‘Evening All!’


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domestic disputes, the kindly sergeant who knows everyone, the WPC who sees a little boy home after dark have now all been replaced by a security guard sleepily watching a bank of monitors.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.


21 comments on “‘Evening All!’”

  1. Nick says:

    Now you have mentioned Rosie, the theme has ear-wormed itself into my brain and will not depart…

  2. John Griffin says:

    I have two ex-coppers in the family (thanks to the Tory police cuts), and they bemoan the old days when you got your essential intelligence from the community you policed, and in many cases, lived in. They are both quiet persuasive talkers who would rather defuse a situation than go in gung-ho, though they did enjoy the gung-ho bit too.
    Vignettes that stick in my memory include walking through the centre of Exeter with my copper brother and watching people duck and dive down alleyways once they saw him; also entering a wedding reception in a pub and the commotion as two guys exited, one over the bar and through the back door – bail dodgers apparently. He knew all the local crims. My sister policed Oxford; walking with her near Blackwells when a begging woman and child suddenly legged it – they were part of a Romanian gang that bussed the women in – with other people’s kids in some cases – and turned out all their money to the gangmaster at the end of the shift.

  3. Adam says:

    Book Morse is very different to TV Morse…I’ve only read the first couple, and he’s pretty unpleasant, unlikeable and more than a bit creepy..

  4. Ken Mann says:

    Morse is actually a gentleman sleuth. He just happens to have a warrant card. One of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels has one of the better accounts of an investigation I recall. Each rank contributes at their own level with their own skills, but I don’t remember which one it is.

  5. Peter says:

    When I was young, we all knew our local policeman and his dog, a retired police canine. He lived in the ‘police house’, a few streets away. Community policing hadn’t been invented; it wasn’t required as it was intrinsic to the way of life. Go back further and I understand that respectable and robust locals were expected to chip in for various duties. When the previous Prince of Wales or Lloyd George visited the West Midlands, they enlisted a few local iron workers to accompany them. They were all old men when I was a child, but, in their younger years, I’d have rated them against most Special Branch.

    Of course, it wasn’t all rosie, we all know that many Scotland Yard officers were as bent as a nine bob note and many City of London were not too bright. Fortunately, there have been Mr Bryant, Mr May and the PCUto make up for some of those shortcomings.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    The first TV Police show I remember was ‘Z Cars’. I was too young to appreciate it, but did like the big black Ford Zephyr cars they used. I’ve since seen some episodes, and they definitely don’t have the ‘cosy’ feel of ‘Dixon Of Dock Green’. It has that gritty feel that early episodes of ‘Coronation Street’ had, long before that show started to talk down to it’s audience.
    My dad loved shows like ‘Special Branch’ ‘Callan’, and the wonderfully dark ‘Public Eye’. My favourite Police shows were: ‘Strangers/Bulman’ starring the brilliant Don Henderson; ‘The Sweeney’ (one of the best UK TV shows ever created. Fact.), and one American – Columbo, which has given me endless enjoyment over the years. An American cop who never shoots anyone, and loses his temper on one occasion. And so brilliantly played by Peter Falk. Somebody once pointed out to me that the character of Columbo is very similar to that of Patrick Troughton’s portrayal of The Doctor’s Second Incarnation – a small, scruffy, shambling man, travelling in a frankly tatty vehicle, who wanders into situations where he’s not taken seriously. Beware! He has a mind like a steel trap. Try to outwit him at your peril.

  7. Brooke says:

    @Adam–yes, Morse is creepy, especially in LBTW.
    @Ken M–do you mean Pictures of Perfection? As I recall, it’s the first in which Sgt. Weild comes to life.

  8. Brooke says:

    Hooray! England’s Finest, digital audio version, is available for download in US–via you-know-who. You can play a sample.

  9. Roger says:

    Dixon was killed (by a wide-boy played by Dirk Bogarde) in 1950 and later revived for the series.

