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TV Police Drama

TV cops from Fabian to Morse

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Pared to its bare bones, the police drama is the 'eternal struggle between good and evil'. It is also a crossword puzzle in the tradition of Agatha Christie, with the thrill of a journey on the wrong side of the tracks. But this 'conservative' genre has consistently explored social mores, popular concerns and contemporary folk devils. At the same time, it treads a thin line between realism and a relentlessly upbeat representation of the police force, and is prone to stereotyping and tokenism. It remains a world dominated by individualistic white men. Despite this mass of contradictions, however, it is a versatile and flexible genre that can survive the loss of central characters and confront highly sensitive social issues.

Fabian of Scotland Yard (BBC, 1954-56) presented British television's first regular policeman. The BBC's first filmed series, it was based upon the real life cases of a senior detective, DCS Robert Fabian. It showed that there was a considerable appetite for police procedurals on television, and was followed by a number of pseudo-exotic, weird and not so wonderful series. Superintendent Tom Lockhart (Raymond Francis) outlasted most of them; Murder Bag (ITV, 1957-59) was followed by Crime Sheet (ITV, 1959) and No Hiding Place (ITV, 1959-67).

The legendary Dixon of Dock Green (BBC, 1955-76) was a landmark in police fiction series, marking the first attempt to portray day-to-day police activities in a realistic manner. Creator Ted Willis put in a great deal of research before penning the series that resurrected the eponymous character who had been murdered in the film The Blue Lamp (d. Basil Dearden, 1949). Dominated by the avuncular persona of George Dixon (Jack Warner), the action was handled in a calm and orderly fashion. The series became a cornerstone of BBC's Saturday evening schedule and set the standards and conventions for many years to come. It may have been cosy and rosy, but many of its tougher moments live on only in the memory and not on tape.

Z Cars (BBC, 1962-1978) ushered in a new era of police drama. Created by Troy Kennedy Martin, it took its tone from the tougher social realist school associated with the 'New Wave' in British cinema. Set among the dreary rainwashed streets and alleys of the North West's spillover towns, it emphasised the concerns and issues of '60s Britain. Its depiction of flawed, bad tempered, even violent police officers and aggressive detectives made it an overnight hit with viewers (if not with senior police officers). Detective Inspector Barlow (Stratford Johns) inspired a generation of detectives and was popular enough with viewers to enjoy several spin-off series, notably Softly Softly... (BBC, 1966-76) and Barlow at Large (BBC, 1971-74). Some have suggested that Z Cars' representation of a grim, desolate North rife with social problems and deprivation was just as clich├ęd as Dixon's rosier South; regardless, in time the series lost its bite and drifted into comfortable character-based serial drama.

By the end of the 1960s, the British political consensus was in tatters. Radical solutions were demanded, especially in law and order. In 1966, three policemen were shot dead by a fleeing criminal, prompting greater arming of the force. 'Traditional' policing seemed out of date, especially on television. The focus on uniformed policemen on the beat was rejected, in favour of flares, fast cars and, notably, guns.

The first of this wave was Special Branch (ITV, 1969-74), often dismissed as The Sweeney Mk I, closely followed by the barely remembered New Scotland Yard (ITV, 1972-74). But it is The Sweeney (1975-78) that is seen as the quintessential British police series of the 1970s. Jack Regan (John Thaw) and his partner Carter's (Dennis Waterman) ruthless - and not always lawful - approach to pursuing villains seemed to mark a shift away from a consensual style of policing. The series was criticised for its violence, language and representation of police officers, but it spawned several imitators, notably the notorious Target (BBC, 1978) and the police/spy hybrid The Professionals (ITV, 1977-1983).

For all its toughness, The Sweeney notably failed to tackle the issue of police corruption which had emerged in several high-profile cases since the mid-1960s. G.F. Newman's Law and Order (BBC, 1978) was rare in expressing doubts about police powers, with its searing look at widespread corruption and abuse in the police, offering viewers arguably the most complete glimpse of police culture to date. More recently, the excellent Between the Lines (BBC, 1992-94), The Vice (1999-) and Tony Garnett's searing The Cops (BBC, 1998-2001) have dared to explore similar territory.

Under a tough new Conservative government, one would have thought there would be even more tough policemen. However, the 1980s and 1990s saw the return of the sleuth detective. There was a procession of thoughtful, patient, stubborn and even eccentric detectives, often adaptations from respected authors of whodunits, light years from the world of Jack Regan. Their cases often navigated through a Britain in social change. These flagship series included Bergerac (BBC, 1981-91), Taggart (ITV, 1985-), various series featuring P.D James' Adam Dalgleish (beginning with Death of an Expert Witness, ITV, 1983), and Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford (The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, ITV, 1987-), Cracker (ITV, 1993-95), and A Touch of Frost (ITV, 1992-). The apogee of these expensive, well-crafted series was Inspector Morse (ITV, 1987-2000), starring The Sweeney's John Thaw.

