Published on: 17 January 2024 in Longform

“The job of the director is to tell the best story possible” — James Strong on Mr Bates vs. The Post Office

Reading time: 17 minutes and 15 seconds

A four-part ITV drama series, Mr Bates vs. The Post Office brought the story of the British Post Office scandal to our TV screens, capturing the nation’s attention and putting the scandal firmly back on the front pages in the process.

We spoke to series director James Strong about how he approached representing real people on screen, the impact the series has made on audiences and government alike, and the vital role played by directors in telling the defining stories of our time. 

Read our interview with James Strong below. 

Mr Bates vs. The Post Office is available to watch on ITVX.

James Strong and Toby Jones on set; credit: ITV
James Strong and Toby Jones on set; credit: ITV

How did you first become attached to Mr Bates vs the Post Office as a project?  

I have directed a few series for ITV in the past, so I already had a relationship with them. I also really enjoy doing factual, true stories. I became involved with this project when Patrick Spence (the producer) approached my agent with the first script and asked if I’d consider it. It didn’t take long — I read it and immediately thought, “I’m in”. Shamefully, I didn't know everything about the subject matter, so it was shocking to read the script and see the full scale of what happened. 

It wasn’t without considerations. There was the complexity of the subject matter and the timeframes involved — the story spanned over twenty years. The number of people involved and number of characters to juggle was also a big consideration, as was the nature of the story itself. It was a journey that we went on, and I initially didn’t think was the most immediately visual story — ordinary people with ordinary lives, looking at a computer and then talking about it in their kitchens. But, this became the USP, the fact that it was about ordinary people; somebody has since said, “it is the best of our country and the worst.”

I think the best element is the ordinary people who were up against a faceless, bureaucratic, indifferent enemy, and they fought back against terrible injustice with decency and kindness and they survived. It was an amazing opportunity to reflect that so widely. 

What was it that appealed to you about the story and what did you think the most important element was when bringing it to the screen?

I think the fact that, when you read the story, it is the widest miscarriage of justice in British history. It is an enormous story, and that has been shown by the reaction; the British public have been outraged but equally enthralled by it. It is an incredibly important story and, from the human drama perspective, it was previously very much an untold story.

It was, candidly, an absolute disgrace what happened to these people; and to be able to tell their story feels crucial and humbling.

The performances are fantastic. Can you tell us about the casting and how you found your actors, and if there was anything or anyone specific that you were looking for?  

I find that casting is a mixture of finding exciting, unusual or different people but ultimately, finding the right person for each role. On Mr Bates vs. The Post Office, I worked with Jill Trevellick, a brilliant casting director, and executives from ITV to put together the ensemble cast.

Typically, you start at the top with whoever the lead character will be; here, we started with Mr Bates. For me, there was no one else that I could imagine playing that role other than Toby Jones. This meant getting him on board was really important and thankfully, he agreed. From there, you build the rest of your cast. When it is a true or specialist story like this, you tend to be fortunate in that most of the actors you approach want to be part of it because of the subject matter. I also find that other actors want to be involved once you have one or two really strong names on board, like Toby Jones, Monica Dolan and then Julie Hesmondhalgh in this instance.

With this story, you could almost feel the excitement — you got a sense that people really wanted to be a part of it, which was thrilling. What was interesting with the casting was that the people being portrayed were real people, so no one knows them. You’re not necessarily looking for a lookalike or an impersonation, instead you’re asking somebody to embody the character, to accurately and truthfully inhabit them and reflect them. Importantly, we wanted to use actors who were almost of the same mentality as the people they were portraying. It was essential that they felt the drama was the right thing to do and that they believed in the story.

James Strong, Toby Jones and Julie Hesmondhalgh on set; credit: ITV
James Strong, Toby Jones and Julie Hesmondhalgh on set; credit: ITV

How did you approach working with the actors once they had been cast? Did you do anything specific in preparation, for example?  

Every actor’s process is different. Some, such as Monica Dolan who plays Jo Hamilton, wanted to spend a lot of time with the person she was portraying and get inside their headspace, so she did a lot of research and went very deep. In contrast, Toby [Jones] met Alan Bates once at the read through and they had a bit of a chat, but he wanted to avoid doing an impersonation of him and he kept it quite light when it came to more research.  

I think the job of the director is to make the story work as a drama and, most importantly, work as a television drama. That means not quite forgetting about the real people, because you always keep them in mind, but you don’t want to be constrained in any way. To help us tell the best story possible, my focus was on ensuring the actors had what they wanted and needed to help them prepare. That was anything from every bit of detailed research on the Post Office scandal, to articles, books, and documentaries. 

