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Have you ever peeled an unfranked stamp off an envelope and re-used it? If so, the Post Office has a word for you: fraudster.

Royal Mail – which ran the Post Office until 2012 – warns on its website: ‘Any person who knowingly reuses stamps for postage is committing fraud.’ This is a criminal offence, liable to prosecution.

Yet 25 years ago, when the Post Office computer system began malfunctioning so badly that many sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were driven out of business, Royal Mail – so stringent in castigating the smallest rule-bending by customers – refused to listen or investigate fairly.

Toby Jones, as a defiant sub-postmaster running a shop in Llandudno, North Wales, summed it up in a stinging speech at the start of Mr Bates vs The Post Office: ‘They’re not calling me a thief. They wouldn’t dare. They say money’s somehow gone missing from this branch, which it hasn’t, and I have to pay it back, which I won’t.’

ITV viewers vent their ‘blood is boiling and feel sick to their stomach’ just minutes into Mr Bates vs The Post Office

This major, new four-part drama, airing nightly with a documentary to follow on Friday, highlights just three stories of hundreds

A browbeaten young copper, caught between the furious Alan Bates and an unsympathetic auditor, asked whether any actual crime had been committed.

‘Well,’ fumed the man behind the counter, ‘Post Office Limited is stealing my livelihood, my shop, my job, my home, my life savings – and my good name.’

He was not alone. Between 2000 and 2014, an average of one sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress a week was prosecuted, for theft, false accounting and other offences, by the Post Office. From a total of 736, some were jailed, many were bankrupted, all suffered appalling stress and public shame.

Yet for years Royal Mail and its computer partner Horizon – a system developed by the Japanese company Fujitsu – insisted that these were isolated cases. In an era before social media, many of those accused had no idea that any other shops were facing the same problems, and assumed the fault must somehow be theirs.

This major, new four-part drama, airing nightly with a documentary to follow on Friday, highlights just three stories of those hundreds. In Hampshire, Jo Hamilton (Monica Dolan) was spending hours on the Horizon helpline, patiently following instructions and watching the imaginary discrepancies mount up.

Phoning to plead that the computer expected her to bank £2,032.67 more than she had taken in the past week, she re-entered the figures as she was told – and saw the shortfall double on screen to more than £4,000.

‘It’ll sort itself out,’ the voice on the helpline told her. But it didn’t, and soon Jo had emptied her savings and maxed out her credit cards, trying to bridge the gap. She didn’t dare tell her husband or her mother until they were faced with remortgaging the house.

In Bridlington, Yorkshire, Lee Castleton (Will Mellor) made the mistake of thinking that if he called in the auditors, they would realise the £25,858.95 he was accused of misappropriating was the result of computer errors. Instead, Royal Mail barred him from his own shop and sued him for the money. His children were bullied at school, and taunted that their father was a common thief.

‘You’ve just got to trust in the British justice system,’ Lee told himself. ‘Tell the truth and everything will be all right.’ It wasn’t, though: he lost the case and was ordered to pay £321,000 in costs.

The Daily Mail waged a long campaign to win justice for the accused, something this serial has not so far acknowledged. What it also fails to mention is that Adam Crozier, chief executive of Royal Mail Group between 2003 and 2010, later became CEO of ITV.

This screenplay by Gwyneth Hughes does, however, convey the overwhelming fear of facing a bureaucratic juggernaut that refuses to acknowledge the possibility it might be wrong about anything. With unlimited legal funds at its disposal to bully almost every individual into silence (with the heroic exception of Mr Bates), Royal Mail was all-powerful, remorseless and heartless.

That inhuman power was symbolised by the convoy of black saloon cars that rolled up outside each rural sub-post office, at the beginning of each audit.

‘When I first got legal advice,’ Mr Bates says, ‘I was warned that if I tried to take them to court, even if I won, the Post office would just keep appealing till I ran out of money.’ That’s chilling, cruel and all too believable. But the drama also captures the decency of Britain’s sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, the quintessential shopkeepers once at the core of so many communities.

They’re a rare breed now and may soon be extinct, the way Royal Mail is going. If a single one of them had been fiddling the books, it would have seemed shocking and improbable. For 736 to be prosecuted defies all rational belief.

Because the victims were such a familiar, well-liked type, the three in this retelling win our immediate sympathy. After Jo Hamilton is dragged into the dock and harried into pleading guilty to an offence that was not her fault, half the village turns out to cheer her on. The local vicar declares from the witness box: ‘We all love her. People confide in her. We trust her, and we just can’t believe that any of this was on purpose in any way.’

Watching that scene, with lumps in our throats as the judge allows Jo to walk free, every Mail reader must have given a cheer, too.

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