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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

The police as performance artists

TV loves the cops. The cops love TV. And just like lovers, TV and the cops imitate each other. Z Cars was based on the memoirs of Bill 'City Cop' Prendegast, but Prendegast had already based himself on Phillip Marlowe. The police trust TV. Researching a documentary on 'the handless corpse' - a late seventies' drug-related murder - I had a thousand doors slammed in my face but not by the cops. They took their phones off the hook, ordered tea and got out their photo albums. In the seventies, I saw a panda car in pursuit of a youth who had run out of Wimpy's without paying. The panda ploughed through a pile of cardboard boxes, just as they always did on Starsky and Hutch. I swear the driver was wearing a chunky cardigan and singing 'Don't Give Up on Us Baby'.

Crimewatch UK is the latest convolution in this twisted branch of hyper-reality. Crimewatch is the cops' South Bank Show - inspectors talk like serious playwrights about their latest works, their conversation punctuated by little reconstructions of important scenes. Meanwhile in the background, lesser cops man the phones and swing on their chairs with elaborate preoccupation, trying to angle themselves into shot, desperate, like extras in the Rover's.

Crimewatch UK gets 12m-13m viewers. Who are they? Clearly a good proportion are the spouses of cops and criminals (there is a massive increase of both categories). Presumably, the criminal classes watch in the hope of glimpsing themselves on those clips from the building society security cameras. There is always a selection of these, uncannily reminiscent of the 'new chart entries' section of Top of the Pops ('and bubbling under as public enemy number 33 is a brand new entry - the masked gunman from the Bradford & Bingley'). But what do the general viewers get out of it?

Do they sit there with their notebooks taking down registration numbers and birthmarks in the hope of spotting a real robber? Do they expect to stumble into serious crime on the way to the off-licence? If they do, it's because that's the expectation which Crimewatch sets out to nurture. The programme is designed to increase our fear of crime and our sense of its proximity. The battery of phones in the background, the subtitles flashing by, the mantra-like incantation of the phone numbers, and the late evening 'Crimewatch Update' all conspire to give the programme the pounding urgency of an Election Special or CNN war coverage.

The presenters - Nick Ross and Sue Cook - do not sit down like current affairs reporters but prowl restlessly round the studio as though they might be called out or shot down any minute. Ross - a man who takes his style cue from Top Shop's Stepford branch - signs off like a camp Hannibal Lecter with the line, 'don't have a nightmare'. It's not surprising that the recent report from the University of Sterling - Women Viewing Violence - found that 67 per cent of women questioned thought Crimewatch was one of the most disturbing things on TV.

In fact, there is nothing truly urgent about Crimewatch. There is so little serious crime that it takes a month to fill the slot and even then you spend half the time looking at stolen t-shirts and listening to repeats of the phone number. The police themselves are notoriously unacquainted with the very concept of urgency. For instance, when they managed to tape the ransom demands of Stephanie Slater's kidnapper, they did not release the tapes to the News but held on to them for almost a fortnight so that they could be on Crimewatch (presumably so that they could be on telly themselves). Last month's show was instrumental in effecting four arrests. Four expressed as a percentage of 13m is 0.00003 of one per cent. Small.

Crimewatch UK serves the same function as policing in general. The police are in fact, pretty crap at catching criminals. In this country, you can easily get away with murder, and crime certainly does pay. Those that are caught tend to be innocent. Take the handless corpse about which the police were so keen to talk. The murderers were so incompetent that they dumped the body in a lake used by a police diving school. They left a car full of blood, hair and fingerprints in a station car park. The killers could not have been more helpful, but the cops did not catch up with them; their girlfriends grassed them up.

The reason the glitzy theatricality of Crimewatch appeals so strongly to the police is that modern policing is glitzily theatrical. As I write the Merseyside police helicopter is buzzing our street and probing my garret with its searchlight. It cost the city £1m and has been instrumental in arresting a neighbour for possession of stolen t-shirts (the very t-shirts that appeared on Crimewatch). Its main function is not to catch anyone but to create the impression that Liverpool is a war zone and therefore to reinforce the notion that the police are necessary and effective.

This particular brand of street theatre was pioneered by the Los Angeles Police Department. Being Los Angeles most of the cops are resting actors and they love dressing up and posing around. They have done such a good job of convincing their citizens that they are living out Blade Runner that now when they see real footage of real cops beating up real people, many citizens appear not to believe their own eyes. But if the police are really performance artists, why don't they have to queue up for Arts Council grants like the rest of us?

Of course, police performance is a lot more commercial than most forms of street theatre. The Crimewatch inserts have spawned a whole brood of true-crime dramas. Michael Winner's True Crimes concentrates on police successes (it's a short series). And in the autumn, LWT are to put out a series of plays which will be in effect full-length reconstructions of famous crimes. The BBC have recently cottoned on to the negative image of society which Crimewatch encourages, and have come up with a balancing programme called Crime File which sets out to portray the 'good side of human nature'. The night I watched it, Sue Cook was being shown the latest forensic techniques by an insanely chummy boffin with an air hostess smile.

Even as he spoke, across the airwaves on C4 News, Dr Frank Skuse was using the same air hostess smile and boffiny manner to explain why he had spent an entire decade casually perjuring himself and putting innocent people in jail. It turned out he was trying to make a statement. Judith Ward and the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four were actually a series of installations, attempts to say something about Law and Order as the Human Condition. The reason Skuse didn't have to get a grant to make these was that his Art had won, the state had chosen his illusion as the one it wanted to believe in. Law and order is another modern superstition. Property is its sacrament, policing is its priesthood, and Nick Ross its rosy little altar boy.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992

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