  10. Peter Dixon says:

    Columbo is great because it isn’t a whodunnit – you know the villain at the start. You also, cosily, know that Columbo will win out, its just a question of how he traps his man (quite often the superb Patrick McGoohan). Also there’s never a shootout or fisticuffs. But how did they ever successfully pitch the concept to US TV?

  11. Ian Luck says:

    Peter – The game is up in ‘Columbo’, when he utters the immortal line:
    “Er, sir… Just one more thing…”

  12. Ken Mann says:

    Yes I think I probably do mean Pictures of Perfection, thanks Brooke.

  13. Tim Lees says:

    A few years back, when I worked in Mental Health, I had intermittent dealings with the police. Their attitudes varied widely. Many, I’m glad to say, did come across as “Dixon” types — helpful, friendly, diplomatic. A few were not, and clearly regarded dealing with “the loonies” as beneath their pay scale. Their colleagues knew this. I remember when one of our patients was arrested. I thanked the officer for treating him gently. “That’s no problem,” he said. “But we go off duty now, and we can’t guarantee what the next lot’ll do.”

  14. SimonB says:

    We were in New York a couple of weeks ago and were astonished by the numbers of police on the streets. Not sure if I felt safer than at home though – it seemed in many ways that trouble was expected so they were there ready for it rather than having to be called in.

    Mind you, I was running a meeting at work yesterday and our local officer was late because he was the designated taser handler for the town centre and was on call for deployment. Strange times.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    The standard line for teachers was “the policeman is your friend” but we rarely saw one because in neighbourhoods with free standing houses in large yards the population is very thin so officers patrolled in cars and not all that frequently. I don’t know where the police station for our part of Vancouver was. When I went teaching “up country” in Lytton we did know the police (I had the sergeant’s daughter in my class) and the police were RCMP, not in red coats except when “dress reds” were called for. I would (and probably did) recommend them to my students.
    Now that I’m living in a suburb of Vancouver the police are still RCMP but I don’t know that I would recommend them in the same way. I got a pretty cold reception when there was a family illness and I was expected to monitor it and I asked for advice. We had a break-in and the officer seemed to feel that documenting theft and breakin was all he had to do – for the insurance, you know. Fingermarks on the window, possible evidence left behind all a waste of time because they’d never get anyone, doesn’t increase confidence. We had a break in that I almost walked in on and we didn’t bother reporting it because they hadn’t had time to get anything. Sweet young thing checking up on a case of pocket dialing “emergency” was light and pleasant but then nothing had actually happened.

  16. John Griffin says:

    Taser training lunchtime when my bro was still on the strength was officers taking turns to try to run a timed 20 metres while being tasered, a competition!

  17. Jan says:

    Hiya Chris I sent you an e mail ‘re this thread about a week back I think. My reply not being entirely suitable for your page here.

    Sorry ‘re recent inattention am well tucked up @ present. Hope all well Jan

  18. Helen Martin says:

    John, can you seriously imagine the constable in the picture above taking part in a timed taser race? Exactly. We need more of those constables even if they are slower and not quite as “hip” as the current crop. That one above also appears to have served more than honorably during the second war so age is going to be against him but no more so than Arthur and John.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, I meant John May not Griffin, of course.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    People of my generation still have respect for the Police – and in this day and age, some people might find that hard to understand, but it’s true. We had a local beat copper who would trundle round the area on his bike. He’d know everybody, and had an uncanny knack of knowing if kids were up to something. In my road, a lot of the houses were owned by policemen and women, and one was owned by Suffolk Constabulary. Not a great deal of crime on my road, as a result. My immediate neighbours are a former police officer, and a serving one. And no, if you were thinking, I don’t live in ‘Letsby Avenue’.

  21. Helen Martin says:

    I was waiting in A & E one afternoon and saw two officers with a teenage boy, obviously in some distress. Over the hour they waited for psychiatric care the two officers sat quietly with the boy, engaging him in conversation and keeping him from giving in to whatever it was he had or had not taken. I mentioned their care to the nurses and was able to comment to one of the officers who was going off. “No problem,” he said. “These kids are usually just needing a bit of careful handling.”

Comments are closed.