Our image of the police is now informed by riot footage as much as anything else. The humble copper has been through a lot of changes in my life so far. The earliest one I can remember is the TV show ‘Dixon of Dock Green’, which began in 1955 and ran in the UK for 21 years. But the avuncular Dixon now seems an absurd fantasy-figure, like something from the early days of Doctor Who.
Ted Willis’s series looked at daily life in a fictional London police station, with the emphasis on petty crime brought under control through common sense and human understanding. The central character was a mature, sympathetic police constable, George Dixon, played by Jack Warner in all 432 episodes.
The village bobby who settles domestic disputes, the kindly sergeant who knows everyone, the WPC who sees a little boy home after dark have now all been replaced by a security guard sleepily watching a bank of monitors. When I was a child we knew the name of the PC on our street and often invited him in for a cup of tea, but when Jack Warner’s Dixon was gunned down in cold blood in the film version, ‘The Blue Lamp’, an era of innocence came to an end and police after were portrayed as more hard-edged and aggressive.
We knew that there was corruption in the force, of course, just as we know all the old British crime movies were nonsense; you can’t reliably knock someone unconscious with a sock in the jaw, and if you thump a guard with a spanner you’ll cause him irreparable brain damage.
Another TV series, ‘Rosie’, was about a cop so inexperienced that his mother still made him sandwiches for work. My favourite 1950s cop moment is when PC Ruby Gates (Joyce Grenfell) persuades her sergeant boyfriend to change the police radio frequency in their patrol car to the Light Programme because it’s ‘more romantic’, thus missing the report of a robbery. When he admonishes her she opines, ‘You used to call me your little blue lamp baby.’ Then we had Morse, cultured, gentle, civilised, reasonable. It’s an odd trope that you don’t find so readily in other cultures.
The idea that cops can reasonably talk out problems with the public still exists. Living in King’s Cross I see it on a daily basis; people chatting to the police, cops kneeling beside the homeless and seeing how they are, laughing with members of the public, and I wonder if the old attitudes are so deeply ingrained that we still have a slightly different relationship to our police.
Obviously this isn’t Newcastle on a Saturday night, but King’s Cross is still a flashpoint, a frontline, but the hardline approach is not visibly taken. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be in the most security camera-heavy part of the country
Like our engineers, today’s cops do not fit the stereotype anymore and are likely to be sitting in an office. This is part of the fun of writing Bryant & May, because I can throw my cops right back into the world of Sergeant Dixon.
In a production of the opera ‘Hansel & Gretel’ there’s a musical interlude where the lost children are protected by angels in the forest. It was relocated in a London park in the fifties, and the ‘angels’ who protect them while they sleep came in the form of familiar figures; policeman, milkman, soldier, lollipop lady, teacher, nurse, each in their own uniform, each signifying safety, warmth, kindness, order.
A charming notion, now lost in the mists of time. But the optimist in me wonders if something still remains. I’m sure Jan will disabuse me of this notion. Mind how you go.