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

Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: Jeremy in Jerusalem

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

Theresa May didn’t know if she was coming or going even before her reckless election gamble and the Grenfell Tower disaster nudged her towards a Downing Street exit. Between the mock-Gothic old parliament and the modern Portcullis House is a subterranean passageway with two sets of glass swing doors.

From whichever direction MPs approach, the way ahead is on the left and marked “Pull”, and the set on the right displays a “No Entry” sign. My snout recalls that May, before she was Prime Minister, invariably veered right, ignoring the warning and pushing against the crowd. Happier days. Now Tanking Theresa risks spinning out of No 10’s revolving door.

May is fond of wrapping herself in the Union flag, yet it was Jeremy Corbyn who came close to singing “Jerusalem” during the election. I gather his chief spinner, Seumas Milne, proposed William Blake’s patriotic call to arms for a campaign video. Because of its English-centred lyrics and copyright issues, they ended up playing Lily Allen’s “Somewhere Only We Know” instead over footage of Jezza meeting people, in a successful mini-movie inspired by Bernie Sanders’s “America” advert.

Corbyn’s feet walking upon England’s mountains green when the Tories have considered Jerusalem theirs since ancient times would be like Mantovani May talking grime with Stormzy.

The boot is on the other foot among MPs back at Westminster. Labour’s youthful Wes Streeting is vowing to try to topple Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green at the next election, after the Tory old trooper marched into Ilford North again and again at the last one. Streeting’s marginal is suddenly a 9,639-majority safe seat and IDS’s former Tory bastion a 2,438-majority marginal. This east London grudge match has potential.

The Conservatives are taking steps to reverse Labour’s youth surge. “That is the last election we go to the polls when universities are sitting,” a cabinet minister snarled. The subtext is that the next Tory manifesto won’t match Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees.

Nice touch of the Tory snarler Karl McCartney to give Strangers’ Bar staff a box of chocolates after losing Lincoln to the Labour red nurse Karen Lee. Putting on a brave face, he chose Celebrations. Politics is no Picnic and the Wispa is that McCartney didn’t wish to Fudge defeat by describing it as a Time Out.

Police hats off to the Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, who broke ranks with her predecessors by meeting the bobbies guarding parliament and not just their commanders. Coppers addressing Dick as “ma’am” were asked to call her “Cress”, a moniker she has invited MPs to use. All very John Bercow-style informality.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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