Watching the detectives

A 1982 rape interview shamed the British police. No wonder they don't want it shown again.

THERE ARE some images in our collective televisual past that are burned in the mind. In 1982, when I was 19, I saw a disturbing and raw documentary about Thames Valley Police that always stayed with me. Three male detectives interrogated a woman who reported that she had been raped earlier that day. Its brutality and cold-heartedness caused a sensation. The interview room, with its bland fluorescent light, cheap chairs and tables; its cast of characters sitting talking, hardly moving, hid possibly the most savage encounter between police and public ever recorded on television. The detectives involved were vilified, rape suites were set up almost overnight. Thames Valley was the target, but the detectives had been taught this approach at police college and interviews like this were happening everywhere.

When, earlier this year, I was asked to produce a series for Channel 4 on the history of the police, I thought of that sequence. It would be a key ingredient in telling the story we wanted to tell. As I began to look into it, it became clear that the film was still, 18 years later, a political hot potato. Within the BBC, I was told that it could never be shown, that Roger Graef, the film-maker, had a veto, that Thames Valley had an unprecedented veto - and that the BBC had placed it under lock and key, with a file note that it could never be shown again.

I was making a historical series, the sequence was an integral part of our story of policewomen who were energised by the film. Lynn Harris, a still-serving Derbyshire detective who investigated rape allegations in the early Eighties, had told us on camera: "I'll never forget sitting and down and watching it. I was ashamed to say that it was part of the police service. But then I only had to look back and think, we do this, we are like this."

I was told by Thames Valley that permission had never been given, and never would be. Not even the BBC itself could use it in a Police Night retrospective in 1993. But eventually we convinced Charles Pollard, the current Chief Constable, to hear our requests, and we in turn agreed to interview him about the impact of the film on his force. Suddenly, the BBC agreed to release the material.

Then the calls started - from the detectives who had conducted the infamous interview. Thames Valley tipped me off: the news had leaked to the original investigating team, now mostly retired. I received angry calls from one officer telling me he had been forced to move house following its broadcast. Another detective threatened legal action if we tried to use the clips. I checked with Roger Graef. He confirmed that the officers had seen the programme before transmission and were fully aware of the content.

Thames Valley's robust view in 1999 was that their officers deserved no defence. C4 stood firm. The clips would be in the film. I just had to make sure that the victim was not in any way recognisable. Luckily, Charles Stewart, the original cameraman, had been very careful. After four months, I finally got hold of the master tape.

The scene still has the power to shock. Even more so today, when we are used to TV docu-cops never being asked difficult questions. In retrospect, even in its horror, the brutal Thames Valley interview scene has a disturbing honesty that the PR-drilled "PC Crimewatch" would now never let slip under his or her guard.

This film signalled the end of the police's relationship with television. Now, in the vast majority of police series, we see a sanitised version of events - allowed, managed by a service that felt it was burned so dramatically 19 years ago. That is why this controversial scene has its place in a historical series about our police.

The writer is producer of `Coppers: a Job for the Gentle Sex', to be screened on Thursday at 9pm,

on Channel 4

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