Following in the footsteps of Cops and last year’s The Shadow Line, Line of Duty lived up to the promise that now accompanies the category of “an original contemporary BBC2 British police serial drama”. There were elements of both those captivating predecessors in Line of Duty – there was the realism, both mundane and gritty, that Cops reflected so well, and there was the crime thriller with corruption at its heart, both themes in The Shadow Line, which was arguably the greatest British contained drama series of all-time.
With a fantastic cast, Line of Duty wasn’t too shabby either. There are few, if any better British actors at the moment than Lennie James, and he is brilliant throughout in the lead part of Tony Gates: every word, every facial expression and every movement perfectly brings to life a clever, charismatic, confident, high-flying cop who suddenly finds the walls around him closing in fast after an error of judgement.
It was James portrayal that leaves the viewer in the unusual position where throughout the best part of five-hours they are on the side of a supposedly bent cop, willing him to escape from an over-zealous and unlikely internal investigation, which begins into “laddering” (the manipulation of statistics) and quickly accelerates as Gates is co-incidentally drawn into the cover-up of a death which, unbeknown to him, is a murder.
If it was hard to believe the premise of the plot, in particular the resources deployed on an internal investigation, which included a long-term assignment of an undercover officer based on a hunch with no evidence at all, there were a number of all too believable depictions in the telling of the story: the complacency of an officer who misses the dead body under her nose as she seeks to avoid more form-filling, inadequate cheap civilian labour in back-room staff positions, the cut in overtime hours that undermine police work, the priorities to massage figures, and of course the cover-ups, summed up in the captions in the end, with gave the drama the feel of a documentary.
Alongside the cynicism that has become institutionalised, there is the good bobby-on-the-beat in the character of PC Bannarjee, who seeks to rehabilitate a character the rest of us have already long-given up on, after a series of appalling acts. The nastiness dished out on estates where the police are too scared to venture alone is perhaps even more authentic less than 12 months after nationwide riots and looting reminded us the inequalities that exist within towns and cities. Within the thriller, Line of Duty shows us the big gated house where white-collar criminals live, as well as the broken homes where the underworld prey.
Where Line of Duty is best though, is creating a chase where the lead character can be empathised with, while the story-telling drip feeds information that changes the narrative while leaving surprising episode endings full of impact. The words of the unwaveringly loyal Nige, played by Neil Morrisey, reminds the viewer of the issues a real Tony Gates would have faced within the force before he was in a position to win accolades for his work, when he talks about “the shit [Gates] took at Hendon”, while it is only half-an-hour into the final episode where the penny drops where the most rotten apple has been sitting all along.
Gates’ aberration was Jackie Laverty, a manipulative character with a hidden dark side that is played so well by Gina McKee, the viewer can see why Gates is taken in. Ever since the early Lenny Henry sit-com, McKee’s name on a cast list has pretty much guaranteed a quality performance and this is no exception. And along with Martin Compston, Vicky McClure and of course James himself, the acting is high quality.
There is a bleakness throughout, although the pace sometimes shifts, from the fast electronic beats of a burglar’s personal stereo, to James’ Gates sitting alone in a room as he know his life has fallen apart. And after five-hours of invested attention, the definitive ending to the main plot lines resolve things neatly, if not necessarily happily.
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