Sunday, September 21, 2008

Watching The Detectives

Here's another old one from the files:-

Few TV series have ever been as satisfyingly morally grey - to the point of quite deliberate ambiguity - as Between the Lines (BBC, 1992-94). Whereas much supposedly adult TV drama worked then (and continues to work now, for that matter) by referring to child-friendly conceits of nominal good and evil, by the early 1990s almost anyone with a passing knowledge of current affairs expected something considerably more adventurous from a police-based drama. Questions such as 'Are there still bent coppers in the Met or did all that nonsense go out with the Dirty Book Squad in the 1970s?' and 'Are some policemen institutionally racist, sexist and/or homophobic or is that rubbish just an invention by a bunch of Communists at the Gruniad?' by that stage were, rightly, being left behind in another - perhaps more innocent - age. We had all lived through the 1980s, an era when society, we were told by no less an authority than the then-Prime Minister, 'no longer existed' and the reason that everyone had been put on this earth was, it appeared, to make as much money as quickly as possibly and sod anyone whom you hurt whilst doing so. Greed, it was said, was good. It was The Law. So, surely, that applied to the upholders of The Law as much as to anyone else, right?

The idea for Between the Lines came from John Wilsher, a brilliant TV scriptwriter and regular contributor to The Bill. Researching the Police Complaints Investigation Bureau – that part of the service dedicated to investigating the activities and honesty of other officers – for a proposed Bill storyline in which Frank Burnside would be accused of accepting a bribe, Wilsher uncovered a vast amount of intriguing material. Here were many suggested plotlines which had not only a terrific crime-drama basis but also moral, political and judicial dimensions to them. The potential themes were, quite literally, enormous: To what extent do the police decide - in advance - who is guilty of a crime?; should one unsafe aspect of an otherwise clear-cut conviction allow possibly dangerous and vicious criminals to go free?; can the police be allowed the luxury of investigating themselves?; if an officer is found guilty of, say, perverting the course of justice, are stronger actions than feeble cautions, 'words of advice' and 'damage limitation' required? Et cetera. Ultimately, it was a question of what the public wanted most, safety or accountability because during that period having both at the same time seemed, to many (on both sides of the equation), a pipedream.

The Bill, to be fair, had featured its fair share of bent law and 'fitted-up' suspects over the years. So, for that matter, had Z Cars and The Sweeney. Most other procedural crime drama had, at least, touched upon the subject every now and then - even Dixon of Dock Green did it as far back as 1956 in ‘The Rotten Apple’. But to do CIB justice (s’cuse the pun) required more than a cameo in a 25-minute drama. Wilsher took the idea for a show about the internal investigation of police corruption to the BBC and to producer Tony Garnett whose record for campaigning, controversial, leftist TV stretched all the way back to Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction in the 1960s and Law and Order, The Spongers and Days of Hope a decade later. 'I remember how Tony came back elated from seeing the then-head of BBC1, Jonathan Powell,’ noted Wilsher. ‘Tony shouted that Powell had got a hard-on about it.' With its addictive mix of sex, crime and politics, it is not hard to see why any TV exec would’ve got so excited. This was a once in a generation idea. But the show was also, potentially, very provocative: ‘We were showing corrupt cops every week on the BBC,’ noted Tony Garnett with some glee. Yet by the same token the show would turn out to be anything but a left-wing polemic by a bunch of theoretical Marxists against the police and the system they represented - quite the reverse in fact. The show was broadly supportive of the oridnary copper (even some of the bent ones) but it did ask questions which had never been asked before on prime time. Such as, again to use Garnett’s phrase, ‘in whose class interest do the police operate?’

The lead character in Between the Lines was Tony Clark (Neil Pearson), an ambitious, silky-smooth career copper who has recently passed his promotion board to make Superintendent. In the first episode he is compromised by CIB to investigate his crime squad colleagues at his old nick - Mulberry Street - where a senior officer is suspected of ‘doing a bit of private enterprise.' Aspects of Clark’s personal life are used, unflinchingly, by his superior officers, the darkly-charismatic and wily Chief Supt. John Deakin (Tony Doyle) and the more by-the-book Commander Brian Huxtable (David Lyon).

