Good cops, bad cops

Television - Andrew Billen on a pair of police dramas

Naturalism, as I have probably observed before, is television's highest style of all. Its lies are the larger for the way it tricks you into thinking you are observing reality. This, I suspect, is why The Cops (9pm, Mondays, BBC2) so inflamed the Manchester and Lancashire police last time round that they refused to have anything to do with this second series. On The Viewing Room (11.20pm, same night, same channel), Tony Garnett, its executive producer, was to be heard explaining patiently to two affronted coppers that he was not making a factual programme. Besides, he explained, "there is no the truth".

Garnett, who in the late 1970s made Law and Order with G F Newman and in the early 1990s Between the Lines, has been the market leader in dodgy policemen for 20 years. He did not deny that his "truth" was a political one. It was not fortuitous, for instance, that a death in custody provided a prime plot motor for the first series of The Cops. The frequency of such deaths was "a national scandal". It is usually Garnett's gift, however, to make these issues appear to occur spontaneously - which was why I was slightly surprised to hear this week the old-school copper Roy explain to young Dean how the overtime pay from the miners' strike had paid for his kitchen. It is a tribute to the remarkable actor John Henshaw that this little history lesson did not sound like one of those sermons David Hare put into his policemen's mouths in Murmuring Judges.

Otherwise the new series has started in daringly low gear. I can't think of another drama that would leave us with a cliff-hanger as crucial as last year's pummelling of the unfortunate Danny in a riot and then not refer to his fate until a third of the way into the second programme of the next series, when Dean and Roy bump into him in the street. The characters have simmered down, too. The first episode of all began, you may recall, in a headline-mindful way with the probationer Mel (Katy Cavanagh) going on duty high on ecstasy. She is a much reformed character this season and seems determined to make a go of her assignment to the community policing initiative on the dreaded Skeetsmoor estate. Even the bullying Roy's virtues are becoming apparent. This week he could be seen offering an old adversary a lift to his Restart interview. Only the ghastly Chief Inspector Newland (a blubbery-lipped Mark Chatterton), with his initiatives and IT taskforces and grid references, now looks completely irredeemable. Newland is such a monstrous portrayal of destructive yet self-satisfied bureaucracy that I can only think he is a satire on John Birt.

Another bastard chief inspector features in Liverpool One (ITV, Mondays), a middling cop show about a Merseyside vice squad, which has the mischance to play directly opposite Garnett's brilliant one. Chief Insp Hill (Eamon Boland) is, however, a cruder and more familiar figure than Newland, a near-relative of Morse's sweaty boss, forever at the mercy of the local grandees on the police committee. Hill does wicked things such as divert resources from tackling heroin dealers in order to get a massage parlour raided - although, of course, it is down exactly such mean streets that the series promises to take us, as indicated by its opening titles, which show Sam Janus, who plays the exotic DC Isobel De Pauli, in full prostitute rig-out.

Whenever Liverpool One threatens to get good, it goes gooey or mad, but at least it dares to feature fairly lengthy stretches of dialogue, some of it pleasingly off-beat ("Sorry it's a bit of mess," a suspect told the cops as they burst on him last week, "I've just had the place feng-shui'ed.") Unfortunately, the writer Simon Burke is saddled by the most unlikely group of police heroes ever. There is, for a start, Janus, whose preternaturally high cheekbones and huge eyes remind me every time of the Roswell Incident. Beside her is Fat Frank (Paul Broughton), "in therapy" for his sex addiction and, basically, a Timothy Spall grotesque but without the charm. Their boss is a belligerent scruff called Howard (Tom Georgeson) who never talks when he can scream - and he screams like a banshee, at the horror, the horror.

But most incredible is Mark Womack's Callaghan, simultaneously a working-class Catholic moralist (as in "Cally, he makes a difference") and a bit of an Amos Burke, a copper with private means and a luxury pad. His siblings provide much in the way of subplotting, as well they should given their various vocations as scally, news reporter and priest. The dynamic of this family resembles a Mexican wave of ever-fluctuating hysteria. Tune in next week and watch Father Ian sit in a puddle as he concludes a confessional account of how he "masturbated in the toilet" the day his father died. This lot would be better suited to high opera than cop opera. Had the actors who play them at such a ludicrous pitch gone for any of the 280 speaking parts on The Cops this season I doubt, as they say in the trade, they'd have got arrested.

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 25 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Why the old left is wrong on equality