Television: Move on, there's nothing to see

Bobbies or pigs, the police can rest easy. Nicholas Barber finds that 'The Cops' are comfortingly human
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
What are we to make of that title, then? The Cops? Cops is a word which is never actually uttered in the programme, so are we meant to assume that it's ironic? Is it a playful comment on the distance between this new drama series' dirty Northern naturalism and the flashness of an American shoot-'em-up show in which gangsters shout, "It's the cops," in every episode, usually just as a squad car is skidding through a stack of cardboard boxes? Or were BBC2 just afraid to use either of the synonyms which we do keep hearing in the programme: Bobbies, as the officers call themselves, and Pigs, as they're called by their public?

If the hype were to be believed, The Pigs is the title the series deserved. And by goodness, what a lot of hype there's been. There were trailers so long that they counted as programmes in their own right, even down to having their own slots in the Radio Times' listings. There were stories that the Bolton police who advised on the series had disassociated themselves from the finished product. And almost all of this publicity focused on the suggestion that the series is playing the old bad cop/bad cop routine. It isn't.

Anyone who believes that The Cops will bring down the real police in the public's estimation has been talking to a very small, select portion of the public. Yes, in the first episode we see two officers taking drugs: one in the sense that she puts cocaine up her nose, the other in the sense that he takes amphetamine off a passing dealer, then plants it on someone whose nose he wants an excuse to break. But, really, which viewer is going to be shocked by that, other than those whose TVs have been on the blink since Dixon of Dock Green was last broadcast? A programme which implied that nobody in the police ever went near illegal substances or illegal procedures - now that would be radical. Whereas The Cops' slant hasn't been radical since The Sweeney blackened the name of the boys in blue. All that's altered over the decades is that TV police are now partial to C as well as W, or Charlie as well as Whiskey, as they say on their radios.

The main consequence of these characters' flaws is to make the police seem comfortingly human. While staying just on the right side of boring, The Cops depicts their work as a grim slog, punctuated more often by the tap-tap of reports being typed than the wailing of sirens. There was a dead body in the first episode, but there was never much doubt that natural causes were responsible. I kept being reminded of Ben Elton's The Thin Blue Line. Maybe they should have gone with The Bobbies.

The resolutely uncool, unstylish, un-handsome officers drive around the fictional town of Stanton, near Manchester - a boldly believable wasteland of squalid council estates - keeping an eye out for petty criminals to intimidate. They scoff sandwiches, they tell bad jokes, they worry about their careers and about how they're perceived by their civilian friends and relatives.

The style is, very effectively, docusoap: actors stumble over words, there is no incidental music and, of course, the cameramen operate the focus and zoom controls while wearing boxing gloves. It's ironic that Driving School, which put the docusoap genre into gear, was remarkable because it scrupulously avoided these home-video visuals.

For a series that purports to tell it like it is, however, The Cops is not without its caricatures - a factor which, I suppose, makes it even more like a docusoap, if not necessarily more like real life. Most obviously guilty as charged are the forensics clown who chats up a probationary policewoman while he takes Polaroids of a putrid corpse ("Talking about piccies, do you ever go to the cinema?"), and the Chief Inspector who's been to more management courses than crime scenes. He tells his new sergeant that he's "looking to re-engineer the job, adopt a more client-responsive, intelligence-led, proactive approach". This line could feasibly have been delivered in such a way that we could have taken it seriously, but Mark Chatterton bases his characterisation on Rory Bremner's caring-sharing Blair impersonation, and to underline the gag there's a photo on the office wall of the Chief Inspector shaking hands with Tony. Unsurprisingly, the opposite pole is represented, too. Roy (John Henshaw) is an embittered old Prescott lookalike "wi' balls", who would hand in his badge before he would say "clients". He prefers the expression "dirty, thieving, lying scumbags".

Again, this theme has been handled similarly before. Just recently, tried- and-tested crime fighting has tussled with Blairite bureaucracy in Maisie Raine; and in Liverpool One a high-flier from the Met moved "oop North", where she learnt that they do things differently round those parts. The Cops is more promising than both of these series, but as long as police dramas are pumped out at the current pace, none of them will have the chance to stand out from the ranks.

The Cops, despite being exceedingly well-fashioned, and having fine ensemble acting, is not a televisual landmark. Just a few hours before the first episode was broadcast, as Blue Peter was about to start, I watched Lorraine Heggessey, the head of children's BBC, announce that one of the programme's presenters had been sacked for having "taken an illegal drug". And we're supposed to get worked up about a policewoman on coke? It just doesn't compete.