Most of the actors watched the Panorama covering the scandal, as it is a brilliant overview. Some of them also read every single court document or news story, and then some didn’t feel the need to do as much.

When you’re representing real people, what are the biggest challenges? How do you make sure that you’re doing them and their stories justice?

That process of doing real people justice happens first at the script stage, to ensure that they are accurately reflected at this level. As director, I work with the script, and then work with the actors. I met some of the people involved, or watched footage of them, but then I tried to leave that behind so that it became about the actors and the characters being portrayed. It’s always accurate and truthful and very close to what happened, but at the same time, it’s not too paranoid about that — it’s a fictionalisation of a true story, which means you do have to change or alter the odd thing.

Saying that, the courtroom and trail scenes, these are verbatim and exactly what the Post Office workers said in these moments. This dialogue and language was taken in part from emails and interviews, which meant the series was quite an interesting beast.  

There are lots of considerations when representing real characters. Ultimately, it’s about making the best drama possible, so that viewers want to watch it and enjoy it and are entertained by it, but so that they are also educated and outraged by it. You want them to be moved — what happened is incredibly sad and very emotional. Making the audience feel is the most important thing. 

James Strong BTS; credit: ITV
James Strong BTS; credit: ITV

There are some really devastating scenes which don’t shy away from the impact the scandal had on people’s lives. Why did you feel it was important to show these moments?  

I think part of the reason for the huge response to the series is because drama can get to the emotional crux of an issue. We can portray scenes behind closed doors, in victims’ bedrooms and front rooms where the real emotion happen. I think that’s what an audience can relate to.

The trauma of imagining how you would feel in that situation, that’s something we can really explore in this format. Documentary can report it and say that what happened but, with drama we can really show it, see it and feel it. I think that is so powerful, the emotional connection to the story.

Tell us a bit about how you approach filming particularly challenging or sensitive scenes.  

I try to create an environment on set that allows the actors to be vulnerable, and to be emotional. To me, that means being kind, being polite, and respecting their space. It’s about making the set a very calm place and making sure you’re not rushing around, because these moments are emotional, and they need sensitivity.

I also tend to shoot first time; I prefer to not rehearse key emotional moments so that the actors can be as natural as possible. In that instance, I like to make sure that the set completely ready to go so that the actors can come straight to set and we can shoot very quickly to ensure what we do with them is as instinctive and intuitive as possible and they feel like we’re capturing their rawest moments. 

Obviously, we can go again if we need to but, when it’s really heightened and emotional, you ideally don’t want to have to ask the actors to do it over and over if you can avoid it. It’s about capturing those first responses. Often in this series, we are seeing the first take for those very emotional, sensitive scenes, with no rehearsal beforehand. For me, that's the best way to do it — just capture those instincts from the actors. There might be moments when someone makes a mistake, or they might miss a cue, but it feels very real, which is what we are hoping to do. 

How did you balance reflecting the reality of what happened with sensitivity to the people who were involved and to the families of those people who are no longer with us?  

There’s obviously a huge responsibility to be very sensitive, especially around those people who were involved who have died. We needed to be incredibly careful in these instances. A lot of these processes begin with the script, with the compliance and ensuring that everything we wanted to reflect has been agreed by everyone involved beforehand.  

When it comes to the shoot, my focus is on being prepared and calm, approaching everything very gently in a way that doesn’t feel inappropriate. However, you do need to capture the trauma, you can’t shy away from it. That’s the purpose of a drama like this - to show the truth of what happened. Yes, we’re re-creating what happened and it’s a performance, rather than archive footage, so there is a technical element that the actors bring to the process but our job is to make the drama as accurate as possible. If we have done that, we have hopefully respected the memory of the people involved and being portrayed.  

James Strong on set; credit: ITV
James Strong on set; credit: ITV

How did the series and the narrative take shape in the edit?  

I find there are certain patterns that edits tend to follow. For instance, episode one will focus on world building and establishing the characters — as director, you’re setting out your stall for the story.  

In this series, there were four clear elements split into four episodes and the scripts set out the timeline, so structurally we didn’t really change much in the edit. The first episode is the horror of finding out about the IT system error and the awfulness of what happened and by the very end, we see the sub-postmasters that we’re going to follow throughout get together for the first time. In the second episode, we see the situation get worse before it gets better, but the postmasters are united – they've got the band together, if you like. Episode three focuses on their fight back and the compensation schemes. Each episode had its own internal rhythm or focus and was an integral part of the series, but in general, we started with the horror of what happened, and followed the fight back with all the related twists and turns along the way before the story reached its climax. 

