How do you go about making a police drama that will stand out in today’s saturated market, where every second show seems to deal in coppers and crime? The answer, according to the inimitable television scriptwriter Paul Abbott, is by making it as exhilarating, ballsy and as filthily funny as you can.
His new show No Offence, which starts on Channel 4 this month, tells the story of a motley crew of coppers at a Manchester police station, and plays something like an X-rated version of dearly departed police soap The Bill. Meanwhile, at its core it boasts a close-to-the-knuckle humour and raucous humanity reminiscent of the early years of Abbott’s most famous series Shameless – even though its characters are notionally more professional.
“When I first read the script I wasn’t sure what it was,” admits Alexandra Roach, the rising Welsh actress, last seen as student-cum-outlaw Becky in comic-book thriller Utopia and now playing nervous detective sergeant, Joy Freers. “It is a drama in that serious cases have to be solved and we are all good at our jobs in different ways, but then the characters are quite big and sometimes funny and a bit off. In that way I suppose it is like Shameless with the Gallaghers.”
We’re sitting in the Crossley House Youth Centre in Manchester, a cavernous redbrick building, doubling as the No Offence police station, and thus the beating, if slightly tattered heart of the show. Every so often shouts drift up from downstairs where an apparently top-secret celebratory scene complete with cheers and jeers is being shot. For Roach, who comes from a police family, it’s that camaraderie that gives the show its authenticity.
“All my family were in the police – my dad was, my brother still is and my sister has just left,” she says. “So, when we first started filming I was really worried about how we’d get that right. But I think it’s developed really well.”
She’s right. From the opening episode you believe these people work together, from Roach’s shy Freers to Will Mellor’s laddish DC Spike Tanner: there’s an intimacy to the dialogue and a shorthand to the way they interact that grounds the show amid its more OTT comedic moments. “It’s a drama with strong comedy tones going through it,” is how Mellor describes it. “I’d say as it progresses it’s more Cracker than Shameless because it doesn’t pull its punches. This isn’t a glossy cop show, it’s quite hard hitting.”
It’s also powered by a magnificent lead performance from Joanna Scanlan, best known as The Thick of It’s passive-aggressive civil servant Terri Coverley, who here plays her antithesis: Detective Inspector Viv Deering, the head of the department, a bottle-blonde, straight-talking force of nature in red heels.
“I’m never going to say that she’s unhinged – I’d let you be the judge of that,” says Scanlan. “She is pretty out there though, extravagant in the way she goes about things and bold in how she speaks. She’s not eccentric because that makes her sound quaint and there’s nothing quaint about her but she’s also not embarrassed by her own behaviour.”
It’s clearly a dream role, and Scanlan seizes it with both hands. “I’m quite shy and don’t really go about life like Deering but there must be a part of me that is quite like that, a bit that doesn’t care what anybody thinks. To play this character who is in her early fifties, as I am, and who is so full of energy and [grabbing at life] was just really lovely.”
It’s that energy which defines the show: the opening episode sets out at a frenetic pace and then keeps upping the ante as Abbott erects an over-arching plot about a serial killer while mixing in numerous cases of the week, both serious and rip-snortingly funny. On top of that, he manages to make us care about the tangled relationships of this disparate team – and that is one of the show’s other great strengths.
We’ve seen so many police procedurals over the years that we can count the clichés in our sleep: they mess up, they pull it back, they crack jokes but underneath they care, there’s a naïve beat cop and a mouthy female PC, a wisecracking DC and a DS who’s good police under those nerves. No Offence employs all of these and more, yet somehow it still feels vibrant and fresh largely because of the groundwork Abbott has put into his characters. Thus when impetuous DC Diana Kowalska demonstrates her soft side in befriending the victim of a horrific crime, it’s both expected and perfectly played. We know that she’s the sort of cop who gets over-involved but instead of rolling our eyes at the cliché we embrace it because her character has been so convincingly drawn.
Similarly Deering’s rants at her team have been the stuff of every cop show since The Sweeney (itself sent up in Life on Mars) yet they too work, partly because it’s rare to see a middle-aged woman bollock people with such verve and partly also because of Scanlan’s commitment to the part.
“Paul’s mantra was always, ‘if you ever got robbed or attacked, these are the people who you want to turn up at your door’,” says Martin Carr, the show’s executive producer. “It sits 10 degrees left of reality but it’s also grounded in truth.”
In fact, the show No Offence most resembles is cop-free, a jet-black Nineties workplace comedy-drama: Jed Mercurio’s Cardiac Arrest. Like that hospital-set series, No Offence is unafraid to show the flippant side of a serious job and take compelling risks with tone, wrong-footing you so you find yourself laughing at wrong moments and crying when you didn’t expect to care.
“Things happen and they’re not meant to be funny but you laugh because that’s human nature,” says Irish actress Elaine Cassidy, who plays Kowalska. “No Offence works because it’s not formulaic. It pushes the envelope. It feels like real life.”
‘No Offence’ starts on Tuesday 5 May at 9pm on Channel 4