moment” and then “five days after that, I think, Rishi Sunak was like in the House of Commons changing legislation”.

Ms Bondy added that she learnt about the scandal when she was reading a Sunday Times story in 2020 and she was struck by how “heartbreaking” the subpostmasters’ stories were.

“They lost their businesses, relationships, their mental health or physical health and it was all in the hands of what was seemingly this very benign, cosy sweet brand that we all love and trust and that made it really unbelievable,” she added.

“And also really visual because it was happening all around the country in very beautiful villages and the Post Office was this sort of dark, malevolent force.”

Patrick Spence, executive producer at AC Chapter One, said it was “very clear” from looking at social media that there was a feeling of anger after all the episodes landed on ITVX on January 1.

He added: “(It) also tapped into a feeling of rage in the country that all too often for people who are supposed to have our backs, who run our country and who run our companies, it turns out, not all of them but some of them, too many of them, are liars and bullies and cheats.

“And I think that was what prompted the entire nation to say, ‘we’ve been feeling this for too long, not on our watch anymore and this is where it starts and we’re going to protect these people’ and they were already angry.”

Operation Mincemeat UK premiere – London
Monica Dolan (Ian West/PA)

Mr Spence also said that “there was a point” where it made no financial sense to make the show, even when the producers deferred their fees and actors took a pay cut to make the ITV drama.

He also talked about how the licence fee at the BBC and revenues at Channel 4 and ITV have remained stable when “production budgets have gone up by 100%”.

Mr Spence said in this climate broadcasters “can’t afford to make” these types of British shows “because they don’t sell internationally” and felt this was unlikely to change – despite the success of the series.

He also said: “There’s something else going on here which is that the single film or television movie has, to a great extent… died out as an art form.

“If we’re not careful the non-crime (four-part drama) is next and because they don’t make money and there was a very uncomfortable point in the lead up to filming… the wheels came off and she (ITV head of drama Polly Hill)… made a phone call that kept it alive and without it we would have fallen apart.”

Mr Spence also said that Mr Bates Vs The Post Office is “selling like hot cakes” and “we’ll definitely play in Japan” – where Tokyo-based Fujitsu, who made the Post Office accounting software, is based.

Ms Hill said that the programme was “an easy yes”, but admitted creating these types of series is difficult.

“It is tough, and I would love to keep making them but I’m aware they are not easy,” she said.