Police! Cameras! Action!

BBC2's gritty new series `The Cops' is already attracting criticism over its portrayal of the force, but it may just be a logical progression in the evolution of police dramas.
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The Independent Culture
GIVEN THAT their TV programme is being sold harder than sex in downtown Bangkok, the makers of The Cops are strangely coy. You might have seen the racy and extensive adverts running just before Newsnight over the past week. But try and have a chat with World Productions - the independent outfit headed by Tony Garnett, which brought us Between the Lines, This Life and Cardiac Arrest - about their gritty new police drama, and you'll politely be told to go take a walk.

You'll then be referred to no less a personage than the controller of BBC2, Mark Thompson, a move which speaks volumes. BBC2 are proud of their new baby - and not a little nervous. Thompson would rather you understood it this way:

"Tony Garnett and his team want the show to speak for itself. They remember their experience with This Life, when no journalist was interested for the first series and a half. Then suddenly, when it took off, they were all gagging for it."

Success will speak for itself and all that, but there's also the feeling that a bunker mentality is prevailing over at World Productions, perhaps not surprisingly. Greater Manchester Police, who assisted with the filming of the series (which was shot in Bolton) have already expressed "disappointment" at the way officers are portrayed (the opening scene shows an off-duty WPC snorting cocaine). They went on to accuse Garnett and his co-producers of social and moral irresponsibility, and of exploiting viewers' fear of crime.

Perhaps they should have done their homework. A glimpse at the cuttings would have told them that Garnett was responsible for GF Newman's hugely controversial 1978 series Law and Order, which dared to suggest that the police and judiciary were not honest all the time.

Garnett also produced Between the Lines, an unflattering depiction of how the police police themselves. Perhaps Greater Manchester Police were persuaded by Garnett's participation - as an actor this time - in Z Cars. And maybe they were right to be thus encouraged. BBC2 controller Mark Thompson sees several points of similarity between Z Cars and The Cops.

"They are both about policing a community, and the gradual realisation on the part of the police officers that they are part of that very same community," he says. "The job of a uniformed police officer is more about difficult social and emotional issues than the robbery and murder you see in most police dramas.

"The first episode of The Cops is concerned with a young woman police officer dealing with an old man who has died in his flat. Real, mundane, everyday issues. Z Cars had a bit about it of that. It was the original two-cops-in-a-police-car-discussing-their-marriages show."

Garnett had originally approached BBC1 about doing a police series, but Thompson persuaded him that it was more of a BBC2 project.

"I had been keen to find a way of talking about what I call `excluded Britain'," says Thompson. "Cops are a useful vector for bringing viewers into those big, rundown housing estates - the world of excluded Britain. There's lots of talk about them on British television but very little in the way of television drama."

A worthwhile project for Garnett, then, the man who produced (while Ken Loach directed) that great piece of social campaigning television from 1966, Cathy Come Home. Funnily enough - or not - The Cops shares the vivid, documentary style of Cathy Come Home, although most viewers will probably compare the shaky camera work and disjointed editing to American series like NYPD Blue and Homicide.

Thompson reckons Garnett is the British Steven Bochco - the legendary producer of NYPD Blue and before that, Hill Street Blues. Indeed he feels it's possible that Garnett might even have influenced Bochco.

"The realism of Z Cars and Cathy Come Home were great influences on American television," he says. "Bochco was highly influenced by British television."

One character who appears to have been loaned wholesale from NYPD Blue is Roy, The Cops' version of Andy Sipowicz - the cynical old-school police officer - who gets to say this line: "Look at 'em - breeding like rabbits. I'm sick of 'em, the dirty, thieving, lying scumbags." It's not the sort of thing you'll hear being uttered by the uniformed bobbies of ITV's long- running police soap, The Bill. Whether or not it's any more real than The Bill's generally positive image is a moot point. Perhaps only the police themselves know for sure.

`The Cops' begins tonight on BBC2 at 9pm