TV

REAL MEAN CRITTERS

LINE OF DUTY – Series 4

UK 2016

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‘It is the fault of the Constitution,’ says Donald Trump. I am not really an idiot, it is those pesky regulations, thinks Donald. Meanwhile the equally sinister Theresa May wants an election because she hopes that she somehow has a chance of uniting an island nation before the crash landing of its economy. The Scottish Parliament is blitzed with nationalists, and in the rest of Britain the Brexit vote has divided social classes, generations and families.   Social Democrats in England are horrified by a Labour party agenda that suggests society can be improved. And meanwhile neoliberals everywhere want to get rid of those pesky regulations.

For six weeks Line Of Duty did, though, unite a fractious British nation. Millions of people who consider themselves sensible waited for the next episode and to be insulted by even more plot absurdities. But, before indulging in the British tradition of sneering at success, first some praise. Jed Mercurio wrote and created Line of Duty. He has been lionised and deserves to be. Line Of Duty is a brilliant concept loaded with ambition and audacity.   At its best it captures the tension and drama that exist within any large organisation, the conflict between the bureaucrats and the mavericks. Before he invented crime stories Mercurio studied medicine, worked as a physician and then used his experience to write hospital dramas. This is important because his background in medicine has given Mercurio a respect for rules and the kind of regulations that Trump and May sneer at and promise to abandon.

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Watch an episode of Line Of Duty and it is difficult to recall a time when TV was dominated by right wing rule breaking policemen who sneered at the Rule of Law. Writers and moviemakers think of themselves as creative. They admire the creative temperament, which is why they romanticise lone heroes and rebels. Writers tend to be on the side of the mavericks.  Line Of Duty may or may not be a metaphor for the National Health Service, the friction between medics driven by duty and the others who want to use their skills to become rich but either way his experience in healthcare has informed the imagination of Jed Mercurio. The heroes in Line Of Duty are the team members of AC12, the organisation that investigates corruption amongst their colleagues.   They are opposed to the policemen and policewomen who ignore the rules. The mavericks hate AC12, dismiss them as boring and creeps. Some of the mavericks just want to ignore rules that prevent them from arresting people they think are guilty. They think they have daring and integrity. The other mavericks have come to the nihilistic conclusion that fighting crime is a waste of time so the sensible thing to do is take the graft. When said like that, the mavericks sound unattractive. But most TV shows and movies glorify rule breakers. Often they make the criminals the heroes.

Jed Mercurio is not like that. In his time in surgery he must have seen too many botched operations. He values procedure and compliance. His heroes are company men and women. There is not a drop of creative temperament amongst any of them. This, of course, is what makes them so memorable. The people in AC12 have ambition but they trust that effort and loyalty will secure reward. The ambitions of Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott and Detective Sergeant Kate Fleming are confined to worrying about the next promotion. These two earnest people are not the kind who taste destiny. They relax with a take away curry.

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Mercurio remembers his education. Capricious health and its ramifications feature in Line Of Duty. DCI Roz Huntley spends most of series 4 nursing a mysterious injury.   Occupied with manipulating both evidence and the expectations of the audience Huntley has no time for treatment. The inevitable happens, and she needs to have her hand amputated. Showing the same contempt for the NHS as Theresa May and the Tory party, Huntley discharges herself from hospital. After that Mercurio loses all sympathy for the woman.  Huntley really does get her comeuppance.

TV series are defined by longevity. The best begin with a bold concept. To persist in the ratings battle they need to develop until they become either epic or soap opera. Breaking Bad is important because it became an epic tale and it avoided the soap . Many viewers, though, are happy to settle for addictive suds. Often what is important to these viewers is not the quality of the programme but the impact of the addiction. There has been as much discussion about how people were anticipating the last episode of Line Of Duty as there has the actual content of the programme. The tone deaf Game Of Thrones appeals because it is soap opera masquerading as an epic. Football is the biggest soap opera of all.  Football fans think they are a significant element in the spectacle and seek glory through addiction.

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Line Of Duty was unusual in that it grasped the epic in its first series.   A complex plot and widespread corruption pitched the authentic and modest bureaucrats of AC12 into an impossible Homeric struggle against powerful enemies. As Hercules soon discovered, the demands on the warriors, or just the professional, are unfair and endless. Series 4 has benefited from the presence of the talented Thandie Newton. DCI Roz Huntley may not have the time management skills to ensure she attends hospital appointments but she is a fabulous and contradictory character. Huntley is superior, self-adoring, competent, cold, condescending, detached, paranoid, insecure, caring and vindictive. Newton switches moods and never fails to convince as a character. There are a couple of daft moments in the plot that would expose any actress but she grits her thespian teeth and stays professional. One of those instances occurs near the end of the show and is shared by the equally marvellous Adrian Dunbar. When the plot becomes really daft, he raises an eyebrow, and we are not sure if he is advancing the story or letting us know that he is too long in the tooth not to know narrative silliness.

