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21 August 2019

Between the Lines is my favourite box set – and its beating heart is its characters

By Val McDermid

What makes a box set work? It’s not rocket science. It comes down to what makes all fiction work – strong storytelling, characters whose fate we care about, and an interesting setting. And, I’d hazard, a spark of originality in the script that sets it apart from the herd.

There are few landmark police series that stand the test of time. In my personal pantheon, Homicide: Life on the StreetThe Wire and in the UK, Between the Lines are always worth revisiting for reasons that go far beyond the sentimental. The stories they tell and the issues they confront still have a powerful impact today. And they’re also great television.

Three series of Between the Lines ran on the BBC between 1992 and 1994, with the third picking up a Bafta for Best Drama Series. Through the prism of Neil Pearson’s character, DS Tony Clark, it explored the work of the internal police Complaints Investigation Bureau and was set firmly in the context of the politics and corruption scandals of the time. Clark was a complex character – ambitious, stubborn, often torn between expediency and the moral option – and that was reflected in his private life. The break-up of his marriage because of an affair with a colleague had reverberations at work.

The detective superintendent was flanked by his loyal though sometimes frustrated colleagues Harry Naylor (Tom Georgeson) and Mo Connell (Siobhan Redmond), whose characters were as well drawn and well played as Clark’s. Their boss – and ultimate nemesis – John Deakin was played with superbly edgy menace by Tony Doyle. The performances of that core quartet were always riveting, the storylines gripping and compelling.

I have always enjoyed drama that tackles high-stakes contemporary questions head-on, and Between the Lines, created by J C Wilsher, does just that. Yet because the approach was never narrow or parochial, the stories retain their power and still leave us questioning outcomes and strategies.

But the beating heart of Between the Lines is the characterisation. Because we come to care about the central figures in the drama, success and failure have the power to move us. When betrayal comes – and the final betrayal is a heart-stopper – we feel the pain and outrage. There are moments still when I shout at the screen, indignant and pained.

Every time, I sigh at Clark’s inability to see where his infidelity will dump him. My heart goes out to Harry, struggling to care for his disabled wife in the interstices of a job that is never nine-to-five. I cheer for Mo when she turns up at the police Christmas party with her girlfriend. And I chew my fingers when Deakin corners them with another moral dilemma.

The storylines were never predictable, either. Somehow Wilsher conjured up cliffhangers time and time again. And in those days there was no binge-watching, no iPlayer catch-up. We would spend all week wondering how a particular problem was going to be resolved. Even now, when it comes down to the wire, I still hold my breath for a different outcome. Between the Lines stylishly pulls off the trick of leaving us wanting more. 

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