TELEVISION / The irresistible Force: Policemen have travelled from Dock Green to the dock but their fascination hasn't waned for writers. Jim White reports on an autumn season of drama down the nick

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THREE men who look as if sleep has eluded them for six months are sitting in a room darkened by a cumulus of cigarette smoke. One of them is wearing a uniform, one is dressed like a businessman, the third is wearing the sort of snappy threads sported by foreign exchange dealers.

It transpires that all three are policemen, but none of them looks like the kind of fellow from whom you might ask directions on a dark night. They are discussing criminal goings-on at a London police station.

'But for this scheme to have worked like you are saying it did,' the one in the dealer's outfit is saying, 'everyone in the station would have had to have been in on it.'

'Yes,' says the man in the uniform. 'And? What's your point?'

Twenty years ago fictional policemen - like these in BBC 1's Between the Lines - didn't say that sort of thing on television. They said: 'You're nicked' and the chap in the stripy T-shirt emerging from the rammed Mark II Jaguar would reply: 'It's a fair cop, guv.' Back then corruption was something they had in America, or Argentina, or Spain. Our boys were the thin blue line, the best in the world, and, if the few rough diamonds among them had to resort to the occasional Sweeney-style fist or boot, it was no more than the bad geezers deserved.

In 1992 things are significantly different. As in every autumn, cop dramas litter the television schedules and, as usual, most will follow the Morse code: idiosyncratic loner detective in provincial city doing things his way and getting results. But there is a new presence of dramas abroad which portray the police in a very different way, a way which would have been almost inconceivable 10 years ago, never mind 20. Indeed when Channel 4's Law and Order attempted to ask some uncomfortable questions of the police in 1981 it caused leader writers to fulminate, phone-ins to run hot and the police to dismiss it is nonsense. Now Black and Blue, a Screen One film to be shown on Sunday week, Prime Suspect 2, the follow-up to the Bafta award-winner shown last year and Between the Lines, the 13-part series about an officer investigating corruption in the service, take as their starting point a police force at its best cynically flawed and at its worst corrupt to the core.

'I think people's attitude to the police has changed radically in less than 10 years,' said Peter Norris, the producer of Between the Lines. 'Ten years ago, if you said they were corrupt in a telly drama there would have been howls of protest. It has amazed me that in the media coverage of Between the Lines, right across the board from the Sunday Telegraph leftwards, no one has suggested that we are making an unfair judgement.'

Even the police themselves have remained silent about Between the Lines. Presumably they are sensitive enough to appreciate that a recent history involving the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, the Maguires, the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and Judith Ward does not exactly constitute a firm ground from which to dismiss the show's implicit criticisms as fantasy.

But for one dramatist, television's attitude to the police has not changed quickly or radically enough. G F Newman, author of Black and Blue and, before that the ground-breaking Law and Order, feels that the police are still winning what he sees as a propaganda war. Indeed he is concerned that he is the only person pitching camp against them in that war.

'Our intention when we made Law and Order was to set a blueprint for police drama,' Newman explained. 'How was it that the police had such a pristine media image through the Fifties and Sixties, we wanted to know. How did they manage it? How was it that we were the only country where the police weren't at it?'

Newman does not believe, however, that his modest ambition for his drama, one of the first to present a picture of institutionalised wrong-doing in the British force, was fulfilled. 'It may have cracked some conventional moulds,' he said. 'But the mould it did not break was the deep-seated support of the status quo. People may make bravado noises about corruption, but in their hearts they want to believe in a force protecting them from the marauding hordes. Most drama about the police helps to contribute to a repressive regime. It doesn't confront the problem, it palliates it, makes it more bearable.'

Black and Blue centres on the events in a predominantly black housing estate, where the policing policies contribute to an almost permanent state of unrest. So far, so conventional, but Newman goes further. Every single one of his officers, rude, rotten and racist to a man, are intricately embroiled in all aspects of wrong-doing on the estate. Some are not beyond liquidating their enemies in a manner which would have found favour among the SS.

'I showed the script to a senior policeman contact of mine,' revealed Newman. 'And he said, referring to the scene where they dispose of their victims, 'You've gone too far this time Gordon.' I said but if I was doing a drama about Peru or South Africa or Los Angeles you'd accept it, what's so uniquely pure about British police that makes you think this is fantastic? 'All I can say is', he replied, 'it is nothing within my experience.' '

Newman, who, apart from his own work, believes Serpico was the only accurate portrayal of the police he has seen, is as scathing in his dismissal of other British police dramas as he is of the police. 'I think it's time to judge the institution of the police a failure and my feeling is that it is the duty of people in the media to help us examine the problems. If we say there are a few bad apples, but the barrel is fundamentally sound, where are we going? Whether it's a conscious decision or not, Prime Suspect and Between the Lines are implicitly supporting the status quo. It doesn't mean, of course, they are not highly skilful as dramas.'

Prime Suspect was perhaps the most skilful of all. Although ostensibly about the pursuit of a serial killer it was as much about how inefficiency, caused by political infighting, tripped up the police investigation at every turn. The suspect of the title wasn't clever, he just kept evading the police because they were more interested in covering their own backs and pursuing their own vendettas than tracking down a killer.

'I'm not sure how that can be seen as supporting the status quo,' said Peter Norris.

Norris is also not sure that his role should be to stand shoulder to shoulder with Newman on the media barricades.

'We are not a piece of polemic,' he said of his show. 'We are a drama series, we are trying to do several things at once. Admittedly there is more emphasis on entertainment in our case than in Black and Blue because of the time and slot which we occupy.'

Norris believes it is a 'complex issue as to whether television drama changes minds' and, perhaps because he is a producer rather than a writer, feels that real life is more important in moulding public opinion than art.

'In any case that is not what we set out to achieve. Funnily enough Between the Lines is not a series about police corruption, it's not black and white, it's shades of grey. It's far more interesting as a dramatist to look at why the police are corrupt, to look at the individual morality of the policeman, than to attack the institution. Besides, my adviser tells me he believes the Met is less corrupt than it was five years ago.'

Not surprisingly this is not an analysis to which G F Newman subscribes. 'I keep seeing senior policemen on the telly telling me that they had dealt with racism and corruption. They haven't, they've just gone on media training courses. Until we as a society change, how can they change? They are just a microcosm of the rest of us.'

Oddly, all three dramas centre on a hero strengthened by their brush with the rotten force. Even the polemicist Newman has a policeman hero, a young green-horn, chosen to go undercover in the cynical certainty he will fail, and who, sickened by what he experiences, decides to take on the force as much as the criminals.

'In the Sixites and Seventies you could beat a drum and no one really challenged it,' explained Newman, defending his use of a conventional heroic method. 'Now people will switch off, they won't watch a piece of polemic for its own sake. The drama has to work, to earn its keep. There are certain trends and it's difficult to buck them.'

The most alarming trend of the new police drama is the blase way in which the viewer now accepts some of the ghastly goings-on as the height of verisimilitude. Like Georges Clemenceau's view of America passing from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilisation, the British public's attitude to its police force has gone, in less than a generation, from naivety to cynicism without any interruption by scepticism.

(Photographs omitted)