1990s BBC Crime Drama Tony Garnett

The Cops (BBC, 1998-2001)

By Ben Lamb


Arguably The Cops is a forgotten television drama. For television aficionados such as ourselves it feels only yesterday that the programme’s signature handheld Jason Bourne-style shaky cameras dragged the British police procedural kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century – starkly daring to suggest, as it did, that some coppers and detectives may well play fast and loose with the law. Despite running for three series and wining the BAFTA for best drama series in 1998 and in 1999 it has completely slipped from public consciousness. Ask somebody not academically invested in the history of television whether they are a fan and they will probably retort ‘The Cops, hmmm, I don’t remember it, was it an American thing?’ And herein lies the problem, a misleading title accompanied by virtually no syndication means it has not been accessible for twenty years and counting. Since the first series was released on VHS in 2000, neither of its subsequent series were made commercially available. The Cops was briefly broadcast on the UK Drama channel before completely evading a DVD release and subsequent omissions from all digital television channels and streaming services, even Britbox! Upon producer Tony Garnett’s death in 2020 his 1990s series This Life (BBC, 1996-1997) was given a new lease of life on BBC iPlayer,  feeling just as fresh and relevant as it did then. In many ways it helped make the 2020 lockdown far more bearable as viewers could reacquaint themselves with old friends and lose themselves in simpler times. Having written a book on the entire history of British television police series, I can confirm The Cops would definitely fulfil the same function as it still remains my personal favourite of the genre and here’s why.


A New Production Method

With ITV crime dramas Inspector Morse (ITV, 1987-2000), Prime Suspect (ITV, 1991-2006), A Touch of Frost (ITV, 1992-2010), and Cracker (ITV, 1993-2006) dominating television ratings the BBC fought back in 1998 with a new series that focuses exclusively on frontline PCs combatting rising levels of crime in a poverty-stricken community in accordance with New Labour law and order policy. Following the work of uniformed police in the fictional town of Stanton (in reality Bolton), producer Tony Garnett’s World Productions had already gained prominence for J. C. Wilsher’s controversial Between the Lines (1992-1994) and its depiction of the Criminal Investigations Bureau’s work into police corruption. [1]  Within this new way of working, writers and creators Robert Jones, Jimmy Gardner, and Anita J. Pandolfo were able to create something distinctive from their shared writing experiences on Pie in the Sky, The Bill, Ballykissangel, and Peak Practice. Similarly directors with experience on the same programmes like Harry Bradbeer, who is now perhaps best known for Killing Eve and Fleabag, could diversify and develop their craft. The Cops was revolutionary because it was the first police series recorded on digital betacam as an alternative to using film. The lightweight and cheap, yet high quality, digital video format meant eight minutes of an episode could be shot in one day over a greater number of locations. Operating under ‘a low budget’ for ‘minority channel’ BBC2 provided the production team with a degree of creative freedom.[2] As a result, the conventional two-camera set up, which obeys the rules of continuity editing, was banned in favour of capturing events with a single camera on one axis. Camera operators were usually unaware of what would happen and so had to pull focus quickly to capture events. By following the action rather than shaping it, a heightened ‘reality’ was created whereby ‘what was being enacted was an unrepeatable event’ witnessed together by the camera and audience.[3]


New Emotional Realism

Unwittingly this verisimilitude is similar to the mode of realism employed by docusoaps that dominated weekday evenings with 8 to 12 million viewers. Programmes including Airline (ITV, 1998-2006), Airport (BBC, 1996-2008), Clampers (BBC, 1998), and Driving School (ITV, 1997) also used digicam technology to scale down production and enhance a viewer’s sense of ‘unmediated connectedness’.[4] Docusoaps were different from straightforward documentaries because they captured the day-to-day lives of service industry workers through a distinctive ‘emotional realism’.[5] People’s stories are ‘interleaved in soap opera style’ as personality clashes, prolonged arguments and relationships govern each episode.[6] In sharing this digital technology The Cops is partially invested in this emotional realism as the camera focuses on the facial expressions of characters reacting to events so that a viewer can make sense of what occurs through the way in which characters emotionally process them.

