If Line of Duty proves anything – other than no one knew what a “chis” was before last Sunday – is that we all love a good cop drama on the telly.
After all, 9.6 million people can’t be wrong, and that’s how many tuned in to the opening episode of the latest exploits of AC-12, and the welcome return of Martin Compston as DC Steve Arnott et al.
I was one of them – which, to be honest, is a bit of a change in my viewing habits. You see, I’ve never particularly been a huge fan of police dramas.
This is despite them being on the backdrop of my life since as long as I can remember.
I kid you not, one of my earliest memories is of a fuzzy black and white picture with a policeman talking to me before saying: “Evening all” and giving me a wee salute. Yeah. I’m old enough to remember Dixon Of Dock Green.
Hushed for Z Cars
Couldn’t tell you anything about it, other than it gave rise to playground jokes like where does Dixon Of Dock Green live? 999 Letsbe Avenue. Okay, it was funny when you were eight.
Mum and dad liked their cop shows, though. We were always hushed when Z Cars came on and I can still hear the “dee-dee-dee” theme tune in my head to this day as the opening credits rolled.
Said credits also showed the white lines of the road rolling along under a police car – Z Cars, geddit – zoomed along. Even as a kid I wondered why it never hit anything if it was driving along the dotted line in the middle of the road.
Again, I paid scant regard, usually more interested in reading the latest book of Asimov short stories I got from the library. Always did find robots more interesting than watching policemen going about the dull routine of police work.
I can vaguely remember one Z Cars episode about the firearms team (this was into the 70s and a bit more gritty by then) having to shoot someone who had armed themselves with an air rifle. This was when one cop said: “that’s just a toy” and the SWAT team bloke said: “In the hands of a professional it’s a deadly weapon.”
Launched Brian Blessed’s career
Seeing as how my dad had given me an air rifle for my birthday (think he was trying to get me outdoors more) it was a message I took to heart and never went near the thing again.
I wouldn’t say Z Cars was the Line of Duty of its day, more The Bill (yaaaaawwwnn). But it must have been doing something right, seeing as it ran from 1962 to 1978. And as a bonus it launched the career of Brian Blessed, long before he bellowed the iconic line “Gordon’s alive???!!!!”.
It also spawned Softly, Softly. Ahh, Stratford Johns and Frank Windsor. My mum and dad were riveted by this step up to the world of CID and detectives, with more hushing of pesky kids. I was equally riveted, having stepped up to the world of Philip K Dick and Robert Heinlein by this time.
Finally, a cop show came along that did demand my attention… The Sweeney. This was the biggie, the properly gritty drama that gave the world the immortal partnership of Regan and Carter. It made John Thaw and Dennis Waterman stars – even if Dennis didn’t write the feme toon, or sing the feme toon.
It was must-watch telly for teens in the 70s, so we could all gather round and do the “did you see the bit where…” which ranged from car chases to fisticuffs to a bit of risqué stuff. It also set the template for cop shows to come. It was fast, furious, and had what we thought was a more realistic take on hard cops dealing with hard criminals and paying scant regard to the rule books.
They made scowling de rigueur
Then we had The Professionals. Bodie and Doyle made perms, leather jackets and perpetually scowling de rigueur, along with driving at high-speed through empty cardboard boxes. (How did they know they were empty, I always wondered? What if they hid one that was full of, I dunno, lead pipes?)
It might have a hard man pairing, like The Sweeney, but it was utterly detached from any reality to the point of being comic-book nonsense at times. Not even Hudson the Butler from Upstairs, Downstairs could save it – never did buy into Gordon Jackson as a spy chief.
After that, there were few cop shows that could capture my attention. I had high hopes for Juliet Bravo, thinking it might be an antidote to the machismo high-octane offerings. It turned out to be more of a soap than police drama, though. (See The Bill above).
That said, I really enjoyed the first few series of Prime Suspect. Helen Mirren put in a stunning turn with some brilliant, thought-compelling scripts. Then it turned into a formulaic borefest.
Gripped by Life On Mars
There was one police show that I enjoyed in the late 80s, called Star Cops. Even if you don’t remember it, the clue is in the title. It was about police on the new colonies in the Solar System. For me, it was more about the science fiction than the sleuthing. A side note here, the head honcho always had piece of kit with him called Box. He spoke to it, it answered questions, turned things on and off. That’s right. An obscure 80s show predicted the Echo and Alexa.
I suppose the next big police show that properly gripped me – and the rest of the nation – was Life On Mars. But then I suppose that fits the science-fiction bill too, what with the time travel.
It was funny, compelling, moving and brilliant. Especially John Simm as the mystified Sam Tyler, but particularly Philip Glenister as the iconic Gene Hunt. Regan, eat your heart out.
Which brings us full circle to today and Line Of Duty. It’s the twists and turns, the shocks and the thrills… and the acronyms. So many acronyms, you almost need to watch it with a crib sheet.
So, to get you started, a chis is a Covert Human Intelligence Source. Or, as Gene Hunt would have it, a snitch.