Apart from the explosion, The Accident (Channel 4) is very quiet. Hairdresser Polly (Sarah Lancashire) doesn’t even shout when she finds her 15-year-old daughter Leona’s latest one-night stand still in her bedroom. She just flings his clothes at him, notes that Leona (Jade Croot) is underage and that he looks 28, and makes him jump out of the window. Then she takes herself off to the local charity run with her friends. They are walking, Polly’s best friend, Angela (Joanna Scanlan), says firmly.
So begins the new four-part drama by Jack Thorne, the unassailable powerhouse behind the likes of This is England, Skins, Kiri (in which Lancashire also starred) and the forthcoming adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials.
The people of the small “left behind” fictional Welsh town of Glyngolau are celebrating a new construction project – championed by Polly’s husband Iwan, the local councillor – that is due to bring 1,000 new jobs to the area. As they start their “run” they hear a terrible noise. On the building site, a factory block has blown up. What follows is the story of the shockwaves that ripple out from that event, finding the fissures in the community and causing relationships to crumble as people assign blame, cope with bereavement and survive the fallout.
Youngsters were trespassing inside the building when the explosion happened. Ash floats down silently as Polly and her friends realise their sons and daughters are trapped beneath the rubble. The husband of another friend, Debbie (Genevieve Barr), was in charge of security on the site and is also missing.
They wait quietly at the hospital until doctors pad down corridors to deliver the news. Polly and Iwan’s daughter has life-changing injuries. Angela’s daughter, Mia, is dead, along with several other people, including Debbie’s husband. Instantly, the air is thick with grief, injustice and resentment. The luck of the draw is rarely more unbearable.
Inside Polly’s home after the initial shock has worn off, a harrowing scene shows how some people channel their anger, guilt or impotence – or perhaps simply use events to justify behaviour that is always searching for an excuse to come out. It is a scene that reminds us not to forget the question of personal responsibility, even as larger ones threaten to dwarf it.
As grief gives way to anger (“No singing!” screams a furious Angela as the townspeople return to the site to keep vigil the night after the explosion), the question of who is to blame comes to the fore. The shifting pressures are minutely recorded in Thorne’s dense but delicate script and Sandra Goldbacher’s searching direction. Thorne’s inspiration is the Grenfell tower fire, and the issues of corporate responsibility, greed and inhumanity raised by it. But the Welsh setting inevitably calls to mind perhaps the most potent example of negligence and inhumanity there has ever been, the Aberfan disaster, which cost a village its children 53 years ago – almost to the day The Accident was broadcast.
The face of the construction company is Harriet (Sidse Babbett Knudsen), on whom Polly turns at the site as the first bodies are brought out, accusing her of doing things on the cheap, all of which is captured by the television cameras.
Harriet is already struggling with the conflict between her natural instinct to help and her professional need to keep a distance. What the latter masks and how much truth there is to Polly’s claim will surely only become more complicated over the coming weeks.
The Accident is another magnificent example of Thorne’s talent for taking a huge story containing multitudinous contemporary concerns and distilling them into emotive stories on a scale we can cope with, be compelled by, learn from. The Accident forms, Thorne has said, the third part of a loose trilogy that began with 2016’s National Treasure (about the trial of a TV personality accused of Operation Yewtree-like offences) and continued in Kiri (about the death of a child in care), which looks at who and what we are as a nation, the lies we tell ourselves, the money and the politics that corrupt us and the lines along which we crack when under pressure.
It promises to be a fittingly thoughtful and wholly absorbing last instalment. Though not, of course, the last drama from Thorne, who looks set fair to become the Alan Bleasdale of our tattered age. Never have we had more need of one.
• This article was amended on 25 October 2019 because an earlier version misnamed the character played by Joanna Scanlan, Angela, as Anna. This has been corrected.