Lesley Nicol talks about the success of Mr Bates vs The Post Office

Image above: Toby Jones and Julie Hesmondhalgh as Alan Bates and his wife Suzanne Sercombe in Mr Bates vs. The Post Office

Public outcry after decades of revelations about a huge miscarriage of justice

It is rare that a TV drama has such an impact as Mr Bates vs. The Post Office. Emotional impact, yes, but for a drama production to harness the outrage of the country and make politicians sit up and listen is something that very seldom happens.

The details of this scandal have been known for years. Computer Weekly magazine first reported the story in 2009; local papers began highlighting some of the more controversial cases; Private Eye has been reporting on it since 2011.

But not until today (Monday 8 January) have Government ministers sat down to discuss what they might do about the Post Office scandal, which has seen sub-postmasters spending thousands of pounds of their own money, bankrupted, sacked and imprisoned, falsely accused of theft and fraud because of a software error, which the company knew about and deliberately covered up.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said the government is “looking at” the option of exonerating the Post Office branch managers involved. Justice Secretary Alex Chalk and postal minister Kevin Hollinrake are now charged with doing something about it. A petition calling for the former head of the Post Office Paula Vennells to be stripped of her CBE has topped a million signatures.

Image above: Lesley Nicol as Pam Stubbs

“It’s epic what’s happening” says Lesley Nicol, one of the cast of Mr Bates vs. The Post Office

“It’s epic what’s happening” Chiswick based actor Lesley Nicol told The Chiswick Calendar. “It seems to have engaged the whole country.”

Lesley (best known for the character Mrs Patmore, the cook in Downton Abbey), plays Pam Stubbs in the four-part series, a subpostmistress at the Barkham Post Office in Berkshire who was falsely accused of stealing money.

This is the first time Lesley has played a real person, she told us.

“Usually you have a script and you imagination and whatever the director brings to the production, but it was brilliant to have the opportunity to spend some time with Pam and find out what it had really been like for her.”

Images above: Toby Jones and Julie Hesmondhalgh

Apart from the two ‘villains’ of the piece, who declined to meet the actors portraying them, all the cast were able to meet the sub-postmasters and mistresses whose lives they were recreating on TV.

Pam was married to a former banker; they had decided to set up a post office in Surrey together as a retirement project, thinking it would be nice to work together. She would run the shop and he would look after the post office side. Sadly he died, and Pam decided to carry on by herself. Then the Horizon software was installed.

“She is very thorough and organised, and suddenly her sums weren’t adding up” says Lesley.

“Most chilling of all, when she and others called the helpline, every single one was told they were the only one. The nature of the job is that it’s isolated and she was very upset and very frightened.”

In Pam’s case, she spent some of her own money on making up the apparent shortfall, before she said she would not pay any more, and stopped. The Post Office sacked her, and she was left with a building for which she had no use.

“Pam is a strong, intelligent, robust woman” says Lesley, “but it was absolutely terrifying, it was a nightmare for her; she was frightened about what would happen for a long time. Four people killed themselves because of this.”

Images above: Paula Vennells; T shirt promoting the change.org Post Office petition

“It doesn’t get any better than this”

Lesley is no stranger to the razzmatazz that comes with being part of a successful drama series; the Downton Abbey cast routinely meet fans from all round the world who love the shows, but being part of Mr Bates vs. The Post Office represents success of s different order.

“I am so thrilled that this drama has done what we wanted it to. I hoped, because it’s a fantastic script and it’s a joy in itself working with such a great cast, that it would engage people’s emotions, but it’s done far more than that.

“What needed to happen was that people needed to get upset and angry about it. The petition calling for Paula Vennells to be stripped of her CBE has over a million signatures, but there is another petition calling for accountability and compensation.

“It’s wonderful. It’s been on the TV every day. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Images above: Monica Dolan as Jo Hamilton, a subpostmistress from South Warnborough, Hampshire; Will Mellor as Lee Castleton, a subpostmaster from Bridlington, Yorkshire; Amit Shan as Jasgun Singh, husband of subpostmistress Saman Kaur, who joins the campaign for justice with his wife

Other members of the cast include Toby Jones as the main protagonist Alan Bates (Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Captain America, Detectorists); Julie Hesmondhalgh as Alan Bates’ wife Suzanne Sercombe (Coronation Street, Broadchurch); Monica Dolan (Alan Partridge, Black Mirror, A Very English Scandal); Will Mellor (Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Hollyoaks, Casualty, Coronation Street); Amit Shah (Happy Valley);

Images above: Lia Williams as Paula Vennells; Katherine Kelly as Angela Van den Bogerd

Lia Williams, who plays Chief Executive Officer of Post Office Limited, Paula Vennells (The Crown, His Dark Materials, The Capture, Doc Martin); Katherine Kelly, who plays Angela Van den Bogerd, The Post Office director, who works closely with CEO Paula Vennells (Coronation Street, Innocent, The Long Shadow and Mr Selfridge, Criminal); John Hollingworth (Poldark) and Adam James (The Suspect, I May Destroy You, Doctor Foster, Belgravia, Vigil) who play lawyers; and Alex Jennings, who plays MP James Arbuthnot (The Crown, The Lady in the Van, Unforgotten, A Very English Scandal).

Images above: Alex Jennings as James Arbuthnot MP; John Hollingworth as James Hartley; Adam James as Patrick Green QC

Mr Bates vs The Post Office is available to watch here: ITVX

Images from ITV Studios.