It's difficult to watch Channel 4's new series 24 Hours in Police Custody and not think of all the cop shows – the US imports, the Nordic noirs and the home-grown police procedurals – which make up our daily diet of drama.
This, we're told, is what police work is really like – no scripted pay-off lines, no suspiciously good-looking district attorneys and not a wooly jumper in sight. And yet, there is still plenty of drama to be found in Luton Police Station. This was eyeballs-glued-to-the-screen fascinating.
Lead interrogator DC Martin Hart said he was a holiday rep in Magaluf before joining the police force and that's not hard to believe. "Can you deal with drunks? Can you deal with 'domestics'? Can you deal with fights?" – it's basically the same job, apparently. While the police are sometimes criticised for behaving like paramilitaries, these detectives were more like estate agents or IT consultants or holiday reps: ordinary office workers whose paperwork just happened to pertain to horrible crimes.
When detectives Hart and Gary Hales took in a suspect in their conspiracy-to-murder investigation – a staple scene in all cop dramas – no one slammed a fist down on the interview table and demanded the truth. Instead, the suspect, his solicitor and the two detectives exchanged genial chit-chat about exercise regimes and West Ham's league chances. The barely discernible good cop/bad cop routine was only a matter of degree, as Hart explained: "What you wanna do is work out where you're gonna be nice nice nice and then where you're gonna be not-so-nice."
That doesn't sound like much, but small talk can be incriminating and these conversations often switched from mundane to melodrama in the flick of a pen nib. The whole process between the arrest and the charge was a high-stakes poker game in which the camera picked up every tell: the bead of sweat on the suspect's brow, the vanity plate on the solicitor's Mercedes, the detective's lucky mug.
Fixed-rig documentaries are now a Channel 4 speciality, and this was the genre at its most slick – an opportunity to marvel at how narratives and characters can be teased out of apparently ordinary footage.
There was a sequence last night in which the charge sheet for every prisoner was read out over the CCTV footage of their holding cells. Some were pacing, some were staring at walls, one was practising yoga and each had a different, untold story. It was pure cinema. They should borrow that for the opening sequence of Law & Order: UK.
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