A high-flyer, Tony is cajoled into obtaining the proof that his guv’nor Patrick Salter (James Laurenson), is running a protection racket. Unfortunately for Clark, this not only loses him friends at the station – the look on the face of Clark’s oppo, Mickey Flynn (Ciarán Hinds) at the episode’s climax as the shit has started to hit the fan speaks volumes - but his subsequent promotion comes with a transfer, not to The Flying Squad as he’d hoped, but to the last department that he actually wanted to work for, CIB itself.

Is Clark himself above reproach Huxtable asks at one point? 'Nobody's fireproof, are they sir?' is Clark’s reply in what was to become one of the first season’s catchphrases. Deakin's subsequent threat to Clark is redolent with menace: 'If we find you're having us over backwards, Tony, we'll do your legs like a steamroller.' (It’s small wonder that Deakin would ultimately turn into a character who, in one episode in season three, is seen hitting a dog in the face with a book about St Francis of Assisi.)

Clark is, clearly, no George Dixon. He is certainly not bent and has a very definite moral code that some of those around him appear to lack, but his character flaws lie in the fact that his charm and ability to get results are only matched by a wan cynicism, casual – and frequent - womanising (a love rival describes him as ‘a user’ before the first season is out) and an occasional self-destructive ability to get his pretty face beaten to a pulp at the most inappropriate moments. Neil Pearson refuted suggestions that the character was sexually powerful in contemporary interviews: 'He is emotionally immature and sexually unstable ... Clark isn't a loner - he's actually lonely.'

Married to Sue (Lynda Steadman), a long-suffering nurse with a - not entirely undeserved - paranoia about his frequent affairs, Clark’s current ‘casual thing’ is with WPC Jenny Dean (Lesley Vickerage), merely the latest in a string of extra-marital nookie. Tony and Sue – who bicker about the minutia of married life through several painful episodes - appear to have little in common (she reads the Guardian, he the Telegraph), and he cruelly manipulates his wife in social situations to aid with both his investigations and his forward career plan. Sue knows about Tony's past infidelities, but wants to make a new start. When it proves obvious in later episodes that he's still seeing another woman, Sue accuses Clark's colleague Maureen Connell (Siobahn Redmond) of having a fling with him. 'You couldn't be more wrong,' Mo replies. Tony, of course, does eventually try it on with Mo in an episode when she shows him a kindness by letting him stay at her flat during his marriage break-up. ‘You’re not my type,’ she says, giving him a modest peck on the cheek and prefiguring developments in her own character arc made far more explicit in the second season.

Clark - along with Mo and the dryly sarcastic, seen-it-all chain-smoking bagman, DI Harry Naylor (Tom Georgeson) – form the core of the CIB team. They get exactly the results that Deakin is looking for, despite the officers they investigate frequently holding the ‘Rubber Heels’ in contempt and resentment. In 'The Only Good Copper', Clark and the others have to investigate claims made against a recently killed policeman, which leads to the slashing of Naylor's car tyres and a dead rat being left on Clark's desk whilst the term ‘Clark from Complaints’ becomes a phrase spat contemptuously by more than one character under investigation or their families.

Even Hal Lindes' theme music gave a positive hint of the show's ambiguity, moving from haunting acoustic simplicity to something grandiose and symphonic at the climax. Not surprisingly, critical praise was swift in coming: ‘The main storyline, about officers taking kick-backs from laundered drugs money, sustains a tense and exciting narrative, filmed with convincing realism,’ noted The Times’ review of the opening episodes which described the show, on early evidence, as ‘the best new cop show since Spender.’ The Independent reviewer stated that 'This looks set to be a brave series. The dialogue has that right tang of realism about it [and] it is not afraid to look at dirty tactics, among even the best coppers. What one hopes for in the following episodes is some new debate about the old chestnut: should the police be allowed to police themselves?'

Such discussions were not long in coming. Juvenal's query 'Quis custodiet ipso Custodes?' –quoted within the second season episode 'The Fifth Estate' - formed the backbone to the huge arc of season-long storylines that was soon to develop. The subject matter in episodes such as 'Out of the Game' (the shooting of an young man ‘armed’ only with a replica gun), 'Lest Ye Be Judged' (the alleged fitting-up of an armed robber), 'Breaking Point' (whether the police used bully-boy tactics at a picket line), ‘A Watch and Chain of Course’ (in which Mo goes undercover in a station with a reputation for officers stealing from arrested inebriates) and 'Nothing Personal' (the suicide of a black youth in police custody) loaned the series a genuine real-life impact. These, it was noted, were exactly the very sort of stories that one could read in the contemporary press. Episodes also dealt with the increasing politicisation of the police force and had the knack of seeming credible, concentrating on mountains of paperwork to the virtual exclusion of such genre staples as car chases and fights. Although, to be fair, it found time for the odd one or two of those as well.

