I remember being packed off to bed whenever my parents would settle down to watch the latest episode of Cracker - my parents none-too-keen on letting their ten year old watch such a dark and disturbing reality-based drama - so I've only really become familiar with it through subsequent TV repeats and now through this DVD box-set. As others have noted, the original shows are absolutely astounding, and more-than stand-up to repeated viewings over a decade on.
Throughout each of the ten episodes (often broken into two or three hour-long episodes when shown on television) we see Jimmy McGovern's writing at a consistent peak. Not only are the stories interesting, intelligent and believable, they're also filled with strong characters, brilliant dialog (that goes from the shocking - Albie's confession towards the end of episode three, To Be A Somebody - to the dramatic - much of the dialogue at the end of Brotherly Love - right the way through to the comedic - the great back-and-forth banter between Fitz and the police), whilst the whole show is taken even further into the realms of greatness thanks to the astounding direction and tremendous performances from the highly esteemed cast. There's also the "soap-opera" elements of each of the three series, too - which keeps our interest in the characters and guarantees our return to each subsequent episode - with McGovern layering each of the crime-stories alongside scenes depicting Fitz's troubled home-life, and the various sub-plots of the cops... most notably, DCI David Bilborough, DS Wise, DS Jane Penhaligon, and the tortured DS Jimmy Beck.
The stories are always great... from the low-key first episode, The Mad Woman in the Attic, to the international Hong-Kong set 1996 special, White Ghost, with McGovern (and later Paul Abbot, who took over for the final two episodes of series three) tying the drama to characters we can believe in and villains that are never two-dimensional caricatures. My favourite episodes include episode two, To Say I Love You, One Day A Lemming Will Fly, To Be A Somebody, Men Should Weep and Brotherly Love, with McGovern looking at standard themes, like guilt, revenge, gambling, petty-theft, alcoholism and accidental death, alongside more topical or, indeed, controversial issues, like rape, murder, religious fanaticism, racism, paedophilia, kidnap and suicide. Episode one of the second series, To Be A Somebody, even went one-step further to involve a more social (or political) agenda with the allusions to the Hillsborough tragedy. This episode would be the real turning point for the whole series, with McGovern orchestrating the brutal murder of one of the central characters, which will have a devastating ripple effect on the lives of Beck and Penhaligon in subsequent episodes, Men Should Weep and Brotherly Love.
Brotherly Love is perhaps my favourite episode of the entire series, featuring strong and striking direction from Roy Battersby, great writing from McGovern and a tremendous set of performances from guest-stars Brid Brennan, David Calder, Ruth Sheen and an absolutely standout performance from Lorcan Cranitch as the volatile Jimmy Beck. Throughout the series, the performances of the central characters are always believable and compelling, with each member of the cast getting their own big-dramatic storyline (the aforementioned Lorcan and his gradual decent through Men Should Weep and Brotherly Love; Christopher Eccleston is fantastic throughout the first series, building to his confrontational scene half-way through To Be A Somebody; and Geraldine Somerville is suitably affecting in one of the most controversial storylines, Men Should Weep). Meanwhile, we have the central performance of Robbie Coltrane as Fitz, the titular "cracker", who creates a completely realistic and believable character, completely at odds with the kind of work he was known for prior to the series.
As impressive as the lead cast is, there is strong support from a wide-array of British acting talent, with the likes of Adrian Dunbar, Andrew Tiernan, Susan Lynch, Tim Healy, Frances Tomelty, Jim Carter, James Fleet, Ricky Tomlinson, Paul Barber, Liam Cunningham, Emily Joyce (and so on, and so on...) all giving great, dramatic performances, whilst the series also introduced us to a wide-range of new acting talent, particularly Robert Carlyle, Samantha Morton and John Simm. The series would also bring together a collection of excellent TV technicians, producers and directors, most notably Tim Fywell (To Be A Somebody, True Romance), Andy Wilson (To Say I Love You), Jean Stuart (Men Should Weep), Roy Battersby (Brotherly Love) and Simon Cellan-Jones (One Day A Lemming Will Fly), et al, as well as offering an early break for now-acclaimed British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, who, at thirty-one, would follow his episode of Cracker (The Mad Woman in the Attic) with a clutch of award-winning films, from Jude, to Welcome to Sarajevo, through to Wonderland, Twenty-Four-Hour Party People, In This World and, more recently, 9 Songs.
For me, this is one of the greatest TV-drama series' of the last decade... as essential and rewarding as the likes of Pennies From Heaven, The Decalogue, The Singing Detective and Twin Peaks (only much less convoluted than those classics) and, is a testament, along with Hillsborough and The Lakes, to the writing talents of Jimmy McGovern. Some would argue that the series went downhill after his departure, with Abbot's episodes, Best Boys and True Romance, often featuring fairly low on fan's "top-ten" episode polls, though I think this has more to do with the mammoth task of returning to something low-key after the escalating melodrama of To Be A Somebody, Men Should Weep and Brotherly Love (...as it happens, I'm quite fond of Best Boys... particularly the astonishing performance work of John Simm and Liam Cunningham in the central roles).
Although it has no extra-features, this DVD box set is still a must-have purchase, with Cracker still seeming as intelligent, interesting and emotionally affecting ten-years on, as it no doubt seemed when first broadcast over a decade ago.