Work, but not as we know it
Certain professions are used to seeing their work portrayed in TV dramas. But do they recognise themselves? asks Ashley Davies
Sunday 18 October 1998
And before it has even started, the depiction of police officers in BBC2's new drama series The Cops has wound up members of the force who object to the way it portrays their profession: one trailer shows a cop snorting cocaine, another shows a PC getting urinated on from on high, and there is the promise of tales of greed and corruption. It's all a far cry from Sunhill nick.
There is a core group of professions whose jobs are a constant source of inspiration for television drama producers. Lawyers, doctors, journalists, firemen and vets are on our screens every week, and most of the time their work looks exciting, sometimes to the point of inspiring viewers to enter those professions themselves. But, apart from the fact that the average level of attractiveness and the quality and frequency of the sex is giddily high on the box, are any of these dramas a true reflection of life on the job?
Legal dramas tend to be very popular with those in the legal profession, perhaps because the protagonists rarely lose their cases and are usually extremely sharp and tricky. After LA Law became an institution in the USA, law school applications reportedly rose by 20 per cent, and the Law Society claims This Life has propelled interest in the discipline over here.
David McNeill of the Law Society, which advises scriptwriters, says portrayal of lawyers has come a long way since the days of The Sweeney, when criminal lawyers were in cahoots with the rogues and constantly stood in the way of justice.
Overall, he reckons dramas are good at getting their law "right", but says a lot of young solicitors would be overjoyed to have as much sex as those in This Life. He also says you would not find solicitors talking so openly about their cases as the drama's characters do, and that had Warren been a real lawyer he may not have been struck off for cottaging.
Kavanagh QC is a huge favourite among the legal eagles. Lucy Winskell, a partner with Eversheds in Newcastle says: "It's a hugely enjoyable portrayal of life in chambers: the backbiting, arguments over desk size, sharing offices and fighting over the juicy briefs. All that is very true to life."
But both claim - being on the solicitors' rather than the barristers' side - that Kavanagh fails to show the scale of work which solicitors put into cases, giving the barristers the bulk of the credit. But then they would say that.
"The only one I really have problems with is Ally McBeal," says McNeill. "In reality, women are succeeding because they are good, not because they bat their eyelids and wear short skirts." Winskell initially found the girlie tactics employed by McBeal ridiculous. But she is hooked now and admits that there is one female silk who is "not averse to a little mild flirtation with the judge". Sadly, Winskell cannot vouch for the effectiveness of this method.
Like lawyers, the police are a great source of inspiration for dramas because of the strong narrative element connected to their work. And because the genre has been around for so long, a high level of realism is expected. The Bill has two full-time retired Metropolitan Police officers as advisors and uses Jackie Malton - on whom Lynda La Plante based the Helen Mirren character in Prime Suspect - as a part-time researcher to identify trends in crime-fighting.
Richard Handford, the executive producer of the series, wants the show to be as realistic as possible, down to the last detail. He says: "Our head of costumes frequently goes down to Wimbledon nick to make sure we're up to date on every detail. For example, are they wearing stab vests, are women wearing trousers? We enjoy the reputation of being a realistic police series."
But he admits the pre-watershed scheduling means the level of violence and bad language is well below average, and of course, the clear-up rate is the best in the country.
Naturally, police dramas have to exclude many of the realities of the job because viewers would turn off or fall asleep. Chessington-based PC Paul Haes, who spent ten years on a central London beat and now works in the Chessington area, says: "A policeman's lot these days is based around paperwork."
It seems Frost - to an extent a portrayal of policing in the Seventies - is a big favourite among the force, perhaps because of the maverick detective's open hostility to his superiors and his disregard for procedures. Mark Veljovic, a Detective Chief Inspector with the South West area major investigation team, also points out that investigations in dramas tend to be run by the central figure. "In reality the senior officer is more like a manager of the enquiry, directing operations. There is a lot more team work in real life."
One of Haes's problems with cop dramas - that they show the bobbies purely as bobbies on the job, and not as people with lives - will be rectified soon when The Cops begins tomorrow. Created by World Productions, the people responsible for This Life, the drama delves into the gritty personal lives of a group of police officers.
Casualty-based dramas portray the procedural aspects of hospital life very well, according to medics. Casualty is quite realistic, but the death rate is usually far higher than in reality and the interesting cases that come up in a single episode would take a whole month to occur in real life. And then there's the fascinating personal lives of those involved, especially in series such as ER. Dr Gerald Coakley, a specialist registrar, says: "Everyone seems to be having affairs with everyone else. That isn't particularly realistic. They also play up the personal tensions for dramatic reasons, but usually people get on reasonably well." The one that bugs GPs is Peak Practice, in which the docs happily leap out of bed in the middle of the night to deal with patients' personal problems or search for them on windy hilltops.
Journalists are always getting upset at the way they are portrayed in television dramas. The Polly palaver on EastEnders would never have happened in real life because, although hacks occasionally do shaft their friends, Gita and Sanjay's lack of celebrity would render details of their love life irrelevant.
Jon Slattery, acting editor of Press Gazette, the trade magazine for journalists, says: "On TV you see journalists knifing up their friends and being able to publish anything without fear of libel. And they always make it look like a solo operation, with the reporter running around the country getting great stories. In reality journalists are more likely to be chained to their desks."
Overall, journalists consider Drop the Dead Donkey to be a fairly realistic depiction of themselves. But most also have a sneaking liking for the likes of Lou Grant. In fact, most professions secretly love the way their job is glamorised on the screen. As Slattery puts it: "It's better to be an anti-hero than something bland and boring. It gives us a harder image than accountants."
WHAT THEY WATCH WHEN THEY'RE OFF DUTY
Lawyers like LA Law, Kavanagh QC, This Life
Police like Frost, The Bill
Doctors like Casualty, ER
Journalists like Drop the Dead Donkey, Lou Grant
Lawyers dislike Ally McBeal
Police dislike The Cops (before they've even seen it)
Doctors dislike Peak Practice
Journalists dislike Polly the reporter on EastEnders
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