tue 18/09/2018

Law and Order, BBC Four review - not a fair cop | reviews, news & interviews

Law and Order, BBC Four review - not a fair cop

Law and Order, BBC Four review - not a fair cop

GF Newman's 1978 series about police corruption still intrigues

Derek Martin as DI Fred Pyall in 'Law and Order'

In the late 1970s the British establishment sustained a bloody nose. Roland Huntford published his debunking of Captain Scott and Anthony Blunt was outed as the Fourth Man, while the Old Etonian Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe was tried for conspiracy to murder. That last story will be told in A Very English Scandal later this month, but in the meantime BBC Four has exhumed Law and Order, the television drama which lifted a lid on corruption in the police and the law.

The Home Office got very hot under the collar about this insurrectionary assault on police probity when it was broadcast. The series was released on DVD 30 years on. So is this latest sighting of it merited? Yes, according to its scriptwriter GF Newman: “Back in the 1970s when I wrote Law and Order,” he has said, “I estimated that 90 percent of police officers were corrupt. Forty years on nothing significant has changed.”

There are no women to speak of, apart from the odd brief sighting of a wife or a barmaid

What has changed is the pace of television drama. Produced by the great champion of dirty vérité Tony Garnett, Law and Order had a low-key, talky flavour which spirits a contemporary audience back to an alien storytelling environment (the tube poster of Peter Gabriel with a full head of hair also supplies a precise carbon dating). In the opening scene Detective Inspector Fred Pyall steps into a tube carriage to shake out a grass for useful tips. The dialogue is loose, flabby, discursive, and riddled with slang that has the reeky tang of old working-class London. He’s a bit active. You pulled a right stroke. Tucking up that bank. On the blag. Give them a tug. Lolly me up. Have it off at Putney (not what you think). There’s also a cameo for those old pre-decimal units of currency, a monkey and a pony. Now and then a glossary wouldn’t go amiss, and sometimes even subtitles.

Each of its four feature-length episodes was told from a different perspective, and given a title which nodded ironically to Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales: "A Detective’s Tale", "A Villain’s Tale", "A Brief’s Tale", "A Prisoner’s Tale". This first episode followed Pyall from desk to cell to interview room to pub as he bends detainees to his will to get them to fit up a character called Jack Lynn who hasn't, so far as we know, yet committed a crime. But he's due, reckons Pyall. Overdue. To extract information Pyall grabs one man by the Y-fronts. To another he threatens prison: “You’ve got something coming," he says, "I reckon about an eight.” If a snout cooperates, he reasons, he’ll get out on remand and “you’ll be able to do a bit of villainy and provide for your family.” Nice.

The acting, led by the superbly nonchalant Derek Martin as the bent Pyall, is supplied by a cohort of gnarled and pudding-faced actors who actually look like coppers rather than, as is true of most Equity members in police procedurals these days, catalogue models. Ken Campbell has a mean and furtive look as Alex Gladwell, a legal aid brief who represents all the cons. There are no women to speak of, apart from the odd brief sighting of a wife or a barmaid. The only black character is mentioned but not seen. “Pulled a couple of nurses last night,” says the married Pyall to a colleague. “Your one’s black.” “Oh leave off.”

The likes of Jed Mercurio, who shines a torch into the murk of modern police corruption in Line of Duty, does things his way, and is much more of a student of dramatic tension. But as an insight into the way things were for the police, for society and for television drama, Law and Order more than earns this 40th-anniversary trip down memory’s stinking back alley.

@JasperRees

Now and then a glossary wouldn’t go amiss, and sometimes even subtitles

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters