False Accounts: Exposing the Post Office Cover Up

Lance Steen Anthony Nielsen
The Outcasts Creative
OSO Arts Centre, Barnes Green

The cast and creative team. Credit: Lance Nielsen
Victoria Jeffrey as Postmaster 2 Miriam Babooram as Postmaster 1 Ali Zaydi as Postmaster 5 Donna Combe as Postmaster 4 Credit: Lance Nielsen
Gillian Broderick as Paula Vennells and David Binder as Max Penalty. Credit: Lance Nielsen

What counts for business is the money it makes. Growth is what counts. Changes in organisation and technology must deliver that growth. If people get in the way then they are often sacrificed.

In 1999, the Post Office brought the Fujitsu computer system Horizon to all its branches. Unfortunately, it didn’t function properly and the management didn’t care enough to work out what the problem was. Instead, they began prosecuting over 700 sub-postmasters (SPMs). Many were sent to gaol, fined, suffered reputational damage and various other issues including suicide.

Lance Nielsen’s show mixes moving accounts derived from victims of this injustice with satirical sketches to chronicle the events and some of the monsters who were responsible for the outrage.

The victims are represented by three men and two women only hazily identified by names such as Smith. Slotted in between their stories of increasingly worried puzzlement and protest at the reports of financial shortfalls that later included campaigns for justice are the mocked villains who ran the Post Office, who brushed complaints aside, persecuted their workers relentlessly and seemed even to contribute to a cover-up.

Fujitsu employees who delivered the system are depicted as muppets who in court hearings did not reveal, for instance, their misgivings about the system, or that they themselves could access the accounts remotely. Such information might have cleared the sub-postmasters.

One of the characters who comes in for a good deal of attention is Paula Vennells (Gillian Broderick), the Chief Executive of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019 and a former Anglican priest who ruthlessly pursued sub-postmasters despite allegedly knowing the financial discrepancies were due to computer errors. She is shown at board meetings getting rid of anyone who expressed doubts and, in a mock game show in which a noise is sounded every time there is a false statement, everything she says gets the noise. Later, in an imagined post-death attempt to get into Heaven, the guardians send her off to Hell.

This is a thoughtful, informative and often amusing (if rather lengthy at 140 minutes running time) entertainment. The show ends with a short, passionate and moving speech from a woman identifying herself as the daughter of someone who died as a result of the injustice.

There are still many wrongly convicted casualties of what happened. Few have had any compensation. Many live on with the reputational damage that has stigmatised them in communities they loved.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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