Media Representations of Police and Crime: Shaping the Police Television Drama Marianne Colbran (2014) Palgrave
As a child growing up I watched Dixon of Dock Green. I like, in retrospect, to think that I was aware, even then, that the cosy world depicted was not a true picture of policing or society. Later I may have been more beguiled by the ‘realism’ of Z Cars but by Softly Softly had largely given up. But early episodes of the The Bill and later The Cops showed promise. All of these and more are mentioned by Colbran.
She is a former scriptwriter on The Bill which is at the centre of her book (based closely on her PhD) which analyses the social contexts of production of a series, the media sociologies, the shifting patterns of media organisation, finance and regulation which shape what programmes get produced, the story-lines and dramas and issues. Her argument is that criminologists have hitherto paid too little attention to the media context side of the equation as compared to the representational aspects. She shares this with Anita Lam’s Making Crime Television: Producing entertaining representations of crime for television broadcast (my review in Crime Media Culture here) to whom she refers. Where Lam favours Latour’s Actor Network Theory Colbran favour’s Du Gay’s ‘circuit of culture’.
The analysis is set in a history of TV cop shows, their evolving forms and contents, and concluded with a series of reflections on other cop shows which have followed in the wake of the Bill or which have reacted against its forms of representing the police. Between this introduction and conclusion is a detailed ethnography of TV script production and programme management - set in the context of a political economy of broadcasting - and substantial interviewing illustrating the themes of TV cop show production. Those short of time might start at Chapter 3.
The book is interesting, fascinating and insightful with its particular focus upon fictional TV representation of crime and policing which may limit its appeal to pure criminologists but she recently entertained the joint meeting of the Southern Branch of the British Society of Criminology and the LSE Mannheim’s Centre. It should be of interest to students of policing and we wait to see if The Bill becomes as canonical as Dixon. If so Colbran can take much credit. It should be of greater interest to media and cultural studies students. There is a problem about the canon though, and she sets this all out, is that there have been a number of iterations of the show - from gritty realism; to soapy, to slavish devotion to the bottom line. Her research in the latter era looks back to an earlier era when she rode along and had the time to research that some jobbing academics might envy. Reality might trump story but not now - and not at all now the show has ended.
A major criticism for me - which shows I’m not a proper academic - is that she is too keen to appear to be a proper academic. To this end she has chosen a highly structured hierarchic schema to ensure that ‘I’s are dotted etc. The very talents that enabled her to write and act appear to have been suppressed. There are a number of stories to tell here (and we get snippets) but a bolder work would have pleased me more, if not her supervisor.
I shall return to this subject with a closer reading. Tune in next ....