In the fifties and sixties, police series on UK TV were dominated by Dixon Of Dock Green and Z-Cars. Both of these presented cops in a favourable light as hard-working, dedicated and, about all, honest individuals.
I think it’s fair to say that anyone writing a script for a contemporary cutting-edge drama would start from a contrary perspective, highlighting the moral grey areas and corruption that lie at the heart of 21st century policing.
The squeaky clean image of PC George Dixon was the embodiment of the British ‘bobby’ on the beat. One Dock Green episode called ‘The Rotten Apple’ from 1956 was a rare occasion in which the existence of ‘bent coppers’ was addressed. While acknowledging the truth of the adage that ‘one bad apple can spoil the barrel’, PC Dixon’s reassuring message at the end of this episode was that this case was not representative of the countless good cops on the force.
These days , this would rightly be dismissed as implausible propaganda. Now, the trend is towards gritty realism where back-stabbing, double-dealing and spin-doctoring are the norms. BBC’s five-part drama ‘Line of Duty’ scripted by Jed Mercurio is the latest example.
When a counter-terrorist raid goes disastrously wrong, Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) wants to admit publicly that the police had made a tragic error which led to the killing of an innocent man. The link here is obviously to the real-life botched operation that culminated in the death of Jean Charles de Menezes.
Arnott’s superiors want him to stick to an invented story in which officers identified themselves and shouted a warning before shooting the suspect. When Arnott refuses to toe the line, he is effectively downgraded to a post on the Anti-Corruption (AC) Unit.
The strong implication here that the AC unit is not made of the brightest and best officers but staffed by those who not fitted for ‘real’ police work. The drama shows this department being treated with fear and loathing as the enemy within and Arnott himself is constantly ridiculed and made to feel like a leper.
The unit is headed by Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) and his chief target is the city’s top detective, DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James) whose exemplary record of crime clearance is regarded with suspicion (“no-one’s that good”).
Gates is presented on the BBC website “a complex and elusive anti-hero” who is expert at playing the system to his own advantage. We are kept guessing as to whether he is corrupt as well as clever. To confuse matters, we see him off duty having an affair with a local business woman and as a doting father . The clichéd family bliss with a loyal and very docile wife plus two loving kids is an example of the producers opting for clichéd characterisation – Gate’s daughters are too perfect – they might just as well be wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan. ‘THIS WILL ALL END IN TEARS’.
In contrast to Gate, Arnott is supposed to be the moral compass, and is assisted by Constable Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) who infiltrates Gate’s team. One serious problem with the series is that none of these characters are particularly likeable and , with no-one to root for, I quickly found myself not caring much what happens. Gates is brash and arrogant, Arnott is a bull in a china shop and Fleming is a blank slate.
The story is also riddled with plot holes and bad writing which insults the intelligence of the viewers. One example is where Gates removes a whisky glass from a crime scene to cover his tracks and ,when this missing evidence is discovered, a search is undertaken to find the object. We are asked to believe that ‘officer of the year’ Gates is incapable of wiping his prints from a glass or, even simpler, smashing it to smithereens and dumping it.
Some misguided souls have tried to fob Line Of Duty off as Britain’s answer to The Wire. While the peerless HBO series oozed authenticity, the BBC drama looks like a very pale imitation indeed. The depiction of drug dealing on the council estates is sketchy and unrealistic and only part of the show that rings true is the extent to which excessive paperwork and red tape impedes the fight against crime.
In fairness, The Wire writers had the luxury of a longer running series so were able to show the political and social complexity involved in modern-day law enforcement. Line Of Duty tries to pack all this into five hours with the result that the heroes and villains and those in between are too often reduced to stereotypes rather than fully rounded, characters we can empathise with and believe in.