The visceral content of the series - the dirty inner city streets, dingy tower blocks and concrete ghettoes of London full of ‘fourth generation inbred alcoholic white scum’ to use one of the series’ most evocative lines of dialogue and unflinching expositions of violence - became clear as early as the second episode, ‘Out of the Game’, as Clark and his colleagues watch graphic footage of the death of a suspected gunman, captured by a neighbour’s camcorder. This comes in the middle of a sequence taken at a children’s birthday party. As Harry wryly comments, 'They won't be sending this to Jeremy Beadle.' When CIB investigate whether the marksmen acted within strict guidelines, Clark’s team find that what seemed at first to be a straightforward incident is, in fact a real can of worms, where literally no one is telling the whole truth about anything. The episode concentrates on the mental instability of the area’s Chief Superintendent (Peter Postlethwaite) contrasted with the wholly understandable trauma suffered by the two marksmen, one of whom is incapable of dealing with the terrifying situation he was a part of. This is juxtaposed with his commanding officer, driving around the estate like some tinpot fascist dictator humming ‘Ride of the Valkyrie’ in seeming deliberate homage to Apocalypse Now and casually beating rioters with his truncheon to prove a point to Clark. ‘Mad’ is, in no way, too strong a description for him. Yet, to Deakin and Huxtable he is ‘a good copper, we could do with a few more like him.’

Along the way, Clark finds proof that the shot youth was, in fact, set-up by his drug-dealing brother, but Deakin prevents him from investigating further as this is entirely beyond the department’s brief. Such frustration was an intrinsic element of Between the Lines, many episodes ending with the real villains going free and mere patsies taking a fall for them. ‘Everybody was slightly guilty,’ Siobahn Redmond remembered in the 2008 series Call the Cops. ‘Some people had slightly less grubby hands than others. We would find who had the grubbiest hands of them all and then not be able to arrest them.’ The events of 'Lies and Damned Lies', for example, are entirely precipitated by the machinations of an ambitious Tory MP (Simon Chandler), but by the conclusion a key witness has died of an (accidental) heart attack, ensuring that the accused CID officers – almost certainly guilty of severely beating a suspect - get away with it. On the other hand, the honest Sergeant who kept their secret at first and then, finally, 'grassed' them up (David Bradley) is urged to 'think about retirement', and finds himself ostracised by his former colleagues. The episode ends - without music - as the distraught man locks himself in his garage and starts up his car.

'Words of Advice' has Clark renewing his relationship with Jenny and thus proving possibly the worst person in the world to investigate the case of a married black officer (Peterson Joseph) who is accused of sexually assaulting an unlikeable (though, ultimately, victimised) white WPC. It also featured several of the sex scenes that quickly gave the series one of several lurid tabloid nicknames - Between the Thighs. Pearson, in interviews, expressed an unease at Clark's womanising and the sexual content, leading to some changes of emphasis in the second season. However, from this episode onwards it was obvious that Tony Clark was on a rapid downward spiral, the betrayal of his wife ('Are you at it, Tony?') and increasingly angry denials of infidelity mirroring the breech of public trust caused by the actions of the officers (and the system) that he is busy investigating.

'Lest Ye Be Judged' saw Clark and the team travelling to Liverpool to investigate allegations of a stitch-up by a convicted armed robber. Clark's attempts to finish with Jenny only lead to him stumbling into a very unwise relationship with Molly Cope (Jaye Griffiths), a cynical interfering leftie reporter of the kind that Bodie and Doyle often encountered (and seduced) in The Professionals ('"Police Stop White Man in Car." Now, that is a scoop!'). Clark, Harry and Mo uncover enough evidence to suggest that at least one of Teddy Dicks' four convictions is unsafe. The arresting officer (Michael Angelis), however, is sure of himself when Clark asks: 'Did you deny him access to a solicitor? Beat him? Deny him food? I think you did most or all of these things.' His answer was to provide the show with another of its memroable catchphrases: 'Prove it!'

