Forensics: The Real CSI is Silent Witness without the decorum

This documentary following forensic scientists is dreadfully real, squeezing at the heart even when events turn out to be anticlimatic.

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You can see why the BBC has subtitled its much-trailed new series about forensic scientists “The Real CSI”, and not “The Real Silent Witness”. The former, an American show, sounds exciting and vaguely plausible, whereas the latter, the BBC’s own long-running forensics drama, makes one think only of its ultra-beige star, Emilia Fox, wandering around unconvincingly in her paper mask and all-in-one white suit. But still, there’s no getting away from it. Forensics: The Real CSI (1 May, 9pm) is Silent Witness minus its neatness, decorum and carefully polite dialogue. It’s so dreadfully real, and because of this it squeezes at the heart even when events turn out, as they often do, to be anticlimatic. Here are Geordie accents, nondescript offices and blood that is brown-black rather than red. Here are families destroyed in as long as it takes to open a front door. Here, in other words, are snapshots of Britain in all its muddle and misery.

We are among the men and women of the Northumbria Police. The first episode followed two cases, both in Newcastle. On a housing estate, a woman had been injured following a shooting at her home, a possible warning to her boyfriend who was to appear as a witness in a criminal trial; and in a disordered terraced house, a 50-something white male had been found face down beneath his desk, the victim of what looked at first like a stabbing. The police officers talked of “the harvest”: the gathering of forensic material that must be completed in the first minutes and hours after they arrive at a crime scene. The forensic pathologist, who is called Nigel Cooper and who has a face that reminds me just a little of Sherlock Holmes as played by Basil Rathbone, talked of how he had to resist the temptation to move a body immediately to a mortuary: some secrets may only be revealed while a person lies where they were found. More movingly, once the body was on a gurney and he was standing beside it, ruler in hand, he talked of the privilege involved in his job. Post-mortems are inevitably stressful: so many people standing by, waiting for answers to impossible questions. Nevertheless, at the centre of all this, there is, for him, quietude – a state born of the fact that a body, with its scars and wrinkles and tattoos, tells the story of a whole life.

Watching a series like this is chastening, a reminder that even those police dramas that aim most determinedly for veracity are dreadful fakes: sleek where they should be rough, glib where they should be unfathomable. The police found a suspect in the shooting, but having too little forensic evidence – what it amounted to was some DNA on a mislaid cartridge – they could not secure the prosecution they needed. Statistically, knife wounds are usually not self-inflicted, but the man known to us only as Jan had killed himself with an injury to his neck; the trail of blood the police found in every room of his home spoke of the agonisingly long time it had taken him to die. “Loneliness must have driven him to it,” said his father, who had found his son’s body. Television is as hooked on motive as it is on character, but here were neither: Jan was, for us, an absence; a blurry face on a single photograph. Why was he lonely? And why had no one noticed this? We were not told, perhaps because no one had any answer worth giving.

Swabs, measurements, microscopes – the science is interesting enough, if you’re able to understand it (an explanation of the “refractive index” of glass was a bit beyond my capacities, alas). But the true interest of this series lies, for me, in the gaping contrast between what we think we know about crime, and its quotidian realities. Without exception, the officers who talked to camera – and even to their bosses via their radios – spoke with a matter-of-fact calmness that was at once both reassuring and slightly unnerving. What is to us replete with thrills (at least when it is mediated through the pens of Jed Mercurio et al) is to them just a job: one that requires meticulousness more than imagination, and desk-bound stoicism more than a taste for car chases and other high drama. 

Forensics: The Real CSI

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 appears in the 03 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal

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