As a result of this emotional realism, the division between a person’s professional identity and personal identity is significantly blurred. In the very first scene, the viewer witnesses Mel Draper (Katy Cavanagh) discovering she is running late for work in a nightclub toilet, having just snorted a line of cocaine. As Draper catches a taxi and runs into her workplace it is revealed that she is a police constable (PC) as she hurriedly enters the station locker room.  Here, through one long unbroken take, each officer changes into their uniform and cleanses their appearance of their private identity. Whilst the camera fleetingly captures Draper brushing her hair and PC Danny Rylands (Jack Mardsen) straightening his tie, camera movement is motivated by the characters’ reactions to certain lines of dialogue. The camera pans from face to face as characters ask questions of one another’s night before such as how long they were out drinking and the members of staff they would like to sleep with. A camera move is prompted once a character directs a comment towards somebody else and so the camera moves to capture the respondent’s reaction. Whilst in terms of narrative significance the purpose of the scene is to establish the start of the constabulary’s working day, the camera remains invested in the personal views of officers and how these are informed by their private lives. The camera movements counteract the characters’ readying for work by emphasising how the subjectivities of each officer will dictate their conduct throughout their shift. The uniform and surrounding station space are largely arbitrary because, for the first time in the genre, police officials are civilians first and foremost who happen to work as police officers.

Like docusoaps, each officer is led by their ‘assumptions, habits and attitudes’, prejudices, petty rivalries and personal taste that determines how work is carried out’.[7] However, the severe humanitarian consequences of their prejudices are made clear. PC Natalie Metcalf’s (Clare McGlinn) prolonged harassment of Brian Skillet (Steve Ramsden), as revenge for breaking her arm when she previously worked as a housing officer, results in his death. Similarly PC Roy Bramwell (John Henshaw) plants drugs on Vincent Graves (Paul Oldham) to ensure he receives a six-month prison sentence. Bramwell acts because he holds Graves responsible for the death of his close friend Sergeant Poole who died from a heart attack when chasing Graves. In 1998 the Human Rights Bill had been passed in parliament in order to bring British law in line with the European Convention on Human Rights. Its promise that ‘no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ has not affected the working practices of Stanton officers.[8]

The Cops partly blames the hierarchical structure of the police force for such inhumane policing. Chief Inspector Newland (Mark Chatterton), with a photograph of Tony Blair framed above his desk, represents ‘the new order of accountability’ and ‘locus of power’.[9] The New Labour government had undertaken public sector reform in 1997 that required the Inspectorate to monitor the efficiency of police delivery through a series of thematic inspection reports. Constabularies were required to provide ‘unequivocal evidence of progress towards compliance’.[10] Whereas previously the Chief Constable had enjoyed moderate financial freedoms in achieving local targets, now all had to comply with national guidelines , fuelling criticism of the continuing empowerment of a ‘policy-making elite’.[11] Correspondingly the gulf between the upper echelons of management and PCs is ‘unmistakable’.[12] In marked contrast to the ‘local argot’ of his officers Newland prefers management-speak, talking of a ‘client responsive…proactive approach’.[13] When Newland reveals he will not pass on Sgt. Geffin’s (Rob Dixon) complaint regarding Bramwell’s conduct to the Chief Constable, Newland is busy readying his office for a conference. Newland interrupts Geffin to criticise canteen staff for providing food that pales in comparison to the quality of food provided at a previous London event. This depiction of authority is weary of modern law and order policy’s tendency to be increasingly ‘technicist and state-centred’ in offering ‘top-down expert solutions for social problems and disorders’.[14]

