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▶︎ Between the Lines has been screening on BBC iPlayer (some episodes still available)

You may have been aware of a kerfuffle in the press and on social media a few weeks ago about an interview the television scriptwriter Jed Mercurio gave to GQ magazine in the run-up to the broadcast on BBC1 of the sixth series of his police corruption drama Line of Duty (2012-). Mercurio used language you wouldn’t want your mother to hear you using to describe a (young, female) journalist who had had the nerve to express disappointment in the programme’s fifth series.

His crossness might better have been directed at many of his dedicated fans: what I’ve noticed in reactions to recent series is the rise of an ironic, meta tone, treating the series as an endlessly comic, teasing challenge to viewers’ credulity – the oohs and aaahs at the latest scarcely plausible revelation mingling with oohs and aahs at the stodgy sexiness of Adrian Dunbar’s Superintendent Ted Hastings, with his hushed catchphrase “Mother of God!”

A show that started out as gripping, dark and surprising drama is being undermined by a discourse bewilderingly close in tone to online discussions of the BBC’s long-running agricultural radio soap The Archers. Pigs either way, I suppose.

Those fans do have a point: until the most recent episodes included mentions and echoes of actual crimes – Jimmy Savile, the murders of Jill Dando and Stephen Lawrence – Line of Duty had remained an almost perfectly self-contained system, with no reference to the real world. The contrast is strong with its predecessor from the early 1990s, Between the Lines, the first series of which the BBC has been broadcasting on Sunday evenings following episodes of Line of Duty – episodes are still available on iPlayer.

Siobhan Redmond, Neil Pearson and Tom Georgeson in Between the Lines

J.C. Wilsher’s drama followed a team of detectives in the Complaints Investigation Bureau (CIB) – a real-life unit, unlike Line of Duty’s fictional AC-12 – investigating a range of police malpractice: the kind of big crime, big money corruption that is the meat of Line of Duty, but also much pettier corruption (beat coppers emptying the wallets of Saturday night drunks), assaults, shootings, sexual harassment, suicides in custody, unnecessary roughness with striking workers… a different issue each episode, though a narrative thread about an unsafe conviction runs through the first series, effectively taking over the action towards the end. 

Between the Lines is (to begin with, at least) a hard-nosed, realist police drama in what was once a strong BBC tradition, running from the original Z Cars (1962-78) through G.F. Newman’s Law and Order (1978); and because it tries to reflect reality, it is consistently political. Though there are occasional eureka moments and surprising twists, more often the puzzle is not whodunnit but how you turn whodunnit into a decent court case and secure a conviction.

Detective Superintendent Tony Clark (Neil Pearson) and his team are constantly navigating the conflicting demands of duty to the public, loyalty to colleagues, self-promotion, self-preservation and public image. 

Real-world politics intrude all the time. The episode about the police rolling drunks turns out to be in part about the miners’ strike of 1984-85 – for mining communities a period of strife and poverty, for coppers a golden age of almost unlimited overtime, as units were bused up north or west to Wales to police picket lines; post-strike, a little light robbery is one way of making up the shortfall. (This was one of several episodes directed by the great Roy Battersby, whose CV includes the 1974 Play for Today Leeds – United!, about a textile workers’ strike.)

Racism is always an issue – the treatment blunt-edged by contemporary, Small Axe standards, but frank and forward-looking for the time. Episode 11, Nothing Personal, which revolves around the death in custody of a young Black man arrested for dealing crack, anticipates in many ways the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which took place six months after this was broadcast. Though details are now dated – throughout, the absence of mobile phones marks this out as a different era – the arguments about what was not yet called ‘institutional racism’ haven’t much changed.

The policing and politics are leavened with sex and domestic dramas, with Clark’s inability to keep it in his trousers a major plot motor. As the charming, occasionally smarmy, cunning, self-destructive Clark, Pearson is superb – just enough of a hero for the audience to be on his side, but never quite untrustworthy: “You look bent,” as his boss Chief Superintendent Deakin (Tony Doyle), tells him, and it is a compliment as well as a gibe.

Pearson was the star and became, despite the estate agent’s box-shouldered suits and flapping trousers, quite the sex symbol. But it’s an ensemble drama: Tom Georgeson is extraordinarily watchable as his right-hand man, Detective Inspector Harry Naylor, an old-school tough, streetwise cockney copper, the kind other policemen trust, though he has an unexpectedly soft side and, underneath the ducking and diving, a strong moral compass.

Neil Pearson as Tony Clark in Between the Lines

The real emotional power comes from Siobhan Redmond’s sarcastic, sexually flexible Detective Sergeant Maureen ‘Mo’ Connell. Redmond’s eyes offer a silent commentary on the men around her – exasperated, amused, disgusted, haunted.

In Manslaughter, the second episode of the second series, she rages at the advantages the legal system gives to men who kill women, in this case, an officer who has killed his wife in what he assures them was a dreadful moment of rage. It becomes clear that the crime was premeditated, but also that there will not be the evidence to charge him: Redmond’s scream of raw anguish is a wrenching piece of acting, reaching towards the heights of Peter Lorre’s plea for mercy at the end of M (1931).

That second series lacks a little of the momentum of the first – it feels as though they didn’t save up enough issues. The third, with Clark and co out of the Met and operating as private agents in the world of the secret services, went off the rails, realistic dinginess giving way to a befuddling murkiness and a lurch in the direction of melodrama. But even here, the show remained committed to a vision of police and intelligence work as essentially and unavoidably political, never mere entertainment.

Frustratingly, the DVD box-sets issued a few years ago are more or less unobtainable, with frightening prices being asked on eBay; but perhaps the BBC will put the whole series on BritBox soon. After a lousy year, we deserve it.  

Further reading

Play for Today: the TV series at the heart of 1970s British filmmaking

By Robert Hanks

Play for Today: the TV series at the heart of 1970s British filmmaking

British TV drama versus the world

British TV drama versus the world

The Singing Detective: 25 years on

By Graham Fuller

The Singing Detective: 25 years on

Safe harbour: David Hare on Turks & Caicos

Safe harbour: David Hare on Turks & Caicos

Bloodlands dredges up Northern Ireland’s troubled past

By Trevor Johnston

Bloodlands dredges up Northern Ireland’s troubled past

“These are the untold stories that make up our nation”: Steve McQueen on Small Axe

By David Olusoga

“These are the untold stories that make up our nation”: Steve McQueen on Small Axe

Sight & Sound June 2021

In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.

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