Pungent as Old Spice and smooth as cheap nylon: the BBC’s Law and Order 40 years on

Revisiting the show reveals all the ways in which we, and television, have changed since 1978.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The BBC is screening GF Newman’s acclaimed drama Law and Order (10pm, 12 April), a series once deemed so controversial (for its depiction of corruption in the judicial system) it has never been repeated until now, in honour of its 40th birthday. Or at least, this is the line the corporation is trotting out: in truth, as it must surely realise, this particular hot potato reached room temperature long ago. Of course it’s no bad thing that the BBC has got around to showing it again; why it doesn’t make more of its archive, I don’t understand. But this isn’t to say that we’ve all been missing out in the meantime. You watch it now not to be gripped and held, but in order to note ­­– mostly with relief, but sometimes with a fleeting sense of sadness – all the ways in which we, and television, have changed in the long years since 1978.

Newman’s series comprises, in essence, four 80 minute-long plays each depicting a police investigation and its ramifications from a different point of view: the copper, the villain, the brief, the prisoner. The first episode, in which a bent detective played by Derek Martin fits up various low-rent criminals with a little help from his favourite snout, inevitably brings to mind Life on Mars (I wonder now if that was inspired in part by Law and Order) – though it comes with an authenticity, pungent as Old Spice and smooth as cheap nylon, no costume department could successfully fake. This is just what people looked like then. Its male characters, their skin the colour of chewing gum, tend to sweat lightly in the manner of cheese left out too long; they have preposterous comb-overs and snug, high-waisted jeans that draw the eye determinedly to the part of their anatomy with which we know, thanks to their almost every conversation, they’re entirely obsessed. Meanwhile, its female characters… Oh, yes. There are none, unless you count a lone barmaid, fiddling with a gin optic while yet another bloke fixes his mongoose stare coolly on her backside.

It’s very slow. Most scenes are overly long; the dialogue, for all its veracity (keep your dictionary of slang to hand), has a proudly unedited feel. The performances, however, are truly brilliant. We tend to imagine (well, I do) that since the late Seventies, acting has grown ever more naturalistic. But this is not quite the case. In the 21st century, actors wear their realism like a velvet cape; it’s just as showy in its way as the old hamminess. In the once revolutionary Law and Order, on the other hand, the actors’ devotion to this cause is the polar opposite of flashy: its celebrated documentary style is their triumph just as much as Newman’s. How brilliantly they deploy their eyebrows. How studiously they mumble. Sometimes, they seem hardly to be acting at all.

While we’re on hardly acting at all, what is it with Bill Nighy, one of the star attractions of the BBC’s hyper-melodramatic new adaption of Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence (9pm, 15 April)? There are moments when his resemblance to a sideboard grows so striking, you half expect the other characters – odious and loopy, almost without exception – to begin loading him up with carving plates and jugs. Still, I’m prepared to be understanding. What else could he have done in the circumstances? Perhaps the feel of polished walnut is a necessary defence against corpsing, given that he is expected to deliver, in all seriousness, lines such as: “Not everyone would have taken a psychiatric patient into their home.”

The screenwriter Sarah Phelps likes to update Christie using as many swear words and behavioural anachronisms as possible, and though I understand why she feels the need to do this – we’re a long way from St Mary Mead now, Toto – it always feels to me as though an old clock is suddenly running too fast. All the same, I like this one the best of those she has adapted so far. For one thing, it looks fantastic (apart, that is, from Alice Eve’s crazy Rita Fairclough wig). For another, there is Matthew Goode’s quite delicious performance as the wheelchair-bound cad, Philip Durrant. Oh, boy. For all that he’s in a cravat, beside him everyone else looks so pale and weedy. The nastiness just oozes out of him, like blood. 

Law and Order (BBC Four)
Ordeal by Innocence (BBC One)

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 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war