No, I didn’t watch ‘Line of Duty’
Updated: May 22
You could be forgiven for asking why anyone should care if I watched ‘Line of Duty’ or not. However, if I had a quid every time a friend asked, I’d have enough money for a couple of beers in a central London pub. When I reply, “nah, I watched a couple of episodes but gave up,” they’re usually surprised.
Well, because for five years I was a police officer on the Met’s anti-corruption unit, working on a team analogous to AC12. I suppose this is the bit where I'm supposed to get misty-eyed about how tough it was ‘banging up your own’, but it wasn’t, really. A police officer who chooses to become a criminal is… a criminal. Sometimes a bit more difficult to catch, but that’s the professionally satisfying bit. Anyhow, I lost little sleep over the work. It was interesting enough, covering everything from thefts on police premises to network-level corruption. Some of it felt like counter-intelligence, a sort of low-rent ‘Smiley’s People’ with coppers instead of spies. We also worked against as many police support staff as we did sworn officers. Support staff are generally paid less, often have useful access into police information systems and are locally recruited – they lived near, or knew, criminals near their places of duty.
Anyway, back to ‘Line of Duty’. Once you’ve been involved in something for real, the fictional version often feels cringeworthy – and not necessarily from recognition. And, as a writer, you also think of the other human stories and drama the real thing offers. None of this is a criticism of the talent behind 'Line of Duty', which is well-written, lovingly plotted and has an excellent cast. There’s clearly a decent police advisor in there, too, as the police jargon is technically correct (if not laid on a little thick). The storylines reflect real-world cases, some of which you’d only know if you took a train-spotter’s interest in contemporary police corruption.
It suppose it comes down to that horrible word, Verisimilitude. You hear it often when writers talk about fiction, meaning a piece is believable, or has the appearance of truth. Notice it doesn’t have to be true – just feel authentic in and of itself. Create and maintain its own internal consistency to the point where you happily go along for the ride. Now, even I appreciate Line of Duty wasn’t written for ex anti-corruption officers, but I’m unable to suspend my disbelief. Verisimilitude is clearly dynamic; what might work for you might not work for me, and this series works for millions. Poor old me, I can’t watch 'Line of Duty' simply as entertainment.
So many things. For example, in the first season they put a police undercover officer inside a firearms team as if that’s just something you do. I sighed. That would be like dropping a rare steak into a shark tank. And too many of the officers talk to each other in that stilted, slightly formal way TV people imagine coppers do (they really don’t, Jed). And they CARRY GUNS, one of my biggest bugbears. There’s only a tiny cadre of detectives in UK law enforcement who carry firearms, usually only for self-defence on surveillance duties. Even the ‘intervention’ role of the Met’s Flying Squad, where detectives arrested armed criminals ‘going across the pavement’ was handed to specialist firearms teams nearly ten years ago*. Yet, in ‘Line of Duty’, the whole of AC-12 are tooled-up. Then there’s dear old Ted Hastings (why is a uniformed Superintendent leading an investigative unit? Why hasn’t he had a haircut? Why is he interviewing people?). Everyone is high-ranking (Glock-toting detective inspectors don’t, sadly, get involved in car chases). And, no, police officers don’t have the right to be interviewed by someone of a higher rank, unless I missed that part of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. And if Central Police was real and required its professional standards unit to be armed, the Home Office would most likely disband it.
You see? I’m doomed by my past. Doomed, I tell you. And, if I’m honest, it sticks in my craw when the series is lauded for its hard-hitting realism simply because the characters say ‘CHIS’ a lot. As far as real policing goes, 'Line of Duty' might as well be 'Game of Thrones' with warrant cards and stab vests.
Now, this isn’t to say I can’t enjoy police drama. I’ve never been a Protection Officer, so was able to watch ‘Bodyguard’ albeit with reservations. So, my friends, here are two series on police corruption to scratch your ‘Line of Duty’ itch, now we know ‘H’ was a bit of a dick you saw loitering by a photocopier three years ago.
Between the Lines 1992-1994
I was a newly-minted policeman when this aired on the BBC. Neil Pearson is perfect as Tony Clark, a shag-happy thief-taker recruited into CIB (Complaints Investigation Bureau, as it used to be called in the Met). The series has it all; larcenous cops, police brutality and a bizarre episode where a Superintendent leads his men into a riot to ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ like Colonel Kilgore from Apocalypse Now. Extra points for two of the best fictional coppers ever to grace the small screen, the superb DS Harry Naylor (proper Cockney ‘tec, his hobby is ballroom dancing) played by Tom Georgeson and DS Mo Connell (Siobhan Redmond), who simply wants to be a good detective in a force where being a gay woman is still A Thing. Stir in a bucket load of 90s nostalgia and you’ve got a winner. The third series jumps the shark as Tony and the crew go private, and you’ll lose nothing by giving it a swerve.
The Shield 2002-2008
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Detective Vic Mackey leads Farmington Division’s ‘Strike Team’, a proactive unit doubling up as one of the busiest organised crime groups in Southern LA. Cartoony, violent and gritty, this is a police thriller where guns and shootouts are entirely appropriate. Mackey, played by Michael Chiklis, is a monster; in the first scene of the first episode he shoots another cop in the head for not being bent. Yet he’s also a dedicated father to an autistic son and a passionate crime-fighter. This juxtaposition fuels the series, with Mackey becoming a twisted antihero. The Shield’s message is grim – LA is bent at every level, so why should the cops miss out on the action? Each misdeed the Strike Team commits spirals into a new series of coverups, Mackey slowly becoming trapped in a monstrous labyrinth of murder and lies. Add a stellar cast (later seasons include Glenn Close and Forest Whitaker), slick dialogue and a police station full of misfit cops and you’ve got one of the best police series ever made. The ending is completely satisfying too. If ‘The Wire’ is a banquet at a Michelin Star restaurant, ‘The Shield’ is a crazy all-you-can-eat Las Vegas buffet.
Dunno about you, but there’s room in my life for both.
* A quick edit - after a conversation with an ex-SCO19 friend the other day, it appears the Flying Squad appeared to have used it's political heft to wrestle back some of its intervention powers since 2012. I stand corrected.