Grace Dent on TV: Confessions of a Copper harks back to a time of sexism and racism... but at least you could smoke in the office

The show is a fabulously vivid excursion down memory lane, depicting Britain before human rights and wimmin’s libbers spoiled it

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The Independent Culture

I was asked on to a light ITV political debate show recently.

In my pre-interview, the researcher floated topics past me, one of which was: “Do I think things were better in the good old days?” One of my fellow guests on the show was housewives’ favourite Nigel Farage from Ukip. Clearly “the good old days” question was being floated to cajole Nigel into notions of a glorious bygone Blighty that could be restored under Ukip’s no-nonsense hand.

The good old days – the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties – were the days before political correctness ran amok and ruined everything. The days when white people were free to smear their faces with dark paint, then tap dance on prime-time telly; a time when schoolgirls were viewed by over-fifties males largely as a running buffet, when anything foreign – tikka masala, reggae, Serge Gainsbourg, ham croquettes – was viewed with suspicion. Here was a glory age in which being gay – or owning shoes that passers-by might consider “a bit gay” – was a demand for a hiding.

I am just old enough to remember the good old days. I laughed trying to sum up to the researcher – a young woman 20 years my junior – the billion nigh-on imperceptible freedoms that a working-class woman would find omitted in the “good old days”. Of course, I could have just showed her this week’s Confessions of a Copper on Channel 4, which was a fabulously vivid excursion down memory lane, depicting Britain before human rights and wimmin’s libbers spoiled it.

Confessions had a simple yet intoxicating formula: allow retired police officers to reminisce about past times – when taking hair strands from a suspect’s bobble hat and placing them at the crime scene, for example, was “just what went on”. Never mind if the rascal hadn’t done this crime – he was bound to have done one somewhere. There were no cameras in police cells. Beatings were a necessary manner of dispatching justice and extracting “truths”. In times of crisis, we heard, it was the done thing for officers to retreat to the pub and merge their notebooks to conjure up a less tricky version of events.

Hardened case: ‘Confessions of a Copper’ heard from Stephen Hayes

One ex-copper remembered a maverick colleague who gave suspects electric shocks and shoved their heads under water. All this before we moved on to the “good old days” of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group, the 1979 death of Blair Peach during an anti-Nazi demonstration, the botched Stephen Lawrence investigation, and the “diversity training” that our coppers had all done, but could remember next to nothing about. It was, they seemed to feel, just a tiresome lecture on stuff they weren’t allowed to say anymore.

As I watched it, I didn’t feel angry. I felt, as I often do, that here was a generation on its way out that is not worth bickering with or trying to re-educate at this late stage. A bit like that Christmas dinner with the uncle who’s had too much whiskey and moved on to his time-worn “rivers of blood”-style soliloquy. It’s often easier to pour a large Baileys and let the badness float over your head.

Worryingly, I felt exactly the same on that light ITV political show as I sat beside Nigel Farage and our conversation began with the uproar over Mike Read’s calypso, which we both agreed had worked to Ukip’s advantage, as Read’s harmless persona and terrible fake Trinidad accent decried with much liberal bleating simply played into the hands of Ukip sympathisers. But then Farage – currently one of Britain’s most exciting political prospects – posited that there was nothing wrong with blacking up, either. It’s difficult to know, in this position, how to begin communicating the multi-layered crassness of “blackface”. It felt as if any shorthand answer I gave would be evidence to his supporters of how things really were better in the good old days, back when “thinking” wasn’t so in vogue. 

On Confessions of a Copper, female officers remembered the traditional female officer initiation in the Sixties and Seventies of having their knickers pulled down by a group of male colleagues and their bare bums stamped with the station rubber-stamp. The arrival of women on the workforce had been greeted with vocal derision. Women were, it was thought, no use. They should be at home making their husband’s dinners. My mind wandered back to DC Annie Fowler and DC Selena Humphreys from last month’s Channel 4 documentary 24 Hours in Police Custody, patiently and unflinchingly logging hundreds of hours of explicit child porn to secure convictions. But here, on Confessions, we remembered the good old days, where female officers put up with being “stamped” or groped, as complaining would only play into the hands of the men who were so angry that their space was being encroached upon, they’d take any excuse to show up women as incapable. It wasn’t all bad though. There was next to no paperwork and you could smoke in the office. But I’ve had a think about the good old days. We really are better off now.