Cops and robbers

Mark Easton's gripping story of how crime has shot up since the 1950s

<strong>The Crime of Our Liv

It is that time of year when programmes hibernate. Each summer as the school holidays approach, Radio 4 listeners wait in dread of what will come on after the 9am news to replace Start the Week, its smug sister Midweek and, above all, In Our Time, that rare programme during which your IQ goes up, not down. Its format is daringly simple: three academics attempt to lead the general listener towards the essence of a topic - the more recondite the better - while Melvyn Bragg waves a cattle prod around should they stray.

Even Lord Bragg, in his weekly email to listeners, sounded as if he did not quite know why the programme had to rest for two months. Deprived of his weekly "autodidactic fix", he was off to read some fiction, he said. (I hear the new Harry Potter is very good, Melvyn.)

But what of the rest of us? Actually we are going to be fine for the first month at least. Mark Easton, the BBC News home editor, has made a series of four so far first-rate documentaries on the history of British crime since the war. The Crime of Our Lives (Thursdays, 9am; repeated 9.30pm) attempts to explain why, although Japan and Britain came out of the war with similar crime rates, Japan's has remained static and ours has risen inexorably. It is a whodunnit to fox Sherlock Holmes and, like the best detective novels, we are already halfway through the story and no nearer to solving the mystery. Indeed, one of the most telling clips on the latest programme was of the home secretary Roy Jenkins disarming Robin Day with his honesty. Q: So why, minister, is crime going up? A: I don't have a full answer to that.

The paradox was that, when Britons barely had a crust to eat, crime was low, confined to spivs and your old-style British domestic murderer, yet as soon as some money entered the economy, the nation went criminal. The change was prefigured by the shocking shooting of a policeman in Croydon in November 1952, a crime now remembered chiefly for the wrongful hanging of 19-year-old Derek Bentley. This in turn had been foreshadowed by the hit Brit film of 1950, The Blue Lamp, in which PC George Dixon was shot dead by Dirk Bogarde playing a harbinger of every youth to come: the Teddy boy, the mod, the rocker, the skinhead and so on.

When Dixon was brought back to life by the BBC in 1955 in Dixon of Dock Green, peace seemed to have been restored to the East End. In an episode both Easton and I seem to have seen, Dixon arrives at the station one morning to find his sergeant moaning about a busy night. "Been a murder, sarge?" jokes Dixon, as if it were more likely that Martians had taken over the town hall. In fact, Easton points out, the golden age of the Fifties was exactly when we lost control of crime. Magistrates were punitive, prisons were overcrowded and the press was whipping up hysteria about Teddy boys, following a teenager's murder on Clapham Common ("Flick knives, dance music and Edwardian suits", ran the Mirror's headline). But that episode of Dixon did reflect one reality: it featured "the lowest thing that crawls on God's earth", a bent copper - and coppers indeed were succumbing to temptation.

By the early Sixties, Harold Wilson was so worried that he commissioned Lord Longford to report on the crime explosion. The result of long hours locked up with experts at the St Ermin's Hotel in Westminster, his report was entitled Crime: a Challenge to Us All. Soon the British establishment was meeting it by taking one wrong turn after another. A judge sent down the Great Train Robbers for a total of 307 years, persuading the professional criminal he might as well go armed and be hanged for a sheep as for a goat. Jenkins was sold the American dream of panda cars, in effect turning the police from a deterrent force to a responsive one. The Home Office experimented with parole instead of prison for hardened criminals.

Easton ended his latest programme with the summary that, in the Fifties, they were tough on crime, in the Sixties they tried to understand it and in the Seventies they had no answers at all. Well, I'm gripped - and that's even knowing that this tale has no happy ending.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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29 July, 10.45pm, Radio 4
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Leslie Charteris: a saintly centennial
31 July, 11.30am, Radio 4
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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 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?