The new year has brought with it a gripping, scandalous new TV drama – but the tale it tells is very real.
Mr Bates vs The Post Office depicts the story of former subpostmasters and subpostmistresses who were held liable by the Post Office for financial discrepancies thrown up by its computerised accounting system, Horizon.
Their pursuit led to more than 700 prosecutions, criminal convictions and, in some cases, prison sentences.
The four-part ITV drama, which concludes on Thursday, aims to share some of their stories with a wider audience.
Many of those pursued were told to plead guilty to crimes or face prison, according to lawyers who have represented dozens of those impacted.
They were forced to pay the Post Office money it claimed had gone missing, which meant many lost their jobs, homes and lifesavings.
In 2019, Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance won a High Court case, led by former subpostmaster Alan Bates – the drama’s titular Mr Bates as played by Toby Jones.
That case found “bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon system caused discrepancies in postmasters’ branch accounts”.
Mr Bates ran a post office in the seaside resort of Llandudno in North Wales.
“This is an enormously complex and vastly diverse story, which has now been made into a drama. It’s not a factual documentary about what went on, it’s a drama to engage people,” he said.
“So some things have had to be summarised – years have had to be chopped out because they have to take the plot forward. I suppose that’s understandable.
“It couldn’t cover all of the human loss and suffering – there are hundreds and hundreds of people and families who have been affected. What I hope people will realise is that in many cases, even now, the real story is not finished.”
Noel Thomas, 77, from Anglesey, was another former subpostmaster who was wrongfully convicted.
His conviction of false accounting in 2006 was overturned by the Court of Appeal in 2021.
In Mr Bates vs The Post Office, Mr Thomas was played by actor Ifan Huw Dafydd.
Mr Thomas told Sky News the response he’d had to the dramatisation of his story and that of his former colleagues was “fantastic”.
“It’s great to be honest. It’s shown the hero we had in Alan Bates, and lots of other people, in the press, and some MPs too to be honest with you,” he said.
“They’ve been great with us. But the story wasn’t being shared widely enough.”
Mr Thomas first came across Alan Bates when former Welsh language current affairs programme Taro Naw found more people who had been affected.
“I have to say, Alan Bates led us,” he said.
“I was a postman and the way I can describe Alan is – as a postman you don’t like dogs, the dog would get hold of you and not let go – and Alan is exactly the same. Once he’s got hold of something he’s not going to let go.”
But while Mr Thomas is glad more people now know what happened to him, some scenes were difficult to relive.
“Going into the cell hit me. Because, unfortunately, I was sent to Walton [a prison in Liverpool],” he said.
“Thank heavens I was only there for two days. But I was locked up. I was only let out to get food. Half an hour at lunchtime and half an hour to three quarters at night. The rest of the time I was locked up.”
Mr Thomas said he has “discussed very little about being inside” with his family.
“I’ve kept it more or less to myself, and the way I’ve dealt with it is we live in a lovely place in Anglesey and we go out and walk a lot,” he said.
“I’ve spoken with some of my friends who I contact often and they’ve been shocked to see what’s come out.”
Who are some of the other victims?
Jo Hamilton was the subpostmaster in South Warnborough, Hampshire, played in the dramatisation by Monica Dolan.
Ms Hamilton previously told Sky News she felt “backed into a corner”.
“They said if I pleaded guilty to false accounting and paid the £36,000 shortfall, they would drop the theft charge,” she said.
“I felt I had a gun held to my head and had no choice.”
Will Mellor plays Lee Castleton, who the actor describes as “an everyday guy”.
“He’s got his wife and two children and he runs the local Post Office. He’s just an average person, like most of these people are.”
Martin Griffiths, a father of two, was pursued by the Post Office for alleged shortfalls of £60,000.
The third episode of the dramatisation shows how the establishment of a mediation scheme came too late for him as he he took his own life.
Other victims featured in the drama include Saman Kaur, Michael Rudkin, Pam Stubbs.
Only some of the hundreds whose lives were changed forever.
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