Representations of British Probation Officers in Film, Television Drama and Novels 1948-2012

By Nellis, Mike | British Journal of Community Justice, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Representations of British Probation Officers in Film, Television Drama and Novels 1948-2012


Nellis, Mike, British Journal of Community Justice


Introduction

One of the problems the Probation Service has is that it is not very photogenic. We live with an image driven media and society and unfortunately probation doesn't present itself well, certainly on television. There is something about learning to play the media in a way that suits our needs and trying to accept that we are not like the police, we are not like prisons, we don't look good on television, so we actually need to play to our strengths and to give an impression of an organisation that knows what it is doing and has a very hardheaded realistic approach to crime management. Christine Lawrie, Chief executive of PBA (quoted in Fletcher 2007:9)

The work of Probation Trusts is particularly open to misrepresentation. Some of you may have watched the recent BBC drama, 'Public Enemies'. This was drama, not documentary, and therefore no closer to the real life of probation staff than the body count among staff at Holby General in 'Casualty' is a true representation of life expectancy in the NHS. The difference, however, is that we all have our own experience of doctors and nurses that allow us to put the drama in perspective, whereas the great majority of people have no source of information about what probation does other than what they read and what they see on TV. Those of us who know could simply sigh resignedly at the ninth or tenth serious misrepresentation of probation practice in the first episode: others are likely to have believed what they saw (Graham Nicholls (2012), retiring Chief Officer, Lincolnshire Probation Trust)

The representation of criminal justice officials in the media--both news media and entertainment media--has been a legitimate subject for academic enquiry since the 1970s. There had been literary critical studies of the crime fiction genre well before this, which commented, incidentally or directly, on those criminal justice occupations that were covered in such literature--police officers, private detectives, lawyers, sometimes psychiatrists--but no studies of the same occupations in film or television, despite their predominance in post-war cinema and broadcasting. This changed in the 1970s, which saw the emergence of cultural studies, and saw criminologists become interested in sources of public opinion about crime and punishment, and in the impact of media imagery on the legitimacy or otherwise of criminal justice agencies. A decade or so later, as visibility in the media became progressively more unavoidable, both social work and probation in England and Wales began to take a more systematic interest in its public image, having made only intermittent, short-lived, forays into this field in the past (Cousins 1987; Fry 1988; Maruna 2007). The following survey of fictional representations of probation in Britain over a sixty year period, premised on the idea that a) fiction is not necessarily untruthful or unrealistic (though it may be), and that b) on some matters it can frame and inform public understanding as much if not more than factual data, is intended to serve academic, media and probation interests. It is no more than an overview, complementing studies of probation imagery in the news media (Byers 2008; Jewkes 2008), and some of the specific representations mentioned here warrant more detailed analysis, and proper contextualisation in the time and place in which they were produced.

In the period since the end of WW2, the police and the private detective have been predominant in all forms of crime fiction--literary, cinematic and televisual--mirroring and augmenting (in respect of the police if not the private eye) the dominance of police stories in news media (press and television) (Reiner, Livingstone and Allen 2000). Within the various and changing forms of police story it is possible to discern a vernacular history of policing itself, and of changing police ideals--from the beat policing of local communities in Dixon of Dock Green (BBC1955-1976), through the introduction of motor patrols in Z-Cars (BBC 1962-1978), the emergence of regional crime squads in Softly, Softly (BBC 1969-76), the war on London's organised crime in The Sweeney (ITV 1975-1978) to the emergence of the hero-pathologist and forensics expert, prefigured in The Expert (BBC1968-1974) but more fully realised in Silent Witness (1996 onwards) and "cold case" series like Waking the Dead (BBC 2000-2011), and in related (often American) television programmes and novels Leishmann and Mason 2003; Reiner 2004). …

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