Astonishing access: remote-controlled cameras follow the officers at Luton Police Station. Photo: Courtesy of Channel 4
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24 Hours in Police Custody: a gripping and pretty nuanced look at how policing works

For this programme, Channel 4’s team used 60 remote-controlled cameras and five roving crews to film what really goes on inside a police station.

24 Hours in Police Custody
Channel 4

You can see why the chief constable of Bedfordshire Police, Colette Paul, said it was a “high-risk strategy” to allow a Channel 4 documentary team inside Luton Police Station (29 September, 9pm). OK, so she and her high-ranking colleagues have almost nothing to lose when it comes to the underlying reputation of the police (Jimmy Savile, Rotherham, Hillsborough, Plebgate . . . the list of failures goes on and on). But even on best behaviour, British coppers tend not to make for a particularly appetising sight, political correctness not yet being entirely in their grasp.

Add to this the fact that Channel 4’s team used 60 remote-controlled cameras and five roving crews to gather their material, and what you have is a recipe for verbal gaffery, showing off and goofing around. I bet Paul lay awake at night worrying that the public would soon be treated to the sight of a bunch of paunchy, middle-aged white men making mother-in-law jokes by the tea urn.

As it happens, in the first film, an officer did refer to a “bit of skirt”. In context, however, it seemed to me only to underline his human side: he and his colleagues were trying to work out – there was real wonderment in their voices – how a man could be driven to murder by his passion for a member of the opposite sex. (The film followed the suspects in the attempted contract killing in 2013 of Atif Ali, with whose fiancée one of the those involved wanted to have a relationship.)

This is a great series: gripping, deeply interesting but also pretty nuanced. Chief among its achievements is the revelatory glimpse it gives us of police officers at work, men and women whose qualities as portrayed here have nothing to do with bullying, and very little to do with pluck. The shouty oi-you’re-nicked clichés so beloved of crime writers are wholly absent. These coppers are quiet, careful, mostly office-bound, stoic in the face of extreme provocation and, above all, spectacularly dogged in the matter of pretty boring evidence (I’m talking about phone records).

“You’re fighting for your life here, aren’t you?” said Martin Hart, a detective, to a suspect whose story seemed not to stack up. That line could have come straight out of The Bill. But he offered it in much the same tone as you might ask someone if they fancy a sandwich.

Each film follows a suspect and those looking after them at the station – solicitors, custody officers, detectives – from the moment of their arrest until the point, 24 hours later, when they must either be charged or released (a short update at the end tells you the outcome of the trial, if it happened). The structure allows the viewer to feast on detail. Some of this is quotidian – the first suspect, Mahboob Baig, having been dragged from his bed at 6.30am, was asked if he’d like regular or Crunchy Nut cornflakes for his breakfast – and some of it is complicatedly procedural. But all of it is weirdly fascinating. And it comes with bathos, too, the serious shading into the ridiculous in about as long as it takes to say Scott & Bailey. “Who wants to squeeze the cock of justice?” joked one relieved detective, wielding a rubber chicken in the moments after their suspect was charged.

The access is astonishing. Baig agreed to the screening of all the footage of his arrest and interrogation even though, following his trial earlier this year, he was acquitted. I can’t think why, but I’m so grateful that he did. Thanks to this, some of the audience will have had cause to remember that what looks like guilt – the clenched jaw, the twitching knee, the changing story – can just as easily be a sign of fear or confusion; and that, in any case, such behaviour counts for very little in a court of law.

Perhaps he simply recognised that the police have a job to do, and that it is a very difficult one. One ordinary day, he found himself at the centre of a high drama; it could very easily have ruined his life and yet, in the moment, it was strangely unhistrionic. There were jokes, there was small talk, there were Crunchy Nut cornflakes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser