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Good cop, bad cop, very bad cop

Stringer Bell, Jimmy McNulty and Deangelo Barksdale
The Wire's protagonist Jimmy McNulty, centre, is no textbook law enforcer

TV show The Wire portrays police, politicians and lawyers working on the wrong side of the law. It's a break from the norm, says dramatist GF Newman, whose own attempt at showing all sides of the story in 1970s Britain caused uproar. But cop shows still have a long way to come.

When I wrote the original Law and Order in the late 1970s there was no model in police drama that showed policemen as other than heroic.

Troy Kennedy Martin had previously portrayed them as stressed and human in Z-Cars, but nonetheless getting their man. Nothing in television police drama ever revealed the criminal's viewpoint.

Law and Order
1970s miniseries Law and Order depicted corruption in the police

Just post-Dixon of Dock Green, as Law and Order was, all criminals were viewed as a sub-human species beneath contempt.

Thirty years on there is still no British model that regularly depicts the reality of policing and policemen. I always argued that there was a certain pathology that drew entrants to the police service, and that it was almost exactly similar to that of the criminal.

Left to their own devices and unchecked, many policemen have availed themselves of corrupt opportunities and easy solutions for keeping up their arrest numbers.

Where do we regularly and persistently see policemen behaving corruptly, or in a racist and prejudiced fashion, repeatedly making mistakes and obsessively covering them up?

COP SHOW HISTORY
Dragnet: US show that ran from 1951, and introduced audience to police terminology and procedures
Dixon of Dock Green: Ran from 1955 to 1976 and featured rose-tinted view of East End policing
Z-Cars: Grittier portrayal of 1960s patrol units
The Sweeney: Made its debut in 1975 and showed Flying Squad detectives tackling violent robbers
Hill Street Blues: Award-winning 1980s US show that set the template for many modern shows
The Shield: Based on the real-life LA Ramparts police scandal, this show finally showed officers behaving with outright criminality

Contemporary TV cops sport the occasional flaw, but for the most part are idealised visions and are invariably too old - don't any of those producers look at policemen in the street, or those fronting news bulletins, and notice how young they actually are?

Perhaps life is so terrifying that the collective consciousness of television is to create and extend a huge and hugely reassuring comfort zone with our popular police drama.

But the strategy is subject to the law of diminishing returns. We're anything but reassured by these old or flabby detectives who are so divorced from reality all the while we see and read about the increasing lawlessness around us.

Are we any less comforted by detectives like DI Pyle, from the original Law and Order, who was "swift" when it came to putting villains away?

Or Jack Regan, from The Sweeney, when he roughed up a suspect? The fact is, most of us are indifferent to the treatment of persistent and parasitical criminals who plague us and constantly strip away our quality of life.

Yet we remain paradoxical creatures who, while trying to get away with what we can often get away with, will invariably turn out to protest at an injustice, regardless.

Z-Cars
Z-Cars was gritty but still tame by modern standards

It is ironic that the BBC is transmitting the long-running cult cop drama The Wire, with central characters who are not merely stressed and flawed representations of humanity, but openly corrupt, incompetent, corner-cutting racists, who will readily move heaven and earth to cover themselves.

Set in Baltimore, The Wire chronicles some cops trying to do a good job, others indifferent, superiors stopping policing with machinations, and corrupt and devious politicians above them.

The show also reveals criminal viewpoints, and not simply as inexplicable aberrations, but with some insight, even sympathy.

I don't believe either presentation is likely to corrupt the youth of today or cause it to swell the ranks of either side. Instead, what this mainstream screening of The Wire might usefully do is influence a whole generation of writers of television to take a more realistic or original view of the genre, as I tried to do back in 1978 with Law and Order.

Then the world was a far more tender and sensitive place, of course, the television-viewing public obviously far more susceptible to corrupt influence.

Murky waters

This because following the furore my drama caused - as much the result of the never-before-seen quasi-documentary style in which the films were shot, as their content - the four episodes were summarily judged, found to be unfit for public viewing and put away for 30 years.

The group I'd most like to see influenced by The Wire is that minority of TV executives which signs off on all commissioning.

As a result they might think it safe at last to venture into similarly murky waters of realism here, rather than relying on imports from the US.