The solid acting supports Line Of Duty and carries the breathless plot. The actors are entitled to the praise they receive but the editing flatters the performances. Much has been written by cineastes about how skilful editors and directors can use the cutting room to create impressive visual montages. Editing, though, can also benefit a performance. Hitchcock had contempt for actors because he was convinced his style and shots would define the impact of actors on the audience as much as individual performances. Hitchcock was at least half right. A momentary shot of a raised eyebrow or an open mouth can reveal added mystery, and there are plenty in Line Of Duty.

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It appears that Series 5 was being planned before Series 4 was shown. BBC TV knows when it has a hit.  Jed Mercurio has become not just successful but powerful. The last episode of Series 4 promised that the investigation would return to the original suspicions of corruption. This is to be welcomed. Despite the presence of Thandie Newton series 4 has been the weakest.   The rot began at the end of Series 3.  The epic struggle had been marvellous and it crystallised in a fabulous 23 minute interrogation of Detective Steve Arnott. But the final escape and capture of detestable Dot Cottan, though welcome, was ludicrous. We have to fear that adulation has turned the head of Mercurio. Perhaps now he is too willing to entertain. The early series served as a warning about human nature and the illusions we have about British institutions. That sense was lost in Series 4. Huntley put in motion complicated events but there was no epic battle. In previous series the Detectives Arnott and Fleming had to negotiate their way through an impossibly treacherous world. They explained because they had to convince others. This time, though, it felt like the detectives were using each other to reveal the plot to the audience. After Detective Sergeant Arnott was beaten up with a baseball bat and he had to adjust to life in a wheelchair the epic sank into soap opera. Not one of the interrogation scenes in the last episode was convincing. The link to further corruption and even more violent men in balaclavas was belated and clumsy.

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If we are lucky, the weaknesses will be short lived.  Arnott will leave his wheelchair and avoid romance with Fleming.  And the epic battle against an almost completely corrupt police force will begin again.  Line Of Duty has never lacked ambition.  It has not just entertained viewers with constant surprises but educated them in police procedure and behaviour.  Because each series is presented to a more knowing and calculating audience, the stakes are now high for Mercurio. The writer has said that he does not like final endings. He prefers the never-ending saga. We may miss Thandie Newton but the good news is that Roz Huntley is locked up in prison where she can think about what went wrong with her career, marriage and family. There is hope that in the next series the epic will triumph over soap opera.  Next time Mercurio will not only need to become a creative Hercules, he needs his characters to imitate the classical heroes. Brexit and an increasingly strange Theresa May already exist as threats. The British may need epic battlers more than they realise.

 Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

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Ripper Sreet

 

 

Ripper-Street

‘You know the other man?’

‘With regret I do?’

This is how they talk in Ripper Street. It soon becomes addictive.

‘I shall get about it presently.’

How complicated conversation is without the present participle. Watch Ripper Street for half an hour and it is possible to imagine Henry James sitting barefoot and inventing Victorian slang. The dialogue in Ripper Street may be mannered and artificial but the style is sustained and effective. Anachronisms are few compared to most period drama, although the reference to ‘technology’ in the first episode of the fourth series was a bad error that jarred. This is being picky. Ripper Street has much to enjoy, and why the programme is no longer shown on BBC TV is a disgrace that must have something to do with Tory hostility and budget cutting, evidence of the continuing oppression of an enlightened bureaucracy.

The ornate dialogue keeps the actors happy which is fine because Ripper Street has a good cast. Mathew Macfadyen is tortured and sensitive, and his performance defines a complicated man who has principles but who is also preoccupied with his gifts and his destiny. Macfadyen is the star but the cameos are also important. The women have good faces that encourage the camera and us to linger. Lucy Cohu plays the Jewish woman that Reid should have dallied with longer. She has weary, wary, mysterious eyes that evoke unseen drama.

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The names of the lead characters are great and, like the dialogue, they suit Gothic taste. The intellectually curious policeman played by Macfadyen is called Reid, and reading is what the curious do in their spare hours. For Reid knowledge requires understanding of what appals but that means loss of innocence and inevitable guilt. His anxious and haunted assistant is Bennet Drake. This bare-knuckle fighter has had a troubled past and he wears the bruises to prove it. His face looks like dough between rolls. His appropriate name evokes a man whose life has been a complicated journey, a traveller who has bobbed on the ocean between the coastlines of damnation and redemption.   Captain Jackson, the American pathologist and Miss Susan, the brothel owner, have a complicated relationship. In the early episodes they merely had the ‘hots’ for each other. Now they have discovered love, a commodity that in Ripper Street is complicated. Their affinity and conflict serve as a metaphor for the brutal early capitalism that the show relishes, the promise and the burden of appetite. Captain Jackson and Miss Susan have identities that, like their wilful characters, challenge traditional gender. No Mr and Mrs for those two.