We see the officer's home life and family, are invited to consider the great love he has for his children and are told by colleagues that he is an outstanding officer and thief-taker and one that, should the charges stick, the force will miss greatly. By comparison, we're left in little doubt that Dicks himself (Eddie Tudor-Pole) is a thoroughly vicious toerag – and, is almost certainly, guilty of at least some of the crimes with which he was jailed. Harry is angry at how the investigation is progressing, approaching matters pragmatically: 'That little shit's lethal. So they slapped him around a bit, but they got a confession. So he was scared for an hour and they bent the rules, but how scared were the little old ladies he waved guns in front of, eh?’ Harry, perhaps inevitably, was always to be the pragmatist, the voice of common sense – and, of police loyalty (even going as far as to indicate how an interviewee should respond to his questions in 'The Only Good Copper' and being surprised and angered when his advice isn’t followed).

In 'Breaking Point' (the title referring to Clark's marriage as much to the poorly-handled riot that provides the episodes main focus) a constable is badly burnt by a Molotov cocktail. Seeking revenge, his colleague beats one of the pickets (actually innocent of any violence) into a coma. The series seemed to suggest that such actions - though never to be endorsed – were, at the very least, partly understandable given the 'them and us' nature that permeates much modern policing. Certainly CIB are obstructed in their investigations by the local Commander (an angry and indignant performance by Jack Shepherd) and encounter hostility and aggression from the various officers involved. Although, for once the investigation goes well (albeit with an outcome that doesn’t entirely satisfy Clark and Deakin), Sue Clark sees Tony having a break-up drink with Jenny and she leaves him. As Deakin tells Clark in the next episode, 'Your home life's in ruins over some bit of skirt, you're drinking too much, brawling in pubs, getting slapped by grieving widows. You're a wreck.'

'A Watch and Chain of Course' began the complex and twisting subplot that insinuated itself into most of the remaining episodes. Aside from the episode’s main plot - Maureen investigating private enterprise by officers (including one plauyed by Ray Winstone) at a station with a reputation for thievery - Michael Carswell (John Benfield), a bouncer imprisoned for murder on the basis of an alleged confession in the back of a Panda car, is freed on appeal. The driver - and thus uniquely in a position to incriminate the arresting officers – was Jenny. She is advised by Clark to tell the truth - his relationship with her removing him from the investigation - but is also pressurised by her other boyfriend, Eddie Hargreaves (Jerome Flynn), not to implicate him. Subsequently, when a senior police officer (Stephen Moore) is arrested for kerb-crawling it seems that an intimidated prostitute might shed further light on the Carswell case. A pornographer (Larry Lamb) alleges that he has been paying another senior officer, DAC Dunning (John Sharpnel) to protect him and his business. As Deakin observes, 'Be aware, there's a message in all this. Nobody's fireproof.'

The episode ends with another suicide - Jenny throwing herself into the propellers of a pleasure cruiser on the Thames - and with a grim-faced Naylor breaking the news to Clark behind closed doors. The spider's web plot unravels in the final episode, ‘The Chill Factor’. Clark discovers that Dunning is, in fact wholly innocent: he has, instead, been fitted-up by Deakin. Clark decides to move against Deakin, who also played a role in Jenny's suicide, despite the fact that Clark doesn't like Dunning and considers Deakin his 'best guv’nor'. There is a tense climax onboard HMS Belfast - the closest the first season came to using standard crime-drama clichés - and Deakin is arrested. There is no triumph for Tony, though. On his own – abandoned on a boozy celebratory night out by both of his subordinates who have their own lives to lead - he glimpses Sue through the pouring rain and is left feeling hollow and alone.

If some harsher critics isolated a single flaw during the otherwise-acclaimed first season of Between the Lines it tended to be the accusation that some of the dialogue occasionally landed only just the right side of the clichés established by The Sweeney and lampooned by The Comic Strip. Frankly, that’s nonsense. Still, according to the 1993 BBC documentary Barlow, Regan, Pyall and Fancy, there has always been a two-way transmission of vernacular between the police and the fictional equivalents on the small screen. If nothing else, Between the Lines was very aware of the potential for just this kind of symbiosis: When an informant is asked from whence he acquired his information and replies 'It's the word on the street,' he is told 'You watch too many films.'

In actual fact, the glories of the vernacular enlivened many a routine questioning session. How few police dramas at that stage had relied on twin tape recorder and bare walls to produce such moments of high drama? Given the grim subject matter there was also a strong vein of humour in the show’s first couple of years: 'Old African saying, Harry: "The higher up the monkey climbs, the more he shows his bottom."' Rural police are known as Turnip Tops, and a suspect is said to have 'more form than Desert Orchid'. In 'Breaking Point', a senior officer erases incriminating video footage with clips of Ed the Duck. An interview with Jenny Dean in 'Nobody's Fireproof' reveals a great deal about the force's casual sexism: 'The officer I later learned to be DS Hargreaves got out, came over to me, said his vehicle was immobilised, and could I offer assistance?' 'What, in those words?' 'No. He said "My big end's playing up, gorgeous. Have you got the capacity?!"'

The interaction between the characters was also satisfying. Deakin is shown as liking Clark because he recognises something of himself in his young subordinate. On the other hand, he thinks Clark's peer - the super-ambitious DS David Graves (Robin Lermitte) - is career-minded and shallow: 'The extent to which Clark frequently pisses me off pales into insignificance beside my intense and permanent dislike of you.'

Deakin avoided prison in the opening episode of season two but was forced to leave the service. But Clark’s expected promotion into Deakin’s office went, instead, to Graves. Now Tony's boss, Graves often calls him 'Anthony' on a point of principle. The contempt that Clark feels for his new superior isn’t something he even attempts to hide: ‘The day I no longer want to do this job, I’m gonna take that twat down to the car park and hurt him very badly.’ ‘I wouldn’t do that,’ notes his loyal lieutenant, Harry. ‘Mind you, I’d hold your coat for you!’

The first episode, ‘New Order’, dealt with neo-fascists (including a young Daniel Craig playing an undercover Special Branch officer whom Clark and his team fear may have ‘gone native’) and a Holocaust-denying American author. It was great stuff and proved that Between the Lines’ first season's success hadn’t been a one-trick pony. But, the next episode was to be a complete revelation.

'Manslaughter' is, quite possibly, the series masterpiece although in plot terms it’s one of the most straightforward stories the show ever did. In it, the team are asked to investigate a domestic death. The complicating factor is that the killer is an experienced and respected CID officer (David Hayman) who claims to have had an argument with his depressed and drunken wife and simply lost control. Maureen is infuriated by what she sees as the inbuilt sexism of the legal system: 'A man's strength is his murder weapon. A woman would have to go into the kitchen, pick up a knife, and come back to the row. Those few seconds can mean the difference between diminished responsibility and murder. She could go down for fifteen years, but because he just got on with it and strangled her, he could walk.'

Clark and Harry only investigate matters more fully than they usually would because they're desperate to avoid the mountains of paperwork involved in an account-fiddling case. Yet they ultimately discover that the policeman was having an affair with his wife's younger sister (Hermione Norris) and appears to have embellished his own story with phrases taken from several previous domestic violence cases he had investigated. They conclude the killing was entirely premeditated but run out of time to make the charge stick and, ultimately, have to go with manslaughter instead of murder. The final five minutes in the interview room are as tense, brilliant (and, ultimately, unresolved) as anything the series ever produced, layered in a misogyny that, like Mo, the viewer becomes an increasingly unwilling participant in. The word manslaughter is written on white board and Mo, angrily, creates a space in it so that it reads “man’s laughter.” Her anguished scream at the episode’s climax after murder has, quite literally, been gotten away with, is utterly heartbreaking. ‘It! Is! Not! All right!’ she shouts as Clark tries to comfort her. As the Independent review pointed out, this episode – more than, perhaps, any other - embodied the programme's deliciously ambiguous attitude to the often casual relationship between the law and natural justice.