New Labour and Left Realism

In advance of The Cops’ broadcast there had been a significant shift in criminological consciousness within the academy. ‘Left realism’, associated with Jock Young, John Lea, and Roger Matthews, criticised left-leaning criminology for ignoring vulnerable working-class victims of crime. Its purpose was to draw attention to the overlooked experience of the poorest in society living in high-crime areas whose experiences of ‘mugging, burglary and interpersonal violence…have a real and destructive impact’ on their personal experiences.[15] Correspondingly Lea’s and Young’s  conceptualisation of the ‘square’ of crime emphasises how crime emerges from a combination of behaviours enacted by, and structural preconditions underlying, front-line agents representing the state, the victim, society, and the criminal offender. Controlling crime involves ‘intervention at each part of the square of crime’.[16] This view influenced the New Labour government and its 1998 Crime and Disorder Act. A balanced intervention was now sought between tackling offending behaviour and intervening in the socio-economic conditions that made such behaviour a rational option for many. Aspects of the 1998 Act abided by rational-actor thinking such as reversing the rule of doli incapax to ensure fourteen-year olds were personally culpable for their actions.  Simultaneously the 1998 Act also subscribed to aspects of the predestined-actor model as youth-offending teams were deployed to divert young people from offending thtough re-engaging in education. However, this government policy was criticised by the left realism school for constructing a binary of inclusion/exclusion where ‘the excluded exist in an area which is spatially segregated and socially and morally distinctive’.[17] It was felt that a model for making criminal justice ‘democratically accountable’ had been turned into a ‘device for the authoritarian regulation of the poor and marginalised’.[18]


The New Normal

The Cops engages with left realism as crimes occur exclusively within the Skeetsmore council estate where vulnerable residents are regularly exposed to drug addiction, domestic abuse, theft, and violence. Garnett’s inflexible rule for writers was that the narrative follow the actions of PCs to ‘create a sense for the viewer that she or he had accompanied the police on their journey through a society, experiencing the violence, poverty and social disintegration as they did’.[19] After a dead body is found PC Draper pieces together evidence to learn the deceased died from his daughter’s neglect. Theresa Riley (Caroline Pegg) was stealing her dead father’s prescribed diazepam and pension to feed her heroin addiction, resentful of having cared for her abusive housebound father since she was fourteen. In another instance PC Rylands dismisses Dave Wilcox’s (Malcolm Pitt) pleas to retrieve his six-year-old from his mentally-ill ex-wife Pauline (Lisa Millett) who has failed to return her daughter home after her allocated hours. Rylands repeatedly dismisses what appear to be trivial concerns to discover alongside the viewer that Pauline has killed her daughter through a drug overdose. Therefore, by depicting the types of abuse to which vulnerable members of the working class could be unduly and repeatedly victim, The Cops recalibrates dominant societal conceptions of an ‘underclass’. Whereas Charles Murray’s definition had grown popular for characterising illegitimacy, crime, and joblessness as a matter of personal negligence, here an audience is encouraged to confront ‘the results of grinding poverty through the generations’.[20] Killings committed by members of a marginalised underclass arise not from evil premeditation, as depicted in all other 1990s series, but from a complex interrelation of abuse, poverty, and mental illness.

Whilst, like docusoaps, all events are framed through the emotional perception of white-collar protagonists, The Cops returns this perspective to the ‘terrain of social realism’.[21] The Cops channels British television’s stark un-nostalgic tradition of televisual social realism that had, in part, been instigated by Z Cars (BBC, 1962-1978) and went on to inform The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70) and Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84). The Cops also socially extends ‘dramatic material to areas of life which had been evidently excluded’ by entering ‘parts of our society that we are not shown on television’.[22] Also, as Skeetsmore is clearly a ‘class-based community in crisis’, The Cops also reflects British social-realist cinema of the 1990s that revealed how de-industrialisation and mass unemployment ‘altered the social character of the British working class’.[23] However, this is not the feel-good social realism of Brassed Off (1996) or The Full Monty (1997) that revolves around ‘a recovery of pride and self-dignity in the face of economic adversity and social decay’.[24] Nor is this the progressive social realism of The Wednesday Play or Play for Today underlined by a character’s ‘politicised perspective on events’ to instigate change.[25] Instead Garnett’s series exudes a pessimism that characterised Ken Loach’s Channel 4 Films from Riff-Raff (1991) to The Navigators (2001) in which individual acts of frustration constitute ‘the main form of resistance to the status quo’.[26] Underage sex workers and shoplifters Chris (Andrew Whyment), Sarah (Vinette Robinson), and Ryan Tunce (Alan Halsall) re-offend because the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act has not delivered the resources required to deter those predisposed to crime. Instead the PCs’ role is to segregate the poor and marginalised Skeetsmore residents from the adjoining middle-class Stanton community, i. e. ‘put a lid on the rubbish’ as Gifford instructs his officers.