Dixon of Dock Green
Dixon of Dock Green rarely had to beat a confession out of a suspect

How and by what means we get to that point I don't much mind. That we get there and break out of this non-radicalised, non-politicised straightjacket television writers have been encouraged to wear under a surreptitiously repressive and watchful government, is essential to the very survival of drama on the box.

If we can't reflect a reality nearer to the common experience then there really is no hope.

The Wire is a complicated show, one that you have to learn to watch. That in itself is good.

All too often we get lazy and complacent in our viewing expectations, with writers too often stooping to meet those expectations rather than making the audience work, even at the risk of losing them. Persevere and you will be rewarded.

G F Newman's original Law and Order is currently running on BBC Four on Tuesdays at 2250 BST. He is the author of Crime and Punishment, a fictional history of crime. The Wire is on BBC Two at 2320 BST.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Has everyone forgotten Tony Garnett's The Cops? Bleak, real and deeply, darkly funny.
Tim Footman, London/Bangkok

I doubt The Wire will be able to maintain much hold on the UK audience, because of the impenetrably authentic 'hood dialogue, the plethora of throwaway characters, and the fact that it's really only works watched in long sittings - one episode a week following series-long story arcs will test anybody's concentration. And while it's unarguably fine television, the characterisation of women in it is very weak.
Robin Kelly, Leith, Scotland

I was given the DVD boxset for the Wire (all 5 seasons) and I have to say it was one of the most enjoyable shows I've ever watched.
Kientic, Derry

I couldn't agree more with G. F. Newman's comments. If there is a TV commissioning executive around, he or she is yet to raise their head. There was a story that ITV had picked up the rights to The Wire, with the intention of producing a British version of the show - to date though, nothing! However, one British show which does now seem to be unfairly neglected was Tony Garnetts late 90's/early 00's TV series "The Cops". Set in Leeds it was a genuinely discomfiting view of the British Police, a brave attempt to portray them as fallible individuals, only just falling short of the overall ambition of The Wire.
Chris Butler, Bristol, UK

One notable exception from that list is the BBC programme "The Cops" shown from 1999 to 2000. If that wasn't gritty and realistic with its documentary style production I don't know what is!
John, Gateshead, United Kingdom

All of these writers and executives who are pushing for more realism on our screens seem to forget that there are plenty of us viewers who like and want the sanitised version. The news is full of tales of corrupt policemen, bankers and government - relaxing at the end of the day I want to watch something where the good-guys are really good, honest, incorruptible and always get their man.
ElleUSA, Utah (ex-pat)

There may not have been a model of crooked British police in television, but there certainly were several in British movies. My favourite is He Who Rides the Tiger (1965), starring Tom Bell, about the world of a full-time thief. At one point, the "hero" Rayston bungs a detective who has little evidence against him but might cause him a problem. This is portrayed as a professional expense. I also doubt if it's true that television police series never revealed the criminal's viewpoint: I remember for example Villains (1972), an excellent anthology series about different criminals after they escape from a prison van.
John Gammon, Brighton, UK

The Wire is not about good or bad, right or wrong it is about survival and ambition the strong and the weak and should not be classed as a police drama more a story of morality, race and corruption. UK cop shows have long been about the search for right and wrong in a Britain that is losing touch with these ideals and becoming more clouded and the grey areas bigger. The Wire will without doubt shake up mainstream TV and bring the realism of what is happening on streets corners not only in Baltimore but also in the UK into our living rooms, whether we accept the fact or choose to ignore it, is debately as we Brits especially those in the leafy burbs like the idealism of the 'Heartbeat' or 'Lewis' police drama and the way of life that is represented which as any city up and down the country will tell you is completely outdated.
Gavin Roberts, Newport, UK

Without doubt the Wire is a masterpiece. However the one very gritty UK based police drama that has been over-looked is The Cops, which was on BBC in the early 00's, I think it was a Tony Garnett production, there's nothing come close to it from the UK since.
Andrew Grainger, Edinburgh

"Break out of this non-radicalised, non-politicised straightjacket television writers have been encouraged to wear under a surreptitiously repressive and watchful government"? Is this man on the same planet as the rest of us? Hardly a day goes past without the police being portrayed somewhere in the media as racist and incompetent. The last thing most British people want is Mr Newman and his friends imposing more of their anti-police propaganda on us.
Mark, London



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