New BBC police drama Cuffs is 'like The Bill on a trip to the seaside'
THE BBC has a strangely chequered history when it comes to police dramas. Dixon of Dock Green, starring beloved character actor Jack Warner in the title role, was one of the most popular television series of all time.
It ran for a staggering 22 years (1955-78) and pretty much created the cosy cliché of the kindly bobby on the beat who prefers to solve problems with a wise word and a wag of the finger rather than a truncheon and a pair of handcuffs — although many of the surviving episodes (just 32 from a total of 432 escaped being wiped) tend to show Dixon wasn’t quite as idealised and divorced from reality as its harshest critics claimed.
Nonetheless, another long-running BBC cop drama, Z Cars (1962-78), co-created by Troy Kennedy Martin, who would go on to pen classic nuclear conspiracy thriller Edge of Darkness, ushered in a far grittier depiction of police work and was praised for its realism.
It also made a star of a beefy actor called Brian Blessed, who played a young copper policing the tough streets of a fictional town based on Kirkby in Liverpool.
Sometimes, though, BBC cop dramas struggled to keep pace with changing times and shifting tastes. Target (1977-78) starred Patrick Mower as tough, head-cracking DS Steve Hackett (which he pronounced ‘Ackett, presumably for added macho effect) of Southampton’s regional crime squad.
The first BBC drama to be shot entirely on 16mm film, it was a belated and rather humourless attempt to outdo ITV’s The Sweeney that took things a little too far.
Target immediately ran into trouble because of its excessive violence. In one notorious scene, a gangster attacked his girlfriend with a pot of boiling water, something even the writers of the The Sweeney would have considered a bit too much.
Self-appointed watchdog Mary Whitehouse went nuts, the BBC got the collywobbles and the second series of Target, which also proved to be its last, was considerably less violent.
It was replaced by the much gentler private eye show Shoestring, which, after star Trevor Eve announced he was quitting, was in turn was replaced by Bergerac (1981-91), starring a pre-Midsomer Murders John Nettles as the Jersey copper who comes across a quite remarkable level of criminal activity in an island of just 46 square miles.
A distinctly mixed bag then, and all of them very much of their time. Which begs the question, what time is new cop drama Cuffs, which continues tonight (BBC1, 8pm), supposed to be of?
The 70s? The 80s? The 90s? Could be any of those, but one thing is for sure: it’s very definitely not of the now. There’s nothing else quite like it on television at the moment — and that’s NOT intended as a compliment. In fact, there’s been nothing quite like it on television since The Bill ended five years ago, which was about 10 years too late for most people to care.
Cuffs, set in sunny Brighton (at least it was sunny when the series was being filmed) and revolving mostly around the low-level adventures of young uniformed officers, is basically The Bill-on-Sea.
All the episodes are written by creator Julie Geary, although it feels as if the whole series has been designed by a committee with one eye on the mechanics of the cop show and the other on political correctness.
It’s a PC show about PCs. There’s a black cop, played by Ashley Walters, who was magnetically good in Channel 4’s Top Boy and is utterly wasted here.
There’s a gay cop (Jacob Ifan), who multi-tasks on the clichés by also being the new guy in the squad and the top boss’s son.
There’s a feisty female cop (Eleanor Matsuura from Utopia), who’s half-Japanese (two boxes ticked for the price of one) and a comedy cop (Alex Carter, who was in Hollyoaks and Brookside), whose job is basically to be goofy as possible, like the character Reg Hollis used to be in The Bill.
To complete the gallery of types, their immediate superior is a woman, played by the ever-dependable Amanda Abbington from Sherlock, and there’s a gruff older male detective (Shaun Dooley) in the mix too.
There’s nothing wrong with political correctness, especially since television was so offensively politically incorrect for most of its early life, but not if it’s in the service of something as calculatedly phoney as Cuffs. You don’t believe in it for a moment. That’s okay, though, because the actors don’t seem to believe in the dialogue either.
Last week’s episode was a muddle of mini-plots: racism, drug abuse, child abduction, a bank robbery, suicide. But because Cuffs is pre-watershed, they were all handled with PG-13 gloves.
Tonight’s is no better. It opens, laughably, with gay cop suffering a touch of PTSD because feisty female cop accidentally tasered him, and ends with an elderly woman shooting a burglar. Given rampant rural crime, this could have been relevant; instead, it feels as tacked-on as everything else.
The Missing, Happy Valley and Line of Duty suggested the BBC had learned something from its American cousins. Cuffs makes it feel like none of them ever happened.
Cuffs, Wednesdays, 8pm BBC One