In common with something like twelve million other Brits, last night I stayed up well past my normal bedtime of 7.30pm in order to watch the seventh and final episode of Series 6 of Jed Mercurio’s highly-successful “police procedural” drama Line Of Duty [BBC1 9.00pm].
I have not long awoken again to peruse the best overnight efforts of our national newspapers and find myself in agreement with most other scribes assigned to review the programme who have seemingly united in reporting themselves to have been somewhat underwhelmed. For once, that is also how I felt.
One of the ironies facing those who make it their business to produce movie or television drama series or serials set “in the real world” is that – to an extent – they just cannot win when it comes to satisfying the expectations of those who actually ply their trades in – or know anything about – the real-life callings being featured.
It all boils down to the fact that – however worthy or apparently exciting, stressful, pressurised and/or glamourous the worlds of those at the “sharp end” of human endeavour might be – “making a drama intended for the entertainment of viewers in cinemas or at home” is ultimately completely incompatible with representing the world they are set in accurately.
Thus – whether a producer is making a feature film of 90 to 120 minutes, or instead a six, ten, or even twenty-part 60-minute television serial/series – they know even before they begin that they’re on a hiding to nothing.
Take Line of Duty, for example, which has certainly kept this viewer engaged and entertained for most of the past six or seven years (it was about Series 3 before I first cottoned on to the project at all).
The truth is that – whether anyone is setting out to make a drama about a specialist UK police internal department established to investigate police corruption linked to organised crime, or even alternatively a documentary on such a unit – it is obviously going to be inaccurate for the simple reason that, in any such real-life unit, literally about 85% of their time (and hundreds if not thousands of man/woman-hours) would be spent doing little more than researching computer and other evidential records.
Only a tiny fraction of it would be spent jumping into police cars dressed in full firearms kit and body armour plus walkie-talkie radios etc. on their way to “pick up” some dodgy suspect operating out of a back street lock up industrial unit, thereafter to interrogate them in a tense interview room for the viewers’ benefit and before reaching some sort of “hanging” denouement just in time (i.e. two minutes to the hour of the end of its allotted transmission slot) to leave us all in a frenzy of speculation as to what the hell has just happened … and indeed, what might then happen at the beginning of next week’s episode.
My point is that all drama projects – indeed all documentaries – are steeped in artifice, not least that designed to give the best impression they can that what is happening on screen is just how it is, or was, (or indeed would be) in real life had it only been possible to “film” events as they actually happened whist still meeting the necessary demands of producing a dramatic piece that fits neatly into its slot whilst simultaneously taking its viewers on a suitably diverting “journey” through a narrative that hopefully maintains in not increases their level of enjoyment.
I’m no movie expert or particular watcher of television documentaries but I really struggle to think of an “biographical” drama project that has ever left me thinking “Yup … that’s just about how it must have been …”
Let’s name-check a few examples:-
Erin Brockovich; Schindler’s List; Lawrence of Arabia; Raging Bull; Amadeus; The Elephant Man; Braveheart; The King’s Speech; Ghandi … (there are hundreds more from which to choose).
So in one sense, in my view, it is pointless ex-coppers – or even the average inexpert viewer like me – picking holes in the “authenticity” of police activities as presented to us in projects such as Line of Duty.
We’re watching something that a writer had invented in his or her back-bedroom (or indeed living room of his multi-million pound mansion) and which then, together with his/her producing collaborators, including the actors, have valiantly sought to give the impression – for the sake of the project and its hoped-for box office success – could have occurred in real life.
But let’s not kid, ourselves, folks: deep down we all know – even before the opening credits even come up – that the best movie/television productions set in “the real world” are still as artificial as crocodile tears.
As it happens, two of my biggest iconic heroes of the past six decades – boxer Muhammad Ali and Beach Boys’ anchor man Brian Wilson – have had biopics made in their honour: in Ali’s case, Ali (2001, featuring Will Smith as the man himself) and in Wilson’s Love and Mercy (2014, featuring both Paul Dano and John Cusack as the troubled music-make at different points in his life).
From what I’ve read, both projects were made with great reverence, attention to detail and loving care and attention.
They were trying to give an impression – especially to new audiences and specifically younger generations – of just how special and important their subjects of their efforts were both to “people who were actually there”, or indeed those who weren’t but lived through the years at which they were at their peak.
And yet, I personally deliberately opted not to see either movie because, however well-made they might have been, (in my imagination) they could never in a million years match the sheer majesty – and therefore impact – of their real-life subjects in their pomp.
So I forgive all of Line of Duty’s inconsistencies, absurdities and head-shaking illogicalities.
It’s only a piece of drama designed to entertain and – I would submit – scores pretty heavily under that heading.
For that, I take my hat off to Jed Mercurio and his fellow producers.