Subsequent episodes dealt with the shooting of a black youth after a botched armed robbery, the terrifying world of crack addiction and the sexual peccadilloes of a politician (Paul Freeman), exposed by the very officers who were supposed to protect him from the tabloid's glare. The first proper dabble into the muddy waters of the friction between the police and the secret services came in another key season two episode, '"Some Must Watch..."', where a break-in at a Territorial Army building is dealt with by armed police officers. After shooting one man ('armed', as it turns out, only with a cordless drill), the other intruders are arrested and claim to be working for MI5. The investigation - variously involving the Army, CIB and the Home Office - begins to uncover a new and very pointed conflict between MI5 and Special Branch which would overshadow many subsequent episodes. In the post-Cold War world, Five have already been given one of Special Branch’s previous provinces, anti-terrorism, and they're now seemingly desperate to muscle in on other areas of Branch business. 'They want to be the FBI,' remarks Clark’s boss, Commander Sullivan (Hugh Ross). The trouble is, of course, that Five even less publicly accountable than Branch - a bumbling MI5 spook (Michael Byrne) turns up and tries to sweep everything under the carpet much to Tony’s disgust. In this world of power struggles within mini-fiefdoms, Clark soon realises that he’s like a child playing with the Big Boys toys. He is eventually blackmailed into silence by a senior civil servant (Michael Pennington). Clark’s phone has been bugged and Five know that he passed information to his journalist friend Molly Cope. The cover-up is perpetuated as CIB are, effectively, told to look the other way and pretend it never happened in the first place.

The new love of Clark's life was to be Angela Berridge (Francesca Annis), who works for the Home Office and was introduced in this episode. Although married, Berridge begins an on-off fling with Clark in the subsequent 'The Fifth Estate'. The private lives of Harry and Mo were no more straightforward. Harry in shown in a positive and loving relationship with his wife, Joyce (Elaine Donnelly) but she is then diagnosed with motor neurone disease, leading to Harry doing civilian security work on top of his police investigations in order to fund private treatment. Meanwhile Mo loses her partner, the rather wet Richard (Bob Mason) and began a openly – and, remarkably for the time, wholly uncontroversial - lesbian relationship with Kate Roberts (Barbara Wilshere) a woman who is being portrayed by the press as a 'disgraced' senior policewoman’s ex-lover. (‘She has more success with women than I do!’ notes a pissed-off Tony concerning Maureen when he’s introduced to Kate at a function shortly after Angela has turned down his latest advances.) Reflecting at least one contemporary real-life case, the female officer (Dearbhla Molloy) has been continually denied promotion until she is forced to take the police authority to an industrial tribunal. Some other story ideas also seemed suspiciously familiar as pages ripped from that days headlines - most notably the use of horses against a demonstration when it was unsafe to do so ('Manoeuvre 11') and the machinations surrounding the publication of a tape of a royal phone call ('The Fifth Estate'), an episode in which Mo uses an MI5 contact (Colin Salmon) to help her to screw up the future career prospects not only of a devious and manipulative Chief Constable (Bernard Hill) but, also, a loathsome tabloid gossip journalist (Michael Kitchen) in one of the show’s most satisfyingly upbeat conclusions. But that kind of – relatively – happy ending was always something a rarity in Between the Lines.

If the clash between MI5 and Special Branch wasn't complex enough, 'Jumping the Lights' sketched the conflict between Traffic (who have 'ended more careers than CIB') and the Vice Squad. While investigating a hit-and-run Clark discovers for himself that it's not good to get on the wrong side of the traffic police. At the episode's conclusion the team find it was a police officer (Shaun Dingwall) who was at the wheel of the unregistered car which caused the death but that, because he also inspected the vehicle in his professional capacity, this will now be impossible to prove, a classic Between the Lines conundrum that few other dramas who have even thought of.

'What's the Strength of This?' saw Harry's extra-curricular activities exposed and investigated, leading to him being demoted and returned to CID. As with the first year, the final two episodes brought the season to a shattering climax from which, arguably, it could never be the same again. 'Big Boys' Rules' begins with the execution of a Catholic man in Epping Forest. He had recently visited a civil rights lawyer claiming that Special Branch had put pressure on him to become a police informer in Northern Ireland some years previously and then later to commit various criminal actions on their behalf. Harry is working on a seemingly unconnected burglary and murder case, but Clark and Mo with his help uncover a trail that leads straight to John Deakin's door. Clark says this time 'We're going to dump so much on Deakin he'll think he's standing under Nellie the Elephant.'

