Television - Julie Nightingale on how police dramas are cleaning up their act

ITV's The Bill has come in for a good riot-style kicking over the decision to create more personal storylines, allegedly at the expense of plots concentrating on the nitty-gritty of policing. You're turning into a soap, yell the critics from their armchairs, as they see slender young CID lovelies perched where portly old "Tosh" Lines once slumped, and PCs leaping into bed together in the glow of scented candles.

What consistently set The Bill apart, when it began in 1983, was that it gave off the authentic whiff of the police station. The series was meticulous about procedure in particular, and the actors were uniformly unglamorous. Hence, you always suspected that if you were to drop into your local nick, you might come across a Jim Carver moaning about paperwork or a June Ackland quizzing glue-sniffers, while a Frank Burnside sat in a corner perfecting his hardbitten air.

We take this authenticity for granted now, but until Z Cars arrived in 1962, TV policemen were good and faithful public servants like Dixon of Dock Green, who would no more bend the rules than ride their bike without its lights on. In Z Cars, for the first time, the police were recognisably real individuals dealing with run-of-the-mill crime in a working-class community. Setting the series in the north signalled added grit for a viewing public brought up on the softy southerner Dixon.

Viewers loved it, but not so the cops. "The police didn't like it because it wasn't like Dixon, which presented them in a very positive light and was how they wanted the public to think of them," says Steve Chibnall, a media and cultural studies lecturer at Leicester's De Montfort University, who has researched crime in film and TV. "The coppers in Z Cars were more fallible, which was not how the police wanted to be seen."

All that had changed by the time of ITV's The Sweeney in 1973. By then, public confidence in the police had been shattered by the revelations of widespread corruption in the Metropolitan force at the end of the 1960s. Enter Inspector "Jack" Regan with the flying squad, and cue lots of American-style car chases, brutality and the use of underworld slang in the fight against bank robbers and other serious villains.

"The Sweeney was radical," Chibnall says. "The cops were prepared to bend or break the rules to get a result, they operated autonomously for much of their working lives and they interacted with criminals in ways that hadn't been seen before on TV." Regan was your original maverick copper with a loyal sidekick and a lousy love life (he was, as he put it, "happily divorced") but, despite his preference for extracting information via the administration of a good thumping, he was not corrupt.

"It was still somewhat sanitised compared with reality," says Chibnall, "but the characters themselves were quite realistic. It was always reckoned to be detectives' favourite TV programme because they saw themselves reflected in it as good guys, but not whiter than white." Some, it is alleged, even tried to emulate Regan's tough-guy persona. (Cue mental picture of coppers in Frinton charging into villain's home crying: "Get your trousers on, you're nicked!")

The BBC had a stab at reorganising the gender arrangements with Juliet Bravo and ITV tried the same in The Gentle Touch, but it was Lynda La Plante's Prime Suspect for ITV, in 1990, which shed most light on how women fared in the force. DCI Jane Tennison tracked down serial killers and child abusers while fighting a rearguard action against the sexism of her male colleagues, but she was no politically correct feminist stereotype, and could be as bloody-minded and manipulative as any male oppo. And, just like them, Tennison could never sustain a relationship.

Again, what made Prime Suspect all the more watchable was the attention to detail in both script and setting. La Plante is a notorious stickler for accuracy; and Prime Suspect was painstakingly researched to capture the truth, whether of a murder scene or a men's toilet.

Chibnall maintains that portrayals of the police have become increasingly realistic because the viewing public has now come to accept this reality. The Cops, now in its final series on BBC2, plays to this new awareness. It uses naturalistic acting and documentary-style techniques in pursuit of realism, and does it so convincingly that when trailers for the first series in 1998 went out, showing a female constable taking drugs in a nightclub, some viewers assumed it was another fly-on-the-wall docusoap.

On 26 and 27 March, BBC1 screens NCS: Manhunt, the latest in its "Crime Doubles" strand, starring David Suchet as a detective in the FBI-style National Crime Squad. "Crime Doubles" has yielded some fairly touchy-feely coppers in the past, but the creator of NCS, Malcolm McKay, says he is interested only in the job of modern policing.

"Policing at this level is about intelligence-gathering, and these police will know who the criminal is before they start to investigate the crime. The job then is to gather the evidence and the drama lies in whether or not they will convict. David Suchet's character will have no personal or home issues at all," McKay says drily.

Meanwhile, the problem for The Bill, in its 17th year, is that, by focusing on coppers' personal lives and introducing a cast glamorous enough for Friends, it risks soapification. That might improve ratings but it will alienate those who like the show because it's credible.

Clearly, the real villains here are the TV Mister Bigs who insist on letting ratings call the shots. Call Reagan. He'll make them see sense.

NCS: Manhunt is on BBC1, 26 and 27 March, at 9pm; The Cops, BBC2, Wednesdays, 9pm; The Bill, ITV, Tuesdays and Fridays

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich rule politics again