Television Review

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THE MOST striking thing about Mersey Blues (BBC2) was the money involved. Not that there were vast quantities of it about - quite the opposite, in fact, except for a couple of scenes filmed at a drug-dealer's house, where large rolls of notes provided a lurching contrast. But the rest of the time, all this programme could go on about was cash.

Jenny Crowther's fly-on-the-wall documentary series came with boasts of unprecedented access to the Merseyside police force, and, in the first few minutes, it made the claims good with dramatic footage of a dawn raid on a ring of drug dealers. We got shots of policemen strapping on body armour and waiting breathlessly in the freezing cold for zero hour; and then battering down doors and swarming into the suspects' houses - just like you get on TV, except that it was real. The sequence had genuine suspense and excitement; but that was diffused by the voiceover announcing that the operation was costing pounds 20,000 in overtime payments. Why on earth, you wondered, were they telling you that?

The answer was soon obvious. You may have had an old- fashioned, rosy vision of policemen as public servants, and, as it happens, last night's episode did offer some support for that view. Its puzzling title, "For the Queen", is a piece of police slang: working for the Queen is working for nothing, and with crime on the rampage and funding in retreat, working long hours of overtime for the Queen has become routine. (I would guess that the phrase is an example of mordant Liverpudlian irony rather than evidence of wholehearted monarchism.)

But what last night's programme demonstrated was how far the spirit of public service is being eroded by sheer poverty. In one scene, which should be buried in a time-capsule to explain to future generations what went wrong in the Eighties and Nineties, a senior CID officer held a budget meeting at which area commanders were referred to as "the customers". Conversation was dominated by worries about impending cuts and lack of money for overtime - what spare funding there was having been soaked up by a couple of murders. When the drugs squad's new chief tried to make sense of his recently squeezed budget by introducing a shift system, his men complained that it would be impossible to mount proper surveillance. (Presumably, men in plain cars signing time sheets and punching clocks would be a bit of a giveaway.)

Their worries were neatly illustrated shortly afterwards, when the squad set out to trap a drugs courier approaching Liverpool on the motorway. When the suspect was held up by rush-hour traffic, the officers in charge suddenly started to worry about the amount they were spending on overtime, wondering whether they shouldn't send home some of the men already involved and bring on the new shift. Being starved of money is like being starved of oxygen: behaving rationally becomes very difficult.

Television may be overstuffed with police programmes and fly-on-the-wall documentaries, but Mersey Blues has something new: a real sense of the fragility of our institutions, a feeling that we are all skating on thin ice. Watch and enjoy.