Little does Tony know that when Angela Berridge contacts him asking for a meeting to discuss their relationship it’s actually to give Deakin an opportunity to talk to Clark. Deakin – of course - has photos and video footage of Clark's liaisons with Berridge and threatens to distribute them to the press and police. As if that wasn't enough, Deakin reminds Clark that Berridge might become a target for the IRA: both Deakin and Berridge, it seems, are working – in various capacities - for Five. Clark is left trying to unofficially ‘tie up some loose ends’ for Deakin, with Harry and Mo as his only back-up. He is attacked by the vicious thug whom Deakin had previously used to steal confidential defence documents, but Harry comes to a timely rescue, shooting the man dead. Clark tells Naylor to go: Tony himself has been shot in the leg and cannot move and will have to carry the can. Arrested for murder, Clark signs a statement, prepared by Berridge and Deakin, which claims self-defence and seems to broadly fit the facts. In an excellent conclusion to the episode, and the season - and one which echoes numerous previous stories only this time with the roles reversed - the investigating officer is less than impressed with Clark’s story. 'That's the biggest load of old bollocks I've ever heard in my life,' he notes. Clark calmly signs his statement before looking up and telling the detective what he had been told himself on so many previous occasions by bent coppers: 'Prove it.' The show’s success was officially recognised when season two won a BAFTA for Best Drama.

It could, and perhaps should, have ended there. At a stroke Wilsher had ensured that Between the Lines could never become a tired or dull format, ploughing on for season after season and diluting the strength of the original concept. Simply put, there are only so many ways one can investigate dodgy coppers and so many crimes that they can commit. For Tony Clark, there was simply no way back now. But Tony Garnett – as he would later admit, much against his better judgement (and that of Neil Pearson) - was keen to continue. Pearson, a thoughtful and intelligent actor, had strong views on the third season, noting how it got off to ‘a fatally bad start’ and describing it as ‘The Godfather III. No one watches The Godfather III!’

The third season had a far wider scope balanced by a more traditional spy-adventure-show emphasis but was deprived of the claustrophobic darkness that had so characterised the first two years. Put simply, take Tony, Harry and Mo out of the interview room and put them on a yacht in the Med and, all of a sudden, the magic was lessened. But not gone completely – there’s, frankly, been something of a Stalinist-style rewriting of history over the last decade which has concluded that the third series of Between the Lines is, effectively, worthless. Which is, to use one of Harry’s favourite phrases, ‘utter bollocks.’ There was certainly more open humour than previously, beginning with Clark resigning from the police and then being 'nicked' by Harry and Mo masquerading as traffic police. The ensuing scene is both tender and yet also depressing, as Harry and Mo take Tony to a leaving party where there are no other guests. The episode, ‘Foxtrot Oscar’, also saw Joyce's suicide via an overdose, dying in a grief-stricken Harry's arms, and Naylor's subsequent resignation from the police (punching the smug Graves in the face before he departs). Mo lasted longer, until 'A Face in the Crowd' when she is accused – wrongly, as it happens - of passing secure information to Clark and is also kicked out (though not before a stirring rant on loyalty and betrayal at her disciplinary board). Not surprisingly, there was a deep bitterness at the hand fate had played all three throughout the ensuing episodes.

Clark moves into the private sector setting up his own security consultancy, although almost inevitably most of the work he gets comes via Deakin. In 'Foxtrot Oscar', Tony and Harry travel to Tunis to track down a man who went to the papers, claiming to have had an under-age gay relationship with a Junior Minister who now opposes lowering the age of consent. In cod sitcom clichés Harry grumbles about the heat and Tony falls into the sea when trying to catch the man windsurfing, but the conclusion of the episode was (as with those of several other episodes), suitably chilling: the man withdraws his story because he's been bribed by Special Branch. Similarly, 'A Safe Pair of Hands' juxtaposed a comedic chase through a hotel restaurant’s kitchens and a running gag about an escaped dove from a magic act with Harry’s seemingly strong desire to commit suicide and his dangerously unstable violence. As usual this season, Deakin didn't tell Clark half the story: ostensibly involved in private security work, Clark and Naylor are actually doing some of MI5's dirty work for them, trying to recover a nuclear device after a state sanctioned murder committed by Mossad.

'Shoot to Kill', as well as introducing Tony's new love, TV documentary producer Sarah Teale (Sylvestra Le Touzel), dealt with a Gibraltar-like SAS shooting of apparently unarmed terrorists. The episode showed Between the Lines' ever-cynical take on party politics (the incident, we are told, 'ranks with the sinking of the Belgrano as good PR’ for the government), and again exposed the conflict between MI5 (and, possibly, MI6) and Special Branch, with Five never averse to leaking information to the IRA to ensure that its shadier dealings remain unnoticed. In this instance, Deakin was seemingly working for Branch, passing on information to Teale as part of an elaborate dirty-tricks campaign against the opposition.