The Cops identified the vast inequality that existed between the poor marginalised communities living in the deindustrialised North and career-focused middle classes and which was being ignored by mainstream political discourse. Prime Minister Tony Blair was instead keen to assert ‘we’re all middle class now’. Twenty years on the results of obfuscating such socio-economic inequality have become all too apparent in today’s society. The Cops can pat itself on the back for contributing towards the greater awareness that now exists of the north-south divide and public recognition that those at the bottom of the social ladder continue to suffer disproportionately from national policy changes be they, as they are now, related to the economic fallout over Brexit or the health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ben Lamb lectures at Teesside University and is the author of You’re Nicked: Investigating British Television Police Series. Jackie Malton, retired DCI and the real-life inspiration for DCI Tennison in Prime Suspect, has said it ‘is a fascinating read’ that ‘should be read by all aspiring crime writers and academics interested in the genre’. His selection of Plays for Today may also be found here:

[1] J. C. Wilsher had been a long term writer on The Bill

[2] Lez Cooke, British Television Drama:  A History, 2nd edn, London: British Film Institute, 2015, p. 191.

[3] Tony Garnett, ‘“Trojan horses” and “bad apples”: Tony Garnett discusses The Cops ’. Unpublished transcript of a seminar held in the Department of Film and Drama, University of Reading, November 1998, plus material incorporated from an interview by Madeline Macmurraugh-Kavanagh, 5 January 1998.

[4] Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, Reality TV: Realism and Revelation, London:  Wallflower Press, 2005 p. 38.

[5] Ibid, p. 71.

[6] Ibid, p. 63.

[7] Stephen Lacey, Tony Garnett, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007, p. 148.

[8] Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO), Human Rights Act 1998 , Chapter 42, p. 16.

[9] Lacey, Tony Garnett, p. 148.

[10] Timothy Brain, A History of Policing in England and Wales from 1974: The Turbulent Years , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010,  p. 270.

[11] David S. Wall, The Chief Constables of England and Wales: The Socio-Legal History of a Criminal Justice Elite, Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998, p. 316.

[12] Lacey, Tony Garnett, p. 148.

[13] Ibid

[14] David Garland and Richard Sparks, ‘Criminology, social theory, and the challenge of our times ’, in D. Garland and R. Sparks (eds), Criminology and Social Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 10.

[15] John Lea and Jock Young, What Is to Be Done about Law and Order? Crisis in the Nineties , London: Pluto Press, 1993, p. vii.

[16] Jock Young, ‘Ten points of realism ’, in R. Matthews and J. Young (eds), Rethinking Criminology: The Realist Debate , London: Sage, 1992, p. 41.

[17] Jock Young, ‘Merton with energy, Katz with structure ’, Theoretical Criminology, 7: 3, 2003, p. 3.

[18] John Lea, ‘Left Realism, Community and State- Building ’, Crime, Law and Change , 54, 2010, p.148.

[19] Lacey, Tony Garnett, p. 147.

[20] Tony Garnett, ‘“Trojan horses” and “bad apples”’.

[21] Lacey, Tony Garnett, p. 144.

[22] Raymond Williams, ‘ The idea of a common culture’, in J. McGuigan (ed.), Raymond Williams on Culture and Society:  Essential Writings , Los Angeles: Sage, 2013,  p. 214;  Tony Garnett, ‘ “Trojan horses” and “bad apples”’.

[23] Lacey, Tony Garnett, p. 145; John Hill, ‘Failure and Utopianism:  Representations of the working class in British cinema of the 1990s ’, in R. Murphy (ed.), British Cinema of the 90s,  London: British Film Institute, 2000,  p. 179.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Raymond Williams, ‘The idea of a common culture’, p. 183.

[26] John Hill, ‘Failure and Utopianism’, p. 179.

Cops 6

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