The latest TV adaptation of a Jake Arnott novel takes viewers back to a notorious Sixties killing

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For David Bowie, everything about crime novelist Jake Arnott's work is hunky dory. The musician comments that, "whenever he's got a new book out, I drop everything, knowing that the next couple of hours are going to be pure gangland bliss."

Like Bowie, TV producers tend to drop everything when a new Arnott novel comes out. Following on from the acclaimed BBC2 dramatisation of The Long Firm in 2004, ITV1 is now bringing to the screen a three-part interpretation of He Kills Coppers, Arnott's next slice of "pure gangland bliss."

Adrian Shergold's absorbing, beautifully-shot drama spans 20 years. Adapted by Ed Whitmore, previously responsible for Hallam Foe and Waking the Dead, the serial kicks off in 1966 London and is set against the backdrop of the celebrations for England's World Cup victory. (Further episodes take place in 1971 and 1985). The period is immaculately recreated – everyone smokes and smears on Brylcreem like it's going out of fashion and, at one point, a character walks past a poster on a wall that says "Drinka Pinta Milka Day".

The drama intertwines the stories of two morally ambiguous characters, career policeman Frank Taylor (played by Rafe Spall) and career criminal Billy Porter (Mel Raido). Taylor pursues Porter across the decades after Porter guns down three police officers, including Taylor's close friend and incorruptible colleague, Jonathan Young (Liam Garrigan). Taylor's distraught reaction on arriving at the scene of the triple murder is hauntingly filmed in slo-mo, to the plangent accompaniment of Dusty Springfield's "If You Go Away".

I'm on the set of He Kills Coppers. It's a chilly morning and we're in a goods yard on the outskirts of Maidenhead where a traditional steam fair stores its attractions during the winter. Porter has been hiding out here with a group of travellers, and we're watching him paint a skull on the side of one of their fairground lorries.

In his caravan between scenes, Spall underlines that Arnott's writing readily lends itself to the screen. "He Kills Coppers is the only book I've ever read in one sitting. I literally couldn't put it down," enthuses the actor, who is also to be seen playing Dennis Heymer, the lover of Frankie Howerd (David Walliams), in BBC4's bio-pic, Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me. "Jake Arnott is a very special writer – he makes it look so easy. He has this beautiful, succinct, sexy style of writing that translates seamlessly to television. My favourite writer is Charles Bukowski, and he and Arnott have the same sparseness and clearness. Arnott is – for want of a better phrase – the best top-end pulp writer there is."

David Boulter, the producer of He Kills Coppers, chips in: "Arnott's writing is so rich. This is not only a thriller, it's a social chronicle that plays out over 20 years. This is a piece that transcends the boundaries of the crime genre. That's a really hard thing to do. But Arnott's characters are so believable that you completely forget you're in a crime drama and are drawn into a human drama instead. That's when it becomes truly compelling."

Arnott was inspired by the real-life case of Harry Roberts. In 1966, he and his accomplices shot dead three Met officers in the "massacre of Braybrook Street" in West London – still the worst peacetime slaughter of policemen in this country. Like Porter, Roberts was a veteran of the Malayan Emergency and used his military training to hide out in Epping Forest. Despite the largest manhunt in British police history, he escaped capture for three months. Roberts is still inside and is now one of the longest-serving prisoners in the UK.

A decade or so after Roberts's crime, Arnott was shocked to hear football hooligans taunting police with the terrace chant, sung to the tune of "London Bridge is Falling Down": "Harry Roberts is our friend, is our friend, is our friend. Harry Roberts is our friend, he kills coppers". The police had by the 1970s become so reviled that Roberts was transformed from cult demon to cult hero.

The film-makers say that, more than 40 years later, Roberts' crime still has the power to shock. "Even today," Boulter reflects, "if someone shot dead three police officers in cold blood and in broad daylight in Shepherd's Bush, there'd be a public outcry. In 1966, an era of far greater deference to the police, it was unthinkable. At the time, the rope had just been abolished, and Roberts was the first murderer not to swing.

"Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary, had to explain to the public why he was not going to hang. Then football hooligans started to chant 'Harry Roberts is our friend,' in order to wind up the police and spark a riot. That moment, when Roberts was turned into a folk hero, really was a low point in our society."

He Kills Coppers also charts the changing nature of our relationship with the police between the 1960s and 1980s. Boulter, who has also produced Prime Suspect, The Forsyte Saga and EastEnders, continues that, "up until 1966, we had had this image of the police as Dixon of Dock Green, the friendly neighbourhood bobby on the beat. All that changed during the 1970s and 1980s.

"The nadir was reached when there was the Battle of Orgreave during the Miners' Strike in 1984 and then the Battle of the Beanfield the following year. That was when the police violently stopped a group of hippies getting to Stonehenge for a summer solstice party. It was a disgraceful day. I've seen the ITN footage from that clash, and it still makes me angry. Women holding infants were pulled off buses and beaten with truncheons. The police went way over the top. On the back of Orgreave, they were under Government orders to stop the peace convoy and stamp out civil disorder. That moment marked the death of the hippie dream.

"By that stage, the police had become an arm of the Thatcherite state. They had also become very militarised. They had dispensed with the theory of trying to control civil disorder peacefully and borrowed the technique from the Hong Kong Military Police of charging at demonstrators on horseback – as they did in the poll-tax riots. That period was when the public really lost confidence in the police. People thought that scenes like the Battle of the Beanfield could never happen in this country. They began to view the police as an army of occupation."

The other aspect of policing that He Kills Coppers highlights is the corruption that became endemic in the Met during the 1970s and 80s. On his first day in the Flying Squad, Taylor is forced by his senior officer to accept a bribe from a gangster. Taylor's boss explains the way it works to the new boy: "We keep the peace and we take a few heavy villains off the pavement every now and then, and the Great British Public sleep soundly in their beds. We deserve a little extra for that, don't we?"

Spall avers that, "in the early 1960s, the British public had an idealised view of the police. But during the 1970s, there was mass corruption throughout the Flying Squad and a load of officers were sacked. Those scandals fundamentally altered our view of the police."

The other area where Arnott excels is in creating immensely plausible characters. He succeeds in conjuring up the coppers and criminals who prowl the smoky Soho clip-joints of the mid-1960s without once straying into Guy Ritchie-style "geezer-land."

The Flying Squad high-flyer Taylor, for example, is not an upright, unimpeachable copper, but a highly questionable figure. As well as accepting bribes, he deceives his supposed best friend Young, steals his girlfriend, a prostitute called Jeannie (Kelly Reilly), and gets him transferred to a post where he gets murdered. As the drunken Taylor rides in a taxi through the jubilant Trafalgar Square crowds revelling in England's World Cup win, he sighs, in the hard-boiled voiceover without which no crime thriller is complete: "They're all singing 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. Do you want a bet? Everyone's happy, delirious. So what's wrong with me?"

Raido, who makes a complex, brooding villain, affirms that nothing is clear-cut in this story of an obsessive, potentially doomed quest for redemption. "There are no 'good' and 'bad' characters in He Kills Coppers – they're all just flawed human beings with their own shortcomings and virtues. One bad act does not define you as a human being. Billy, for instance, is not just a violent psychopath. There is another side to him that has feelings and is very tender towards women and loves art."

The 25-year-old Spall, whose father is Timothy, the star of Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Secrets and Lies and Pierrepoint, says that he is delighted to be appearing in a piece as thought-provoking as He Kills Coppers. "I'm living my dream," beams the young actor. "This is what I've always wanted to do."

The producers say that He Kills Coppers is part of ITV1's drive to produce more challenging drama – a development which Spall applauds. "It's great that ITV1 are doing it," the actor enthuses. "It's something that a few years ago, they wouldn't have done. I was surprised when I heard it was for ITV1. But, then again, in the past couple of years they have made some really brave dramas. Look at Pierrepoint. That was great – although I can't remember who the lead was. Some actor or other!"

'He Kills Coppers' starts on ITV1 at 9pm on Sunday