Like Z Cars, The Bill (ITV, 1985-) began as a grittily realistic one-hour drama, but the series has shown an unusual flexibility, switching formats and even taking on the characteristics of a soap. The survival of The Bill illustrates the police drama's durability in a changing television environment. The Bill is also rare in the genre in consistently casting women and Black or Asian actors in major roles.

The first major female character in a police series was probably Sergeant Vicky Hicks in Fraud Squad (ITV, 1969-70). However, it was another ten years before female officers took centre stage with The Gentle Touch (ITV, 1980-84) and Juliet Bravo (BBC, 1980-85). Both series received criticism and even cruel lampooning. Prime Suspect (ITV, 1991-) provided some iconic but periodic redress.

In retrospect, Irishman J. Carrol Naish's 'yellow face' role as Charlie Chan (relocated to postwar London) in The New Adventures of Charlie Chan (ITV, 1957-58) was an unworthy choice for British TV's first ethnic copper. The first serial centred on a Black policeman was the controversial Wolcott (ITV, 1981), starring George William Harris. Its Hollywood-style narrative and stereotypical black villains undermined its long-term impact. The Chinese Detective (BBC, 1981-82), written by Ian Kennedy Martin, was a more considered treatment of racial issues. Black and Blue (BBC, 27/9/1992) was another memorable and hard-hitting single drama from G.F. Newman, following a Black officer from a rural force working undercover in London. More recently, an innovative adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello (ITV, tx. 23/12/2001) recast the tragic hero as a Black police officer promoted to a senior rank.

Despite an emphasis on realism and well-documented scandals, including brutality, corruption and charges of 'institutionalised racism', the television image of the police is still dominated by the traditional male sleuth in a suit, sometimes avuncular, sometimes grumpy. Not surprisingly, the message of most British police fiction series is still that crime does not/must not pay. Both image and message would not be out of place in the 1950s.

Recent efforts to introduce new series and formats, including ITV's M.I.T.: Murder Investigation Team (2003-), Murder City (2004-) and Murder in Surburbia (2004), have met with mixed responses from critics and audiences alike, despite their determination to present professional, modern and female alternatives. Only The Bill currently attempts to cover uniformed policing. Police cooperation is important in the production of long-running series and this may deter broadcasters and programme-makers from incurring their wrath. Unorthodox, violent and/or corrupt police officers may abound in the cinema but these days we are, it seems, less keen to welcome them into our living rooms.

Sean Delaney

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Bergerac (1981-91)

Bergerac (1981-91)

Long-running detective series set on the island tax haven of Jersey

Thumbnail image of Bill, The (1984-2010)

Bill, The (1984-2010)

Police drama series set in London

Thumbnail image of Chinese Detective, The (1981-82)

Chinese Detective, The (1981-82)

Police drama series starring David Yip

Thumbnail image of Cracker (1993-95, 1996, 2006)

Cracker (1993-95, 1996, 2006)

Robbie Coltrane stars as a brilliant but flawed psychologist-detective

Thumbnail image of Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76)

Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76)

Awesomely successful police series, running for over 20 years

Thumbnail image of Fabian of the Yard (1954-56)

Fabian of the Yard (1954-56)

British TV's first successful police hero

Thumbnail image of Gentle Touch, The (1980-84)

Gentle Touch, The (1980-84)

Drama series about a female police officer in London's CID

Thumbnail image of Hamish Macbeth (1995-97)

Hamish Macbeth (1995-97)

Gently eccentric Highlands-set police drama starring Robert Carlyle

Thumbnail image of Inspector Morse (1987-2000)

Inspector Morse (1987-2000)

Gentle Oxfordshire whodunnits faced by the melancholic detective

Thumbnail image of Juliet Bravo (1980-85)

Juliet Bravo (1980-85)

Drama featuring a female police inspector in an all-male police station

Thumbnail image of Life on Mars (2006-07)

Life on Mars (2006-07)

A detective suffers a mysterious accident and wakes up in 1973...

Thumbnail image of No Hiding Place (1959-67)

No Hiding Place (1959-67)

Police drama following the cases of Scotland Yard's DCS Lockhart

Thumbnail image of Othello (2001)

Othello (2001)

Contemporary update, with Othello as the Met's first black head

Thumbnail image of Prime Suspect (1991-2006)

Prime Suspect (1991-2006)

A female detective confronts tough cases and prejudiced colleagues

Thumbnail image of Sweeney, The (1975-78)

Sweeney, The (1975-78)

Tough 1970s police drama with John Thaw and Dennis Waterman

Thumbnail image of Taggart (1985-)

Taggart (1985-)

Veteran Glasgow-set police drama, that outlived its first star

Thumbnail image of Touch of Frost, A (1992-)

Touch of Frost, A (1992-)

The investigations of cantankerous DI William 'Jack' Frost

Thumbnail image of Wolcott (1981)

Wolcott (1981)

Drama series about a black detective based in East London

Thumbnail image of Z Cars (1962-78)

Z Cars (1962-78)

Groundbreaking cop drama introducing new grit and realism

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