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

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
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Dead cats and Ikea cabinets: Peter Wilby on Dan Hodges's One Minute to Ten

It is done. All done. The book. Written by him. Dan Hodges. Here is the review.

It is done. All done. The book. Written by him. Dan Hodges. About the 2015 election. Published by an established firm, founded in 1935. As an imprint of Gollancz. A left-wing publisher. Which is good. Or is it? He has worked for the Labour Party, the GMB union, Ken Livingstone. The left is in his genes, his blood; it was in his mother’s breast milk. Glenda Jackson – or “Mum”, as he calls her – denounced Margaret Thatcher in the Commons the week she died. Thatcher, that is. She’s dead. Not his mum, the brickie’s daughter from Birkenhead who became an award-winning actress and Labour MP. She’s alive. But now he writes for the Telegraph and Spectator. He voted for Boris Johnson in 2012. And for the Lib Dems in 2014. He left Labour in 2013. He rejoined it in July 2015. He doesn’t know if he’s Labour or not. But he loves Tony Blair. Not Ed Miliband and certainly not Jeremy Corbyn.

The publisher? It is now owned by Penguin and publishes good books. It has published his book. So the book must be good. The book written by him. The son of a brickie’s daughter. But, of course, he knows that isn’t true. A book isn’t good just because the publisher is good. There have to be other things good about it.

Books have been written about elections before, usually with dreary titles such as The British General Election of 2010. They tell of what happened. Why people voted the way they did. When the party leaders became MPs. They are old-fashioned books, with facts, events in chronological order, sourced quotations. They have indexes, footnotes, un-split infinitives, sentences containing verbs. Fusty, backward-looking things.

Hodges’s is a modern, radical, cutting-edge book. Written the 21st-century way. Just. Like. This. He doesn’t tell people what the party leaders said or did. He gets inside their heads. Says what they feel. Reveals their innermost hopes and fears. Reports intimate conversations with their loved ones. Even though he can’t know what happens inside their heads. Or hear them talking to their mothers, wives, brothers.

He has some good stories, though, some really funny. Which he got from Those People Who Spoke to Him, some of whom were in the Salon That Was No Longer a Salon, which those fusty old books would call Ed Miliband’s advisers. Or they were in the League of Extraordinary Advisers, which the fusty ones would boringly call David Cameron’s advisers.

The sources are unnamed but the stories are good. How Cameron, who vowed to keep his family out of the limelight, sort of agrees to a ten-page Mail on Sunday magazine interview with Samantha. Then sort of persuades Samantha to sort of agree. And how Nick Clegg helps Cameron assemble an Ikea cabinet for his (Cameron’s) daughter’s bedroom. And how Labour’s five pledges become 3,250 pledges. And how Nick Clegg comes to be photographed stroking a hedgehog.

And how Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ Australian spin doctor, plans that Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, will commit a “gaffe”, accusing Ed Miliband of stabbing the UK in the back as he stabbed his brother in the back. The “gaffe” diverts attention from Labour’s popular proposal to strip non-doms of tax exemptions. Get people talking about something else, that’s the idea. It’s a dead cat, as in: “Look, everybody! There’s a dead cat!” And when they see a dead cat, people won’t talk about anything else. He can explain all that over ten pages because dead cats are funny. Better still, Lynton’s funny because he’s a Big Dog.

He has psychological insights, too. About how political leadership strips away a man’s personality until he doesn’t know who he is any more. How Ed stabbed David in the back because they grew up in such a political household and stabbing everybody in the back is what politics is about. How Marion, their mum, understands that.

And he has a clock. A clock that ticks on at the end of each chapter. To the election exit poll. He, the Labour man who may not be Labour any more, the son of a brickie’s daughter, can make readers laugh, tug at their heartstrings, ramp up the tension, tell the time. He knows about politics and can expose its cogs and wheels. As the dust jacket says, it’s the inside story. He’s done it. He looks back and asks: “Was it worth it?” And the readers, if they get through more than 380 pages of this, must answer.

Dan Hodges will be discussing “The Personality of Power” with Anthony Seldon and Owen Bennett at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 29 November. Visit:

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror versus the State