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10 on TV Drama #3: Cops N’ Docs, Part 1: Cops, 3 of The Best

WARNING: Spoilers Ahoy

When TV Drama Bibles and pilot episodes come into Bang2write, I get a distinct lack of cops and docs, drama’s all-time staples. In fact, I would venture I get anything but. Yet why is this? Time has shown, over and over again, that “cops and docs” are favourites – and for this very reason, a new angle on this would surely be welcome on any commissioner’s table? If we look at the evidence CSI-style, we can see that cops and docs have any number of variations that people are willing (or have been willing) to watch. Here are three of the best that spring immediately to my mind when I think of recent UK cop drama:

CRACKER (1993 – 1996, 4 seasons)

LOGLINE: An abrasively eccentric forensic psychologist aids in the solving of difficult police cases.

Probably the “big daddy” of all “cool” cop drama, this series established Robbie Coltrane as an actor to be taken seriously after spending most of the eighties in comedy terrain with the likes of Rik Myall and Ade Edmondson (and a move both of these comedians too would emulate, with Mayall largely more successful than Edmondson IMHO). The crucial difference between Cracker and other police drama was this was far from being an ensemble: this was largely about Fitz first and foremost and he was the breath of fresh air we needed. This was not a good guy; he had questionable motivations at the best of times and an ego the size of the world. Even when his wife confesses that she has cheated on him, he humiliates her the best way he knows how – by psychoanalysing her and why she might have done it. For a cop drama, Fitz was not actually a cop, he worked with the cops and this made all the difference; not least because he disrespected police procedure and indeed the police force on a regular basis, but because it meant he was also a lecturer at the local university, bringing a number of other civilians into the fray. Cracker made its mark by tackling tough subject matter including The Hillsborough Disaster (probably its most famous storyline, launching both Robert Carlyle and Christopher Eccleston as other acting forces to be reckoned with), rape (in a non-annoying way I might add) and mental health (including Fitz’s). Cracker ended when Fitz emigrated to Australia in order to reconcile with his estranged wife and the baby she had that may or may not have been his.

Cracker had a one-off episode that I awaited eagerly about two years ago only to be bitterly disappointed by it. Perhaps what had made it great in the early nineties was its devil-may-care style was new and impressive, or perhaps I had enjoyed the original far more because I was in my early teens? I don’t think so… The new episode was just not as good I thought.

THE VICE (1999 – 2003, 5 seasons)

The veteran Inspector Chappel heads up the Metropolitan vice squad as he and his team investigate prostitution and pornography in the London sex trade.

Kenn Stott appears to have made a living out of acting world-weary policemen: we are currently watching him in Rebus on ITV1 and just a few years ago caught him as Red in the gloriously gruesome Messiah on BBC (one of its search labels on IMDB is “severed tongue”!). It was however his first incarnation as Inspector Chappell that I like the best.

The Vice was particularly good at representing the dark side of life but unlike Messiah, did not indulge in the downright gratuitious; it understood absolutely the principal of “what you don’t see is far worse“. Similarly, character motivation was explored to the full. Like Grissom in CSI, Chappell is a loner and obsessed with his work; like Horatio in CSI: Miami, Chappell was a knight in shining armour as he rescued hundreds of young girls, women and boys from the sex trade, week on week, but in comparsion to Horatio Chappell was much more rounded, with a far deeper, darker side that was not “caped crusader” in any way. Highlights of the series for me included an appearance by the legendary Tim Mcinnery (again an actor more famous at the time for comedy, most notably Blackadder) as a child pornographer and of course The Vice is responsible for launching the career of the fabulous Marc Warren as the infamous Dougie, the bent vice copper.

In short, The Vice was deadly serious and had little time for clever quips like Cracker. This did not mean it was a complete downer however, just good, solid crime drama with bucketloads of tension. What was new about it was it was not so much a “whodunnit” – there were *generally* no bodies, no forensic evidence etc, but a lot of the time it was a race against time. Jeopardy was fantastic. “Figure out where this girl is before she disappears into the sex trade forever” is a great hook and kept audiences returning, week on week out.

SPOOKS (2002 – present)

LOGLINE: The missions of MI5, the UK’s intelligence organisation.

I think I’m right in saying Spooks was Kudos’ first flagship drama and prepared the ground for what was to come in such other celebrated series as Life on Mars and Hustle. It originated with Helen Smith’s favourite leading man Matthew MacFadyen in the protagonist’s role now occupied by Rupert Penry-Jones as Adam Carter, the man who defected from MI6 to 5 – something 6 will never forgive him for.

