Saturday, 22 February 2014

TV COPS: 'WPC 56' and 'The Line of Duty'


Internal affairs: Dunbar, Compston and McClure. (Image: BBC)

BBC TV has delivered two on-form police dramas based around female officers - WPC 56 and The Line of Duty. Here's why they're worthy of your time.

I'm happy to report that the British TV police drama is, if not in completely rude health, polishing its buttons and cutting a dash again on the streets. By police drama, I mean shows that are about the demands and contradictions of police work, rather than the gloomy psyche of the title protagonist (I’m looking at you, DCI Banks and Inspector George Gently).

"Make us a cup of tea, luv." (Image: BBC)
What’s most surprising is that one of these returns to form hails from the middle of a weekday afternoon, with none of the quick, get-on-with-it-because-we’re-on-a-shoestring-budget feel you sometimes get from midday TV drama. And WPC 56, set in the 1950s and starring Jennie Jacques as the tough but put upon WPC Gina Dawson, is anything but bland. The second series, which finished last week, dealt with sexual harassment, prostitution, conmen and repressed homosexuality, content that would, perhaps, have been more at home after the watershed than in the same cuddly zone as Pointless. I have to say that I thought the assault of Dawson, by the sexually predatory Assistant Chief Constable Arthur Coulson (John Bowler), was rather too strong for 2 in the afternoon.

Otherwise, WPC 56 is an afternoon delight. The characters live in a 1950s pleasingly fashioned from film noir movies, all high and extreme-angled camera shots, murkily lit interiors and a dark clubland that wouldn’t shame Kiss Me Deadly. A lot of thought has gone into the historical context of the series, as in contrast to the proactive Dawson, the women characters are often portrayed as victims or helplessly reliant on men, while Dawson, an empowered young woman – significantly, she's allowed to have sex out of wedlock – struggles against sexism and prejudice.(The only thing slightly wrong with the period tone is that no one smokes at all.)

The plotting is rewardingly sophisticated for an afternoon series and WPC 56 isn’t afraid to be downbeat either. As the second run ended, even though she’s seen off Coulson, there was a shadow over Dawson's future in the force because of an investigation into a shooting she was involved in. I’ll go as far as to say that the series is far too good to languish where it is, so here's a suggestion: swap WPC 56 with the antiseptic and annoyingly sentimental Call the Midwife. Dawson and co. would be good for Sunday nights, as WPC 56 is Heartbeat with a scar down its cheek and a flick-knife hidden behind its back.

Between the lines

Curiously, the other the police series the BBC are fielding at the moment, the second series of The Line of Duty, is also built around a female police officer. In what’s shaping up to be a career best performance, Keeley Hawes plays Detective Inspector Lindsay Denton, accused of complicity in the deaths of a witness and several police officers. AC12, the police's internal investigation unit looking into her case, is peopled by the same fine actors as it was in the first series, namely Adrian Dunbar, Vicky McClure and Martin Compston.

Jack or knave? (Image: BBC)
The most enthralling aspect of The Line of Duty are the interrogation scenes where Denton faces off against AC12. They sing with tension and authenticity thanks to writer Jed Mercurio’s evident research. Wednesday's second episode featured a great confrontation near the end, as Denton called into the question her interrogators’ integrity because of debt, inappropriate relations with a witness and compromising texts, a scene that was possible because of Mercurio's creative diligence.

The Line of Duty began with a show-stopping stunt. Played by Call the Midwife’s Jessica Raine, DC Georgia Trotman looked as if she was going to be a major character, but was killed off at the end of the first episode. It was an impressive shock, but the series doesn't really need gimmicks like that: it's astute writing, committed performances and edgy directorial vocabulary, using jittery camera shots and crash zooms, are more than enough to make you watch, particularly as the theme of the programme is so compulsive – flawed, professional people doing an extremely hard job.

I can’t wait to see how this second series pans out. As Denton said, “People have underestimated me my whole life,” so it’ll be fascinating to see if the woman with the face of a disappointed angel has simply been unlucky or has, in fact, been bought off. I have to say it again: I really haven't seen Hawes as good as she is here in anything else. She gives a remarkable, understated, underplayed performance lit with shocking flashes of violence.

Well done, BBC. The black and blue lamp is in good hands.

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