The incredible true story behind Masterpiece's Mr. Bates vs. The Post Office is one that Americans won't be familiar with, but PBS viewers shouldn't feel too bad, as it's one that British viewers weren't that familiar with either until the series premiered in January 2024 on ITV. The tale begins at the end of the 1990s, when digitalization first began sweeping through government, as the internet and the computer revolution took hold.
In 1999, the British postal service contracted with the Japanese company Fujitsu to start using their accounting software, Horizon Systems. From the outset, the system was faulty and riddled with errors. Created for the Japanese Yen and the American dollar, it struggled to handle the British sterling system. As early as 1999, sub-postmasters were reporting the system was erroneously reporting monetary shortfalls all over the postal system where there were none, only to have their complaints dismissed.
The dismissal of those complaints was the tip of the iceberg of issues. Trusting machine over man, the postal service heads began recording shortfalls that didn't exist and blaming the sub-postmasters in charge for the supposed defaults, accusing them of skiing off the top, defrauding the government, and mail theft, all of which are felonies. Stunned, these lowly paid workers found themselves charged, assumed guilty, forced to pay back thousands of pounds they never took (and indeed that were never missing in the first place), thrown in jail, and their lives ruined, all because the British government refused to consider the machines they'd paid for were at fault.
This utterly horrendous miscarriage of justice went on for 15 years, from 2001 to 2015, when one brave postmaster, Alan Bates, played by Toby Jones, decided to band together with his fellow accused and demand justice. (The real Alan Bates is still alive today and has a small cameo in the TV series.) It took four years to get the British post office to admit it was wrong; Horizon Systems had been at fault, and no money was ever missing, to begin with.
However, though the group won their case in 2019, the British government never actually took any action to rectify the wrongs perpetrated against these men and women for two decades. The charges remain on their records; their financial savings were never returned. Most of them remain unemployable, and many suffer from PTSD and the trauma of having their own government accusing them of something that wasn't true.
When the series premiered in January 2024, the outcry in the U.K. was ferocious. The show became the most-watched series in ITV history, with ratings that beat records held by Downton Abbey. By the time the finale aired, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was forced to give a press conference in which he declared a formal investigation into the post office and the previous Tory governments to punish those who did this and ensure those who were hurt received compensation. Now, American viewers will get a chance to see just how terribly the British government behaved.
Here's the series synopsis:
The drama tells the story of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in British legal history. Hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters and postmistresses were wrongly accused of theft, fraud, and false accounting due to a defective IT system. Many of the wronged workers were prosecuted, some of whom were imprisoned for crimes they never committed, and their lives were irreparably ruined by the scandal. Following the landmark Court of Appeal decision to overturn their criminal convictions, dozens of former sub-postmasters and postmistresses have been exonerated on all counts as they battled to finally clear their names. They fought for over ten years, finally proving their innocence and sealing a resounding victory, but all involved believe the fight is not over yet, not by a long way.
Jones leads a cast of British A-listers, including Monica Dolan (The Thief, His Wife and The Canoe), Julie Hesmondhalgh (The Trouble With Maggie Cole), Alex Jennings (The Crown), Ian Hart (The Responder), Lia Williams (The Capture), Will Mellor (Line of Duty), Clare Calbraith (Grace), Shaun Dooley (Gentleman Jack), Amit Shah (Happy Valley), Lesley Nicol (Downton Abbey), Adam James (Vigil), and Katherine Kelly (Mr. Selfridge).
Gwyneth Hughes (Tom Jones) wrote all four episodes, with James Strong (Broadchurch) directing and Chris Clough (World On Fire) producing. Hughes and Strong executive produced with Joe Williams, Natasha Bondy, and Ben Gale on behalf of Little Gem and Patrick Spence for ITV Studios.
Mr. Bates vs. The Post Office will premiere on most PBS stations on Sunday, April 7, 2024, at 9 p.m. ET and stream on the PBS app and the Masterpiece Channel with one episode a week through the end of the month. All episodes will be available on premiere day on PBS Passport as a binge for members to stream.