Out of line.
Posted on May 6, 2019
I write this with some trepidation but…..I don’t get the thunderous, ubiquitous acclaim for Line of Duty.
I’m not going to pretend that it’s not perfectly watchable stuff. It’s very well acted, slickly produced and takes us, as good drama and fiction should, into worlds that we don’t know and which we find both fascinating and scary. I don’t know any senior policemen, in fact I’ve only ever met a few coppers, but I’m willing to believe that their portrayal on screen has some connection to real life – although if their representation is as accurate as those of teachers on Waterloo Road, then I’ll take that back immediately.
I know that there are villainous people out there who trade in guns, drugs, explosives and people. As a citizen, I am grateful that those charged with obstructing such people experience success in their endeavours. I hope they continue to do so. The notion of an undercover, embedded investigator is the true stuff of drama and Jed Mercurio’s show provides plenty of moments of tension and terror. What’s more, it keeps us guessing until the end about the identity of the true villain………kind of. It’s a pretty good cop show but it doesn’t half clank along.
Take the interviews. Great wodges of the blooming things – and you’d better be paying attention. All the things that drama is supposed to do – i.e. show you what is happening so that you can make intelligent connections and conclusions in the knowledge that some of what you see may be misleading – is told to you. This approach draws on two literary and dramatic techniques, both of which are pretty desperate measures.
The first is beloved of novelists going back at least a couple of centuries and it the deus ex machina device. Translated from the Latin, the term means ‘god from the machine’. Dickens loved the ruse. Destitute, forlorn and abandoned by all? Thank goodness there was a forgotten benefactor in a distant land, all this time looking out for you and accumulating pots of money that will now dig you out of the mire. Hours to go before the charges of murder and corruption will land you in clink? Fear not – a quick sprint to the house of a key player (thank goodness she was in!) to uncover the location of a secret recording and, hey presto, the true culprit’s gaff is blown.
The second device, connected to the first, was beloved of pot-boiler cop shows in the 60s and 70s. When all seemed lost, with the defendant facing, in most cases, the ultimate penalty, the heroic cop or attorney revealed their own deus ex machina and with one bound, the apparent rascal was free. Had we, as the audience, missed something? We had not. In the final scene, all the good guys and the traduced suspect would mill around in the hero’s office and he (and it would definitely be ‘he’) would reveal what everyone else had missed, explaining and telling what the unfolding drama had failed to show us. Cue admiring laughter, back-slapping and the credits.
Back in the Line of Duty glass rooms, one can only admire the breath-taking slickness of the investigators and the interviewers. Ducks firmly in rows, power-point slides clearly arranged and audio recordings cued up to perfection – and that’s before rattling off more acronyms relating to legislation and procedure than any one actor could reasonably be asked to remember. And all set up, it seems, in a matter of days, possibly hours. I’ve sat in plenty of disciplinary interviews in my time and can only gawp with true envy at the fluency, persuasiveness and unflappability of all involved.
Yes, I know. It’s drama not true life and no one wants to see people umming and erring their way through the tedious paper flapping and note scrawling of the real thing. But, if anything, this goes to the heart of my problem with Line of Duty.
I’d love to believe that the police force, especially at the very highest level, was peopled with dedicated, intelligent, quick-witted and brave individuals whose attention to detail was so meticulous that nothing slipped under their radar. I’d be delighted to know that anti-corruption officers worked late into the night, even disturbing their family and personal relationships, to get to the truth. I’d even be content to fancifully imagine that those at the very top had some working connection with the foot soldiers who do the daily slog. Regrettably, we know that none of that is true.
In real life when cops go undercover, they accidentally sleep with people, father children and then run away. They infiltrate organisations and families of those who want real investigations into the shortcomings of the police. What’s more, in real life that little army of dedicated coppers who buzz round the office in Line of Duty probably have to drive an Uber to make ends meet, never mind slipping in the extra hour’s homework so that the gaffer can sort the problem. In real life, crimes don’t get solved and burglaries aren’t investigated. Yet we seem to have been collectively gulled into admiring a TV programme portraying a force characterised by dedication, skill and bravery at every turn. If part of the function of fiction is to act as a counterpoint to reality, Line of Duty certainly manages that.
Like I say, I’m expecting pelters for this. Next week, I’ll probably return to the real life of politics. Huh. If Jed Mercuiro did politics, he’d probably cook up some daft plot about the Defence Secretary, having to hand in his phone before a meeting of the national Security Council and then still leaking what was said to a newspaper and then getting sacked by the Prime Minister and then saying he never said or done nothing. As if.