Television (Review): The thin blue line between fact and fiction

WITH police dramas getting more like documentaries and the documentaries getting more like dramas, it will soon be impossible to tell the two apart. There were several moments in The Nick (C4), a three-part film about policing on the freshly notorious Seacroft estate in Leeds, that reminded you of NYPD Blue; the cleaner on the stairs, labouring away beneath the bobbies' feet, the awkward swing of the camera in pursuit. But for the source of the desk sergeant's morning briefing you had to go further back, to Hill Street Blues. 'It's rather busy at the present time,' he said. 'Let's get the jobs dealt with and watch your backs, please.'

It wasn't the only moment when you were conscious that television, either as influence or conspicuous presence, might have altered what you were seeing. The construction of this first episode even included that indispensable component of police procedure, the arrival of the rookie - in this case a young constable who was briefed with slightly implausible tenderness. 'People around here are the salt of the earth,' said his beaming superior, delivering a short lecture on fortitude in social adversity that would not have disgraced a miners' gala. 'Those people out there are our customers,' he concluded, just to hammer the point home to the audience.

The feeling that everyone was alert to the PR implications returned later, after the arrest of a man wearing stockings and suspenders and nothing else. You somehow felt that this would give rise to more than some stifled giggling and a terse 'Rather an unusual case', but if there were jokes, they were told out of earshot of the cameras. Even members of the public seem to feel the obligation to perform. A young woman tremblingly recounting the details of a bank raid started to say 'They had balaclavas on', before catching herself and delivering something a bit more dramatic - 'They were balaclava'd up,' she said solemnly, as if she wanted to get the language right.

But if The Nick occasionally seemed a little stiffly self-conscious, it was also telling about the frightening disproportion between effort and results involved in much policing - a rather thankless branch of child care on the evidence of this first episode. One bored child with a can of spray-paint tied up two experienced officers for hours, an entirely worthwhile investment of effort if he never does it again, though the chances of that seemed a little remote. It was, unfortunately, far more likely that he will have made a reputation among his unruly peers by getting on the telly.

The X Files (BBC 2), a 'cult' American series according to the Radio Times, is built around the investigation of crimes that appear to defy conventional logic. These are consigned to the X files of the FBI, where they are then assessed by 'Spooky' Mulder, a figure of fun for career-minded FBI men because of his inclination to identify extra-terrestrials as prime suspects. But, despite some self- deprecating humour from 'Spooky' himself, the series is really funny because of the blithe way in which it applies the forensic pleasures of a studiously rational genre, the detective thriller, to entirely ludicrous storylines.

A serial killer has been removing his victims' livers ('no cutting tool used') and always strikes in apparently sealed rooms. Identical crimes have been taking place since 1903, all linked by identical fingerprints. Of course] It must be a genetic mutation which has produced a creature that feeds on bile, hibernates for years at a time and can dislocate his entire skeleton to squeeze through heating ducts. Why couldn't those stiffnecks in head office see that? Clearly another triumph for the deductive method.

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