It was about finding the important emotional moments, keeping the clarity of the story and making sure we were pulling that clarity through everything. It’s quite a complicated story with a lot of emotional arcs for lots of different characters, and the focus was making sure all the different arcs were clear and were pulled through each episode.  

Why and how do you think this series has captured everyone’s attention so powerfully?  

The story was out in the open and had been reported extensively by different journalists. There have been Panorama investigations and podcasts, there’s a brilliant book about the scandal by Nick Wallis. However, it’s undeniable that the drama has been a catalyst in bringing it to people’s attention again. I think something like 9 million people watched the first episode, which is enormous!

I think there were a lot of people who already knew about it, but equally, there are a lot of people who didn’t. So, in that instance, you’re suddenly sharing this story in a different way with millions of people, most of whom didn’t know the real details before they watched the series.  

Drama also allows for a direct emotional connection, it puts you in the shoes of the people affected. It’s very visceral; people watch and think, “what would I do if that happened to me?”. Here, the drama is also happening in real time, it’s not being reported retrospectively; you’re watching the postmasters look at their computer screens and see the figures doubling in front of their eyes. You’re with them every step of the way. You feel, if we have done our job well, that the emotional story is at the heart of the drama and we’re all together watching it unfold.  

That’s when people become outraged and they call into the radio or they appear on the TV taking part in discussions, or they write to their MPs. Suddenly it's in the papers and becomes a phenomenon; I think this is what has happened with Mr Bates vs. The Post Office

I think the drama may have also spoken to something bigger amongst the public; a wider feeling that maybe the institutions, and the authorities that are supposed to serve us and support us are actually often lying to us, or even bullying us. Lots of people have had experiences where they felt that they weren’t being listened to. That’s the epitome of this story - ordinary people who have been ignored and bullied for twenty years, fighting back. I think we all can relate to that, which is why people have responded so passionately and have been so angry about what happened — collectively we have all said: “enough. This has to be stopped and this has to be resolved.”

Often, when you make a true drama story, you’re looking back a case or an incident that happened a long time ago and as a result, you’re getting a greater understanding of what happened. With the Post Office Scandal, there is an element of that, but overall, it’s unresolved. That was quite unique, as was the fact that the things the sub-postmasters were being accused of and being convicted for were completely false. The public outrage that we’ve seen in response is as it is being played out in real time. This means there has been a real opportunity for people to make noise and push for change, which is amazing. 

The reaction to the series has been phenomenal. Was this something you anticipated when you took on the project?  

No one could have predicted the scale and the speed of the response. As a production team, we were very proud of what we had made and we were hopeful it would raise awareness, that it would get the story out there to a wider audience, and that it would be a part of the wider campaign to overturn these dreadful wrongs. However, the massive response from the public, and seeing it on the front pages of newspapers every day — everybody is talking about it, everybody has seen it, everybody is up in arms about it; it feels like it became a national phenomenon.

It was beyond our wildest dreams. We were truly blown away, we never thought it would receive such a big reaction.

What do you make of the impact on and the reaction from government in response to the series?  

It’s just over a week ago that I was in the chamber of the Houses of Parliament watching Rishi Sunak stand up and pass a bill to overturn the convictions against the sub-postmasters involved in the scandal. To see the government do something like that within a week of the show coming out is unbelievable.

It’s an indescribably proud feeling to know that you've had a small part in making something that's made such a difference.

James Strong on set; credit: ITV
James Strong on set; credit: ITV

Why do you think the role of the director is so important in telling the stories that come to define the times that we live in?  

I think this a really good story to reflect the role of director and why it is so vital – this is what a director, given the right material, the right team, the right crew, can achieve. 

I think the success of Mr Bates vs. The Post Office is a brilliant example of how important directors are in storytelling. We are integral to the creative process of film and TV making. The writer writes the script, which of course is essential, and perhaps this is why when it comes to TV in particular, we find that audiences tend to know who wrote a specific series rather than who directed it. However, the script is the blueprint that the director then takes and brings alive. Once a project leaves that script stage, the director is the author and the person who takes it from page to screen. As directors we are responsible for every aspect of the production — we are across the production design, the lighting, the cameras, the casting, the costume, the music, the make-up; we are the centre of the wheel, or the captain of the ship. Our role is absolutely vital.  

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