Between the Lines had clearly moved a long way beyond bent coppers and police cover-ups and was now fully immersed in the murky world of intelligence and espionage, which to be fair provided some interesting new colours to the palette but did, rather, grind against the carefully constructed real-world aesthetic of the first two years. This season perhaps suffered in comparison with the previous two simply because it was so very – unsettlingly - different. But the tone, the anger, the commitment - the powerful writing and acting (particularly from Pearson, Georgeson, Redmond and Doyle) - all remained thankfully undiminished. The series was therefore well-equipped to deal with, for example, foreign politics ('Close Protection', wherein a Chilean general is almost killed by his own people in an attempt to implicate the Left), the deadly rivalry that exists between pharmaceutical companies ('Blooded') and the terrifying world of the arms industry ('Unknown Soldier', featuring a very young James Nesbitt as a campaigning journalist). If the episodes had more explosions and shootings than before - the sequence with Harry as a hostage of animal rights bombers in 'Blooded' is incredibly tense - it was still in no danger of becoming The Professionals or Target. In 'Unknown Soldier', Clark is kidnapped because Maureen won’t take a hint to drop an investigation and, with a gun held to his head (and a plastic bag over it), he is told to let the case go. No cardboard hero, he is clearly terrified and does exactly as he’s ordered to.

Although 'Free Trade' is ostensibly about vigilantes (posing as police) shooting a group of drug-dealing yardies, the background story is more important: Mo is offered her old job back if she spies on Deakin for MI5, while one of Deakin's MI5 contacts, Jackson (Frederick Treves), is shown to be running guns with tacit government approval. Clark's 'inheritance' of a container full of arms and explosives shows just how deeply he was getting involved, and the world in which he operated was getting even more complex than before. Not only are the various intelligence and police units battling for supremacy, but even within MI5 there appear to be various factions and schisms striving for dominance.

The two-part 'The End User' was a fitting finale to the series. Its labyrinthine plot involving the Czech secret service, a murder in a Jewish cemetery, a neo-Nazi meeting in Antwerp (terrifyingly filmed - undercover - at a real-life event), and a shipment of guns that might - or might not - be going to the IRA or to the Loyalists. In scenes involving Tony and Sarah, Harry and his new love Ellie (Eve Bland), and Mo and Kate, the tension is almost unbearable as they begin to realise just what a dangerous game they are playing. As Harry says, 'All I know is that when we were in CIB we used to shed light on things. Now we're just digging holes in the back garden.' When Mo rings Tony to pass on some information he watches a march of skinheads go by the telephone box. ‘What are you doing?’ she asks. ‘I’m looking at the future,’ he replies. ‘It’s not pretty.’

The trio eventually discover that they have been used to arm an anti-Republican 'ethnic cleansing' process in Northern Ireland. Mo has to contend with both Kate's departure from her life and Deakin's statement that she's betrayed her friends for thirty pieces of silver. Although her return to the Met is seemingly assured, the lives of Harry and Tony are in terrible danger as they have gone to try to prevent the weaponry 'disappearing' at the docks. When the container doesn't come off the ship as planned, Clark and Naylor are blamed by the Loyalist chief (David Calder). Armed police move into position and Harry flicks a cigarette towards a fuel dump (the irony that Harry’s much-complained-about chain-smoking would get he and Tony killed was an opportunity simply too good to pass up for the production). There is a massive explosion. We see Mo's tear-stained face, mute with grief, blinking against the blinding inferno. It was a marginally – and deliberately - ambiguous ending in so much as we never seen Tony and Harry’s bodies. There was vague talk of a fourth series but it was never likely. And despite the occasionally rumour of a revival, that image of a exploding boat has remained our, probable, final glimpse into the shady world of Tony Clark and his friends.

Between the Lines, then, ended as it began, unflinching in its portrayal of the terrible uncertainties of the modern world. Although never quite as popular with the public as its contemporary Cracker, both series have established a high-water mark for episodic drama, with John Wilsher's creation proving to be one of the most consistently engaging serials ever transmitted on British television.

No comments: