Tom Sutcliffe: It isn't a crime to laugh at the police

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I found myself in a London robbery-squad office a while ago – not hauled in for questioning myself, but accompanying a teenager who'd been aggressively relieved of his mobile phone a few days earlier. In the event the police had done the sort of job you dream about as a taxpayer – reacting with impressive speed to the 999 call and actually detaining a suspect. Now we were in the office to help out with some of the extensive and exhausting paperwork that attends even the pettiest crime, and as we waited I got an opportunity to compare a real police office with its television equivalent. And the thing that was most striking about it, I think, apart from the untidiness, was that it was a lot funnier than the ones you see on screen.

This came down to two details in particular (we weren't there long enough to completely case the joint). The first was a bit of customisation of the standard-issue desk I was sat in front of – the leading edge of which had been covered with a string of sticky rectangular file labels, each of which had a single letter scrawled on it in felt tip. Together they spelled out the word "A A A R G G H H H H H H H H", running almost the entire width of the desk. The second was a photocopied photograph of two Russian Cossacks in full costume, beneath which someone had scrawled "The Chief Inspector and Deputy at the last Masonic meeting" (I can't remember the precise words but that was the rough gist). And taken together these seemed to me to be reassuringly human touches. If you'd seen them in a drama, I thought, they'd have told you a lot, very quickly, about the frustrations of police work and its releases.

Then I realised that I couldn't really imagine any police drama that would find room for such details. That's partly to do with the visual conventions of television drama, of course. The standard visual language for a police series wouldn't give you a lot of time for drop-in shots of bric-a-brac and clutter, however enriching they were. But it's also because the standard mode for emergency-service fiction is urgency and purpose and comedy is seen as a kind of down-time affair – something to fill the gaps when nothing is happening. In Luther the other night, for example, there was a nice line from a desk sergeant booking in a stupefied miscreant: "We thank you for your custom," he said, like an airline steward on a tannoy. "We know that other police stations are available." For a very brief moment Luther was credible as an account of police procedure. One assumes bored desk sergeants do try to pass the time with a gag or two – a supposition backed up by Channel Four's excellent documentary series Coppers a few months ago. But it couldn't last because Luther isn't a comedy and so had to get back to the business of being stylishly incredible.

The real problem lies in the assumption that comedy should be reserved for comedies – or comedy-drama, a genre that rather self-consciously announces that it's going to be licensed to joke. I saw one the other day – Channel Four's upcoming paramedic drama Sirens, and it perfectly exemplified one of the inherent shortcomings of the form. Based on a successful blog by a real paramedic, which mixed black humour with an insider account of the emotional toll of the job, Sirens has coarsened the original in precisely the way that one might have feared, by treating the comedy and the drama as essentially separate elements. You get funny bits – which are seaside-postcard broad – and then you get dramatic bits, where people cry and look sad. But you don't really get the intimate marriage of humour and professional routine which is the reality most of us know, whatever job we're doing. If you were to judge from most serious television drama you'd assume that people spent most of their lives in solemn crisis, arguing or weeping or in tense emotional stand-offs. But the truth is that people spend an enormous amount of time joking with each other – and that those jokes can tell quite profound truths about what we feel and fear and care about. I can't help wishing that writers would start treating levity with a bit more seriousness.

When Twitter has the question and the answer

Kevin MacDonald's documentary Life in a Day didn't just draw on social networking for its creation (it has been cut together from YouTube-style videos filmed all over the world on 24th July last year) but has also been using them in an interesting way as part of their marketing. Last week MacDonald took part in a networked Q&A session for the excellent eduction charity Filmclub, which helps schools set up after-hours screenings. Twenty-two schools were linked together so that members of Filmclub could put questions to MacDonald directly. And the other night I attended a similar event which linked up several UK cinemas and allowed those attending to file questions to the director by Twitter. Most tweets in advance of the screening, a selection of which were streamed into the venues, seemed to restrict themselves to the equivalent of "Hi Mum" (and, once "Hi Mum" had got through the filtering, "Wow... can't believe they showed my 'Hi mum'"). I can't say, either, that crowd-sourcing produced more incisive questioning than a standard press conference does (the distribution of the gormless and the intelligent being pretty much the same as within the professionals). But the feeling of direct contact with the creators of the film wasn't entirely illusory. It suited Life in a Day, with its essentially democratic message, but imagine how it would go down with an audience of cultist devotees. It won't be long, surely, before someone starts charging a premium for this.

Boccanegra 1, Partick Thistle 0

There are, I think, cultural equivalents to the coccyx and the appendix – that is, vestiges of earlier forms which persist even though the conditions that gave rise to them have long gone. The use of a needle screeching across the grooves of a long-playing record would be one good example – an aural cliché of disruption which you still hear from time to time, despite the fact that growing numbers of the audience will never have encountered this noise in real life. One day, I guess, it will have mutated entirely into symbol and nobody will know why that particular sound stands for rude interruption. I was reminded of another surprisingly tenacious survivor the other night at the Coliseum, where Dmitri Tcherniakov has tricked out his production of Simon Boccanegra with inter-scene titles, presumably in an attempt to clarify the opera's confusing plot-line. These are projected on to the curtain, appearing not all at once but letter by letter, as if on an old-fashioned teleprinter. And again the original source of this trope disappeared years ago. Time was when virtually everybody would have seen a teleprinter in action, if only because they watched the football results at the end of Grandstand, and its association with the idea of urgency would have made perfect sense. These days newsflashes are instantaneous but the old allusion stutters on – still a dependable way of summoning the notion of breaking news. It's almost touching.



t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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