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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis