Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker, winner of BAFTAs for Best Drama and Best Actor multiple times, premiered on the United Kingdom’s ITV in 1993 and later debuted in the United States on PBS’ Mystery! The Complete Collection presents the 11 Cracker mysteries from the three series and the two television movies that aired in 1996 and 2006, all of which have been previously available on DVD.
Cracker starred Robbie Coltrane as forensic psychologist Dr. Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald, a brilliant man when it comes to assessing and understanding the minds of others, yet he fails miserably in his personal life even though he is aware of his faults. He admits, “I drink too much, I smoke too much, I gamble too much. I ‘am’ too much,” yet makes little to no effort to improve himself.
The viewer learns who Fitz is quickly. In the opening of the first episode, Fitz is late for a college lecture because he is listening to race results. After the professor drags him into the hall, Fitz’s lecture is comprised of sneering the names of philosophers while hurling books into the audience. This causes the professor to deny his fee. As he walks away from a slot machine, it pays out to the next player. Later, Fitz’s wife, with their young daughter in tow, leaves him in part due to the debt he has accumulated through again forging her name to draw from the mortgage.
Fitz first gets involved working with the Manchester police when a former student is killed on a train and he offers assistance to her parents. The police arrest a suspect, who was found unconscious near the railroad tracks with the victim’s blood on him. However, the man claims to suffer from amnesia, so Fitz is brought in to get to the truth. The viewer then gets to see Fitz shine; his keen intellect and quick wit, equaled by writer McGovern, are what make the character so fun to watch.
The series presents mysteries that are not so much a whodunit because the audience usually sees the crimes committed, but more of a whydunit that allows the viewer to understand the motivation, ranging from Bonnie and Clyde to the Hillsborough Disaster. As Fitz examines and mentally dissects rapists and murders, it’s fascinating that the sociopaths also have insight into him.
But it’s not the crimes alone that make the show engaging. It’s the realistic characters and their interactions brought to life by a great cast. Barbara Flynn plays Judith Fitzgerald, who at first appears as the long-suffering wife until it is revealed she might be even more dysfunctional than Fitz, explaining why they put up with each other. As the other woman in his life, Geraldine Somerville is DS Jane “Panhandle” Penhaligon, who can be as tough as any of her fellow officers, yet her eyes reveal her vulnerabilities as she keeps up the tough exterior as she deals with different hardships. Doctor Who’s fans will recognize Christopher Eccleston as Detective Chief Inspector David Bilborough of the first four stories. Ricky Tomlinson took over the unit as DCI Charlie Wise in the second series, but Bilborough’s presence continued. Lorcan Cranitch is wonderful as the dimwitted DS Jimmy Beck who causes more trouble than he prevents.
The loss of the character interaction is why the 1996 movie “White Ghost” suffers and isn’t as satisfactory in comparison. Written by producer Paul Abbott, who also penned the last two stories of season three, it surprisingly sets Fitz in Hong Kong, soon joined by Wise. It’s a decent, enjoyable mystery, but it is curious the open storylines at the end of series three dealt weren’t explored.
“A New Terror” known as “Nine Eleven” in the UK aired in 2006 and found McGovern returning to the fold. Fitz, his wife, and young son return to Manchester for his daughter’s wedding. Of course, Fitz has to help solve why Americans are being killed, but there are all new characters on the police force, and unfortunately they aren’t as rich as their predecessors. Similar to “White Ghost,” it’s watchable, but also doesn’t work as well as the series. This time out, McGovern seemed to focused on the massage he wanted to convey, distracting him from the other areas that made Cracker so great.
The episodes are presented in 4:3 full screen expect for “A New Terror” which is 16:9 widescreen. The transfer of the original series is slightly dark, there’s no sharpness in the images, and the colors are faded. It’s a very poor job for a program held in such high esteem. The two movies look much better in comparison.
Fans will enjoy the 45-minute extra shot around the time of “A New Terror” that brings the creative team and almost the entire main cast back but Somerville in separate interviews to discuss Cracker.
The ten-disc set is an investment but well worth the price for mystery fans.