Grace Dent on TV: 24 Hours in Police Custody is a breathtakingly close vantage point on 'evil'

With a ticking clock showing how long the police have to charge their subject, along with personable coppers and genuinely beguiling stories, this has become one of my top shows of 2014

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The Independent Culture

“Take care of my girlfriend,” said the grown man in retro Seventies child’s galoshes as he was led away by police for questioning.

The man’s “girlfriend”, it transpired, was a surprised-looking inflatable doll clad in a school uniform. She stood upright on a bed upstairs in his grubby home. The man’s chubby legs were  mottled and scabby. The work surfaces in his house were cluttered and sticky. He was, at a glance, a text-book “weirdo”, but that’s not against the law.

The man previously had been arrested for sex offences. On this occasion he was being questioned in connection with attempted child-abductions. A 10-year-old child had reported an incident with a 5ft 4in man, old, balding with white hair and stubble. Not a million miles from the man we saw before us. As Channel 4’s wonderful 24 Hours in Police Custody shows each week, the law has such brief time to fill in so many blanks. In the suspect’s home were sex videos  of the schoolgirl spanking genre. He also owned several adult-sized school uniform items and, most curious of all, an enormous fluffy duck  – around a metre high, with a fake vagina sex-aid attached to its undercarriage. Creepy, yes. But they can’t charge you for it.

The only fact that the viewer knew in the opening scenes of this week’s episode was that the suspect was bloody livid. Incredulous. Can a man not live alone in peace with his school-themed porn titbits and his vagina-duck and blow-up schoolgirl life-partner? He was, he felt, the victim here. And maybe he had a point. Same too for  the lady in last week’s episode who was arrested for breaking into her ex-partner’s home and  removing items. She was flawed, yes. But a criminal? Really? Duck man was released without charge. He went home with ruffled feathers.

When 24 Hours first appeared on my schedule, I didn’t anticipate being so moved or provoked to think by another drab-sounding police documentary. But with the framework of a ticking clock, personable coppers and genuinely beguiling stories, it has become one of my top shows of 2014. Last week’s episode also featured a domestic-violence case, leading us from the raid on the suspect’s house, over garden fences, through the weeping goodbyes of his family, through teary first-person interviews with the suspect in which he cited “women” as the major thing messing up his life. Later, as detectives read out, verbatim, his chain of threatening, murderous text messages, plus several incidents of violent assault, he smirked and gave “no comment”. The victim later dropped the charges as she was still in love.

We’re regularly told that the police are ineffective and lacking in people skills, yet 24 Hours brims with compassion and empathy. It can’t all be “for the cameras”. For the detectives who worked with the battered girlfriend, business was unfinished as far as they were concerned. They vowed to keep in contact. Of course, this week’s episode, pivoting around child abuse and the work of DC Annie Fowler and DC Selena Humphreys, showed some of the most admirable dedication of all. The women had re-arrested a man, who was out on bail for indecently touching a child, after they had searched the contents of his laptop. It was, as we could see, one of the worst jobs in the world. But somebody has to do it.

“Right I’m going to go into what I have found,” said Selena, calmly, in what will prove to be one of the most powerful TV moments of the year.  “A level four is penetrative sexual activity between adults and children.” The man sat, slightly contrite, mainly befuddled, as if he had sleepwalked into the situation and Selena and Annie were merely a wake-up call. “In your live system you have 396 images. In your deleted, 334.” Selena continued, “Level five is sadism and bestiality: in your live system you have 21 images. You also have 124 videos of sexual activity. I have watched every single one of those videos. It shows children as little as three. Is this something you get sexual gratification from?” The man thought for a second: “Yes.”

In a similar manner to C4’s Stinson Hunter documentary Paedophile Hunter, televised the week before, there is something quite breathtaking about such a close vantage point on “evil”.

One of the most poignant parts of the interview was when Annie asked if he had ever wanted to talk to someone about this problem. “Yes,” he said. But she had no real answers to that and neither have we. Where would he go with his problem? His GP? The Samaritans? A vicar? There’s no cogent plan in place for men like this if they choose to raise the alarm. Compassion, en masse, for the perpetrators of child abuse is an untenable notion, but without tolerance and understanding we move nowhere. Personally, I was delighted to watch the man refused bail, taken to court and given 10 years behind bars. Selena and Annie, we salute you.