Friday 04 December 1998
Sixteen years spent presenting a programme named in your honour must make an impact, and Cook seems to be a devotee of his own legend, delivering his lines as if Panorama had accidentally employed Alan Partridge. "We catch them on the take, being paid for their arrogant thievery," thundered our man in his hybrid Antipodean tones. Cook is undoubtedly a capable fellow. He's won awards, so I'm told, and used to be a serious broadcaster - The World at One and PM were both once voiced by the man. But 20 years on, the overall effect is that of a Clive James who hadn't gone to school.
Pursuing the Partridge line for a moment, the scene where he surprised a man handling stolen vehicles was priceless. His name was Mr Court. The hapless chap was handling stolen vehicles when the Cookie monster appeared out of nowhere. "You bought a stolen bike, Mr Court. You have been caught," Cook continued breathily, with an odd stress on the subject as he got into his stride. "We'll perhaps see you in court, Mr Court." This last line was shouted at the traffic as Mr Caught made a wobbly getaway across a busy road.
The pre-publicity promised to track down the "Mr Bigs" of organised car crime. One such Mr Big couldn't find the car keys when one of Cook's commis chefs came to collect some stolen wheels. He'd dropped them on the kitchen floor. It occurred to me then that perhaps these Mr Bigs weren't quite as big as we'd been led to believe. Such is Cook's fame, and so recognisable is his visage to criminals, that when villains are fingered, they undergo a strange facial transformation. One "crook", who'd been covertly filmed arranging to steal cars "to order", seemed almost pleased to meet his burly celebrity interrogator - "Wait till my mates see this," his face cried out.
The next investigation of the evening came in Dispatches (C4), during which reporter Sue Bishop managed to say twice as much as Cook in half the time. Dispatches, while more earnest in tone, spoke, too, with a tabloid brogue, which was a shame because it had such a good case that this was unnecessary. This red-top approach is a function of abbreviation and while the programme's condensed running time may have demanded cuts, that they were occasionally in language and presentation was unfortunate. A millionaire who was relieved of his fortune by a "dodgy solicitor" had his poverty represented by a shot of him on a hopper bus; to emphasise that another recidivist solicitor had finally been sent to prison, we heard the sound of a slamming cell door, which could have been lifted from the opening titles of Porridge.
The programme also had two of the week's best euphemisms. Dispatches claimed to have undertaken "unique statistical research"; to be fair, they had done some work of their own, but most of the figures they quoted came from a sensitive file they'd been slipped. Meanwhile, the president of the disciplinary tribunal at the Law Society claimed that practising solicitors with criminal convictions showed "a lack of acknowledgement of legal process".
Bishop was an effective advocate, well-armed with inside information. Incompetence among solicitors is commonplace, as anyone who's ever bought a house will tell you, but that they can also be dishonest came as a surprise; that it appears to be tolerated, a nasty shock. The verdicts of the tribunal's most recent sittings revealed that half of the solicitors found guilty of misusing clients' money were not struck off.
"Tabloid" was originally a trademark for a medicine in tablet form - last night's dose wasn't unpleasant-tasting and certainly wasn't mind- altering. It's the long-term side-effects which worry me.
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