By Nightingale, Julie | New Statesman (1996), March 26, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Nightingale, Julie, New Statesman (1996)

JULIE NIGHTINGALE on how police dramas are cleaning up their act

ITV's The Bill has come in for a good riot-style kicking over the decision to create more personal storylines, allegedly at the expense of plots concentrating on the nitty-gritty of policing. You're turning into a soap, yell the critics from their armchairs, as they see slender young CID lovelies perched where portly old "Tosh" Lines once slumped, and PCs leaping into bed together in the glow of scented candles.

What consistently set The Bill apart, when it began in 1983, was that it gave off the authentic whiff of the police station. The series was meticulous about procedure in particular, and the actors were uniformly unglamorous. Hence, you always suspected that if you were to drop into your local nick, you might come across a Jim Carver moaning about paperwork or a June Ackland quizzing glue-sniffers, while a Frank Burnside sat in a corner perfecting his hardbitten air.

We take this authenticity for granted now, but until Z Cars arrived in 1962, TV policemen were good and faithful public servants like Dixon of Dock Green, who would no more bend the rules than ride their bike without its lights on. In Z Cars, for the first time, the police were recognisably real individuals dealing with run-of-the-mill crime in a working-class community. Setting the series in the north signalled added grit for a viewing public brought up on the softy southerner Dixon.

Viewers loved it, but not so the cops. "The police didn't like it because it wasn't like Dixon, which presented them in a very positive light and was how they wanted the public to think of them," says Steve Chibnall, a media and cultural studies lecturer at Leicester's De Montfort University, who has researched crime in film and TV. "The coppers in Z Cars were more fallible, which was not how the police wanted to be seen."

All that had changed by the time of ITV's The Sweeney in 1973. By then, public confidence in the police had been shattered by the revelations of widespread corruption in the Metropolitan force at the end of the 1960s. Enter Inspector "Jack" Regan with the flying squad, and cue lots of American-style car chases, brutality and the use of underworld slang in the fight against bank robbers and other serious villains.

"The Sweeney was radical," Chibnall says. "The cops were prepared to bend or break the rules to get a result, they operated autonomously for much of their working lives and they interacted with criminals in ways that hadn't been seen before on TV." Regan was your original maverick copper with a loyal sidekick and a lousy love life (he was, as he put it, "happily divorced") but, despite his preference for extracting information via the administration of a good thumping, he was not corrupt.

"It was still somewhat sanitised compared with reality," says Chibnall, "but the characters themselves were quite realistic.

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