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Symbolism requires substance, and all the leading characters have psychological girth. The men, though, dominate the show. All the men are engaged in a chest beating struggle to conquer their weaknesses and somehow transcend failure. Reid is obsessive and narcissistic, too vain and self-important to live amongst flawed men and women. He is tempted by a retreat where he can listen to the ocean. In American movies the tortured visit lakes and gaze up at tall trees. In Britain we ponder the horizon. Drake lives in fear of his violence and his own considerable demons. The American emotions of hard drinking Captain Jackson are as combustible as the chemicals that he uses in his laboratory. Underneath the hedonism Jackson is a capable pathologist. The scenes from the Victorian laboratory and his performance are a highlight of the show and they explain how a gifted sensitive man is drawn to the brutal.

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The women affect the plot but they are occupied in surviving and picking up the pieces left by self-destructive men. As some of those pieces fall from the women, they do share the drama. Miss Susan may love Captain Jackson, and ex-whore Rose is fond of Drake, but both need independent status and unencumbered space. Love exists in Ripper Street but it is peculiar. The men have emotional attachments that add little of benefit to their lives. They are like addicts who wonder what it would be like to have clean spirits. The women balance survival against commitment and the obligatory economic dependency. If the men are occupied with triumph, the women have secret plans. They have schemes for the future that are intended to inhibit the worst in their men.

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In four series of the show no one has yet appeared who has made someone else happy. Series three ended with a glorious reunion between a father and daughter. In the first episode of series four that relationship is already frayed. The beautiful daughter, who was welcomed Dickens style into the middle class family, is now a difficult daughter curious about oral sex.

The latest BBC adaptation of War And Peace has cost the BBC £8,000 for every minute of the show. Ripper Street is less expensive but enough money was borrowed for fine production values. Gothic excess has always been well served by cinematic technology. Ripper Street has stylised CGI and a loud soundtrack but it avoids the brutal rock and roll bohemia of the appalling Peaky Blinders. In Blinders exaggerated characters created an artificial environment that accommodated adolescent fantasy. In Ripper Street strong characters are frustrated and reduced by the events and challenges of a bigger world. Malevolent villains exhaust the best of us but indifferent capitalism is also capable of horror. The victims of early industry suffer extreme hardship; the faces of the female matchmakers are eaten away by industrial pollution. The victims, though, are not romanticised. They are ignorant and, because they are powerless, obliged to be pathetic and harsh to each other. Compromised by corruption and surrounded by exploitation and degradation the men and women of Ripper Street are inadequate, their morals as shabby as their circumstances. Agents of change and protest do exist but, because they scramble to survive, they are selfish and narrow. This is how the history and progress required by the powerful tramples us all prior to extinction or, as the Fagin substitute says to a union leader, ‘The future times will roll over you.’  Despite the social conscience of Ripper Street the profit makers are the visionaries. The exploited are crude and ignorant. The imagination operates best when money is being counted.

The title of the series may be an example of crass commercialism but its debt to the East End legacy is paid by Ripper Street. London incubated industrial capitalism before anywhere else, and the horror of Whitechapel was as unexpected as the wealth gained by some.  The plots, like the times, are rooted in greed and opportunity. Reid is assailed by opportunists in commerce, the press, the police and even the reform movement. Neither does he trust women. Modern themes and conflicts mix with Victorian dynamism and ambition. All familiar travails are evident, gender, class, money, status, imperialism, racism and the alienation from work. It makes sense. This is where the problems began.

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A walk around Whitechapel for the daughter of Reid reveals the exotic and forbidden but those who work there like her father understand what happens to the losers in a society based on aspiration and individualism. Isolated Whitechapel is the savage consequence of a contest needed by those desperate to combine profit with a clear but myopic conscience. Ripper Street has this political sensibility. This may deter the apolitical but without it the programme would be nothing more than bad taste Gothic. Because it is political, sometimes grudgingly like its characters, Ripper Street is more than the Victorian equivalent of the self-absorbed grotesquery in True Blood. The accusations of Dickens have been added to the Gothic mix and are essential. We observe the powerful and the powerless, the ruined and the deluded victors. Ripper Street is also restrained. It condemns violent protest. The policemen try to save lives and are willing to ignore fundamental grievances, compassion for the encountered rather than sympathy for a cause is what is important.

‘Save one life, you save the world entire,’ quotes Reid.

The existentialism may be dodgy and the syntax fake Latin but the sentence does explain the impulse to charity.

Relief from the contest is important to the characters of Ripper Street and usually it happens when they acknowledge their lovers. But there is nothing romantic about this acknowledgement. It is need and dependency not benevolence. Reid, Drake. Captain Jackson and Miss Susan are as destructive and as contrary as those in a Bergman movie. Even heart of gold Rose is fond of protest and is more than willing to come between Drake and his pipe and evening newspaper. Where will it end? Well, if the zombie hunters of The Walking Dead can follow a railway track for a whole series, the tortured souls of Whitechapel should be able to wander its twisted lanes for some time yet.

Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.

If you want to read more about his travels click here.