Television - Andrew Billen on a gripping account of postwar policing

"Note particularly," said the sociologist called in by Scotland Yard in the early 1970s, "the emotive use of the word 'pig'." But not even the dimmest copper in the room could have failed to, since the agitprop that the professor was reading contained more pork product than a year's press releases from Wall's. The bearded one was, thankfully, the only sociologist we heard from in Channel 4's excellent documentary series, Coppers (Thursdays, 9pm). The producer, Guy Davies, has decided to tell the story of the postwar decline in the English bobby's reputation by interviewing the bobbies themselves. They tend to sit in warmly lit retirement next to whisky decanters, and you could sit down and listen to any one of them for hours, your assumption that self-reflection is a disciplinary offence in the force slowly evaporating.

I blame Dixon of Dock Green for my prejudices about PC IQ. George Dixon was a nice bloke, but you would never accuse him of having an analytical mind suited to assessing change in a multicultural society - which may be why he was still taking his sergeant exams at the age of 70. Dave Brady, who served in the Met even longer than Jack Warner served in the BBC, had harsher words for him. "He could best be described," he said, "as a wanker. If Dixon had been true to life, Dartmoor would have been empty." But although Dixon was a myth, he was not all that much of a myth. The decline in British policing really has mirrored (or been mirrored by) the descent from Dock Green to Tony Garnett's Cops.

It all began, the first instalment argued, with Z-cars - the pandas, not the television series. The police were taken off their beats and put behind steering wheels. Not only did Joe Public miss his contact with the policeman on the street, he began to fear the occasions he would run across him, which all too often was on the hard shoulder, with a breathalyser in the officer's hand. Joe's long-haired son, meanwhile, might very well be on the receiving end of a vigorous getting-to-know-you session at a student demo. But the lads from Dock Green nick were equally nervous of the public. Armed, following the murder of three of their number by Harry Roberts in 1966, it was only a matter of time before "Evenin' all" was replaced by the non-traditional greeting they extended to Stephen Waldorf, a blameless graphic designer shot 14 times driving down a London street one night 16 years ago.

This week's episode concentrated on the police's relations with minorities, a category into which, by the late 1960s, students, strikers and miners all fell. A newsreel covering the Grosvenor Square riot of 1968 reported that the police had earned "the highest possible praise for their restraint in the face of brute force". Brian Hilliard, an inspector in 1968, pointed out that, au contraire, there was nothing the average copper liked more than getting home and seeing himself fighting on the TV news. The Special Patrol Group found a special home for this mentality. "I've never heard anyone have a good word to say about the SPG," said a shaggy-haired activist from Brent Law Centre, who turned out to be a young Harriet Harman. But the police paid for their excesses. Armed and overpaid by Thatcher, they became the state's shock troops in the 1984 miners' strike and the inner-city riots of the mid-1980s. In a remarkable climax to this week's programme, reconstructed through news archives, police radio transmissions and the memories of two brave policemen, Dick Coombes and Miles Barton, Keith Blakelock's killing was played out narratively against a pulsing backbeat. Structurally, Coppers may appear sober and over-analytic. In practice it is a horrifying account of a national tragedy.

Police work is also gripping Channel 5 viewers. Autopsy, an American HBO cable show re-voiced for Britain, has been drawing 1.5 million viewers late on Tuesday nights, a 15 per cent audience share. The programmes, built from a mixture of police and news film and (unlabelled) reconstructions, begin with a corpse on a slab. Just as a white-coated figure, resembling Colonel Sanders, is about to incise its throat, the words "The dead speak" appear. And they do, they do, they positively babble. The BBC would make a single story of forensic detection last an hour. ITV would take one case per ad break. Autopsy throws murder after murder at us until we are dizzy with clumps of hair, DNA, knife wounds, "skin slippage", pools of blood and cactus spines in the abdomen (don't ask). But at least Autopsy knows when to vary its act. This week's episode featured the horrifying murder of a wild elk: the antlers spoke. Forensic examination of Autopsy reaches the following conclusions. First, don't be deluded: HBO is not all Larry Sanders and Sopranos. Second, if in doubt, charge the wife. Third, maybe it's time to stop accusing Channel 5 of showing nothing but sex. It obviously has a nice little line going in late-night violence, too.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?