24 Hours in Police Custody: 100% Brilliant

Let’s be careful in here

Unpicking what makes a great TV programme doesn’t spoil it, it reveals the genius at work.  So let’s have a look at a recent example.

By some miracle (and patient negotiating, one assumes), we have been given access to a police station and to interviews conducted during the investigation of an attempted murder.  This was a brave decision given how these things sometimes work out, and we might have expected deadening self-consciousness from the police coupled with taciturn prisoners.  But whoever allowed the cameras in deserves our thanks because a brilliant TV programme has been created.

Standoff in Luton

Luton Stand-off: Malik, Baig, Hart


It starts at dawn with a slow-moving convoy and walkie-talkies, like a tense American drama about a President, but turns out to be a routine morning arrest in Luton. And by the time it finishes, we’ve watched a classic documentary.

24 Hours in Police Custody starts with two key advantages: First, it is made by the people behind 24 Hours in A&E so you know it will be about tiny details and bigger truths from people coping with stress.

And second, it is centred on the clock, the need to gather convincing evidence to charge suspects within a 24 hour period.  This frames the story.

Three Characters

In this first episode we met three characters properly: the accused, protected by his lawyer, and a police officer.  The episode was a contest between the first two and the last.

1. The police interviewer, DC Martin Hart

Imagine if David Brent was an underrated but absolutely shit-hot paper salesman.  And then add in an attempted murder.

2. The man accused of the crime, Mahboob Baig.

A silent giant; ‘e’s massive inny’ said one, though amusingly photographed at one point on the world’s smallest chair, he grew increasingly tense. Since he offered ‘No Comment’ to every question, he remained an enigma, and to the viewers throughout the process a guilty one.

3. The accused’s lawyer, Attiq Malik.

He started small, and unlike his client who had shrunk by half at the end, grew through the programme.

There were also some intriguing minor characters, including:

A friendly but firm custody sergeant, whose briefing to the next shift was like an internally focussed version of Sgt Phil Esterhaus’s daily warning in Hill Street Blues ‘Let’s be careful out there’.

Hart’s sidekick (with a hint of Gareth from The Office too) who illustrates the danger of allowing the cameras in.

An arresting officer who looked like a Labour Party strategist (or, ok.. Peter Hyman) and who delivered the final verdict to us (with a tiny upward inflection of the eyebrow).

Three Adverts

The themes in the programme were foreshadowed by adverts during the programme which appealed to our visual senses and intuition:

A Welsh woman from Barclays Life Skills tells us that looking directly at someone – at their eyes – can make all the difference in a job interview: ‘it’s a game-changer‘.

A promotion for the film Gone Girl, a story which takes readers on a journey with unreliable witnesses and subverted realities – are people who we think they are?

This advert works very well in this programme...

This advert works very well in this programme…

Gerard Butler pitched us a Hugo Boss fragrance for men:  Boss Bottled.   ‘Diligence and dedication is what I live from day to day’.  The phrase ‘Boss: Bottled’ summarises the themes: leadership, criminality (?), concentration, and self-restraint.

If this episode was a contest of masculinity, the answer to the unstated question ‘Who’s the Boss’ was… all of the three main characters.  But most of all, the lawyer.

One carefully structured programme, working at multiple levels

TV programmes are becoming smarter and more nuanced. The triumph of this programme rests on six key elements:

1. Careful disclosure.   During the custody and interview process the police reveal what they know slowly.  That way, the accused may commit himself to a position early and endanger his defence.  Similarly, the programme makers disclosed information bit by bit to the viewer.  It was fully 40 minutes before we learned about the crime and victim.

2. Rich content.  Every second was working hard to tell a story that was riveting and weighty. And real.  They made the most of the linear chronological structure (24 hours…) but mixed the tone and camera styles and inter-cut the interviews to keep us all focused, and thinking things through.  80 minutes, but never a dull moment.

3. Structure. We don’t know what will happen next but we understand where we are: in a police station, working through a day.  Sounds dull, but it’s important, this.  Viewers can cope with uncertainly as long as they know where they are structurally.

4. Special access.  We’re watching a man fighting for his freedom and family.  In a police cell.  If it wasn’t for the ‘diligence and dedication’ of the production company, this would have never happened.  Most of all, the fixed-rig cameras give us close-up access to their faces and body-language, as it happened.  When the participants look at us directly in the interviews filmed later it brings them alive.  We trust them. As the Barclays advert told us, it’s a game-changer.

In the case of the accused, this only happens at the very end and we learn that in court, Baig had addressed the jury directly (he was always engaging with the jury.. he looked like a man that believed he’d been wronged).

5. Subversion. We like surprises and ambigiuity.  Is Hart an over-promoted red-coat, or a brilliant detective? Baig is silent, but constantly communicating. Is he a potential killer or a family man? Is he slim, or not?

Attiq’s position looks weak, but he’s smarter than we think.  It’s Gone Girl, in a Luton police cell. If the programme started with police vehicles at dawn, it ends with the lawyer’s smoothly sun-dappled Audi and personalised number plate R999 LAW.

6. And finally an ending that was unexpected…  unsettling too, but strangely satisfying.  It completed the story but our thoughts carried on: it immediately made me re-spool through the entire story.

Line of Duty, and Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line were wonderful stories about the police investigating a shooting.  The highest praise you can give this episode of 24 Hours in Police Custody was that it was just as good.