Matthew Macfadyen was written out somewhere around the second or third series; this may have been the plan all along as various movie offers like Pride and Prejudice came in and whilst I am a fan of Macfadyen in general, I didn’t like his character Tom as much as I like Adam. Tom was a loner (what else?) but wanted a family and so tried desperately to settle down whilst having one of the most dangerous and not to mention secret, jobs you could possibly have. This was a nice spin but ultimately was not that exciting – his girlfriends could never really take a starring role since they weren’t in MI5, so when they were put in danger (the most prominent being one that was locked inside an MI5 safe house with her child and it’s about to blow up), I could never really empathise and secretly wanted them to die. Of course they never did, since Tom would always rescue them and then said girlfriend would leave him. Similarly there were a number of questionable storylines that I thought were there for sensationalism’s sake (most notably Lisa Faulker’s head in the deep fat fryer) and without hardcore characterisation to back this sort of carry-on up, it all fell a little flat for me.

However it was enjoyable nonetheless and I carried on watching… I’m glad I did too, since it all changed when Adam Carter turned up. He played alongside Macfadyen’s character for some time until Macfadyen became a security risk and went on the run (as you do). Adam was then the “main man” of the series and what a main man he is. Originally a family man, deeply in love with his wife, dedicated to his child, he was destroyed when not only was his wife shot in front of him by her ex-husband, a Syrian terrorist; he was then shot in the chest by none other than Lindsay Duncan, also a terrorist, when on another mission. His loyalties are horribly tied – he loves his job yet hates it ‘cos of his wife’s death; he loves his son, but worries he will be left an orphan if Adam also dies on the job. This led to him too becoming a secuirty risk to MI5 but I must have missed an episode somewhere ‘cos they appear to have rehabilitated him for this current series.

Like all cops (or their equivalents) Adam is obsessed with his work but is desperately lonely, seeking to replace his dead wife. He has gone from being entirely monogamous to extremely promiscuous and has even started to make dangerous decisions about the women he becomes involved with. We saw this only this week when the treacherous Ana tried to murder him, first by giving him a disabling drug then dumping him in a bathtub full of water. Nasty. A little convoluted though, why not shoot him in the head? But hey ho.

Any favourites of yours to add? What makes a good cop drama as far as you are concerned? Over to you…

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16 thoughts on “10 on TV Drama #3: Cops N’ Docs, Part 1: Cops, 3 of The Best”

  1. Re Spooks: I thought that the death of the character played by Lisa Faulkner character was a good example of wrong-footing the viewer, in that she was touted in the publicity as being one of the main characters, and so when her colleague tells her ‘it’s okay, we’ll get out of this perilous situation’, the viewer tends to assume (almost as you did with Tom’s girlfriend in the bomb-rigged house) that they’ll get out okay, so the fact that she didn’t was a bit of a jolt, and I felt it confounded my expectations nicely; rather like Joss Whedon’s reported aim to kill off a character who was in the opening titles of one of his shows.

    Mind you, I lost interest in Spooks when it seemed like they were having to write storylines to write characters out so the cast could go off and do other things. But I enjoyed it while my interest lasted.

  2. I agree in that sense John – especially since she had just come out of both Dangerfield and Holby City and was a *big star of the moment*… However I didn’t care enough about her in terms of characterisation to really feel any kind of empathy, just revulsion since it’s a vile way to go – a little too vile for only-just-past 9pm. I think characterisation improved around Adam took over, esp with his wife and kid storylines (I’ll never forget the wife being taken hostage and being asked to choose between her husband and son being targeted and the other agent urging her to choose Adam – “He’ll understand.” Which of course he did, because he is a great dad…)

  3. There was a certain sense of voyeurism to Lisa Faulkner’s characters death in SPOOKS I thought. The one that really sticks in my mind though was the anthrax poisoning (or whatever it was) that was played as a training exercise… That became real… That was revealed as actually, an exercise. But only ‘cos it was such a cop out. Irritating.

  4. Oh God, yes… Forgot about that one, had me gnashing my teeth as well Anya. But this is what I mean – it had a tendency to go for some really trite “story of the week” moments like that in the early days. Since Adam’s turned up it’s a lot slicker and yes, still daft really, but has those moments that make you “ooooooh” like when MI6 got to Ruth and killed Malcolm the tech guy! Nooooooooo!

  5. Oh, and if memory serves, the Cracker storyline with both Ecclestone and Carlyle in was CE’s final appearance in the series, after he’d asked McGovern to write him out. Effective though I thought the death scene was, it was prefaced by some profoundly unprofessional behaviour by the police officer – running into an unknown environment after a suspect? Either very brave or stupid… or a bit of a plot lever to get the character bleeding and making a dramatic last speech.

    What with that and the ‘rooftop confession’ at the end of the rape storyline, I often felt that Cracker strayed into rather melodramatic territory, though overall it was very good – I especially like the story (‘One Day A Lemming Will Fly’?) where the see-saw of Fitz’s personal and professional life tips in favour of his marriage and family – everything’s lovely at home, but at work, he’s got the wrong man…

    Maybe I should take another look at Spooks, it sounds like they’re doing some interesting stuff. Though I may not swoon over Adam as much as some people seem to be doing here!


  6. It WAS extremely unprofessional for Bilborough (CE) to enter Albie’s home where he was susbequently murdered by Albie, but I took that to be the point… Albie assaulted Bilborough’s wife in the supermarket in order to provoke him and make him follow him – Bilborough was fiercely protective of his wife and child, so let that instinct override police procedure – and something that was really paid off when the wife came in to fetch his stuff when she reveals Bilborough was not as tough as he made out and was deeply affected by the job. I thought those scenes were fabulous, especially when they’re trying depserate via the radio to figure out where Bilborough is and all they have to go on is “suspect has cats”.

    There was a great sex scene in Tuesday’s Spooks John, you missed a treat – and an ever-so-flashing glance of Adam’s todger when the evil Ana dumped in the bathtub! : D

  7. I’m glad my brief appearance in-between him crashing into the wall and falling on the floor was appreciated… The director said he’d keep me in as a big part (pun intended) but it was all lies.

  8. Cracker! At last, something I can talk about and be fairly certain I know what I’m talking about since I wrote novelisations of three of the story-lines (One Day a Lemming Will Fly, The Big Crunch and True Romance).

    Particularly in the case of _Lemming_, Cracker is a triumph of bravura characterisation over good plotting. The plot of Lemming completely falls apart if you look at it closely: the timeline doesn’t work (I went over it in great detail with my editor because I was sure they couldn’t have screwed up, but they did – it’s to do with the length of time the kid was missing vs the time of death vs him not being missed at school vs him being found wearing school uniform); there’s no mention of DNA testing, which there should have been, even in 1993 (and which there is, ahem, in the novelisation); and there’s no way a demonstration verging on a riot could build up *right outside a police station* without a single police officer noticing. And that’s without the way the police allow Fitz to work with (or should that be ‘over’) suspects and witnesses? I think the show gets away with it all because on screen it goes by so fast and people get caught up in it – the same isn’t true in a novel, and it’s just as well there’s more space in a novel for dealing with the plot convolutions.

    Re Spooks – I’d never considered it a cop show before. I’m not sure it is, really – for me, one of the things that defines it is the way the team deal with things that is _not_ the way the police would.

    I agree that Adam is a better character than Tom but I thought the show damn near jumped the shark when they had him and his wife working on the same team and the same assignments just because of the obvious conflicts of interest. For all the wild stuff they have on the show that was the one thing that seemed totally unbelievable to me.

    Mind you, I will _never_ forgive them for getting rid of Ruth (and I don’t care if the actor did want to go.)

  9. I heart The Cops, a great show that deserved more recognition than it got. Could somebody please released it on DVD, so I can savour it again?

  10. Todger – I should have known that CATS commenting on my blog was not as weird as it could get!

    Anon – pipes and slippers, yes yes

    Liz – you wrote novelisations of CRACKER?? Awesome! How’d you get a gig like that?

    David – not seen that show, what did you like about it?

  11. re: the deep fat fryer scene. The fact that, five years on, that scene is still being talked about (and, judging from the stats on my own blog, still being searched for) shows how effective it was. It might be sensationalist and it might be vile but it was memorable and shocking. It’s probably the reason a lot of people ended up keeping watching what started off as a pretty average show that suddenly challenged you as a viewer.

    Also, as Joss Whedon said about the last film he directed (I hope I’m being suitably vague for spoiler reasons) if you kill off a main character then the audience knows that no-one is safe and scenes that put the main characters in jeopardy and danger aren’t lessened because you know they’re going to be alright.

    What I also liked about Spooks is that it generally avoids the jingoistic rattlings that could so easily accompany a series like that. The characters frequently question what they’re doing and sometimes things don’t always go as planned (as was the case in the episode “Nest of Angels” with Alexander Siddig and the kid in the schoolyard with the bomb.)

    As for other shows, I’ve always liked Waking The Dead – quite possibly for Trevor Eve’s character who has anger management issues. The story’s are somewhat predictable but the character’s are great.

  12. That’s precisely why I like Spooks too Tom – I felt they questioned themselves less with Tom than they do with Adam though. And Waking The Dead is one of my faves too – it will be treated to a post all its own in this series, in fact.

  13. Someone in my writers’ group had done a couple of Dr Who spin off novels for Virgin and was asked to recommend people. One interesting thing was that as the three of us who did the first season novelisations knew each other, we were able to develop bits of backstory and use them in each others’ books (for instance, I gave Panhandle an ex boyfriend and worked out how her father killed himself (can’t actually remember if he was stated to be dead in the show or if that was me too, now; someone else – Jim Mortimore, I think – decided she had a drum kit she liked to bang around on when she was in a bad mood.)

    By the way, there was more than one Cracker follow up – apart from the one a couple of years ago, there was one set in Hong Kong.

    I’ve also done novelisations for a lot of other shows, btw – Soldier Soldier, Bramwell, Bugs, Thief Takers, Staying Alive and Reckless – some of them under pen names and some not. Bizarrely, I’m listed on Amazon has having done one that I didn’t do in the end and one that I would have loved to have done but didn’t even get asked about!

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