In 2014, Channel 4 launched a spin-off to 24 Hours in A&E. Like the show it spun off from, 24 Hours in Police Custody used fixed rig cameras to go inside the Custody suits to give viewers unprecedented access to the work of Luton and Bedfordshire police. Documentaries that shone the spotlight on the work of the police weren’t new. 2011′s Coppers, also on Channel 4, took an equally fascinating and unflinching look at modern policing in Britain, but 24 Hours in Police Custody offered something different not seen before on British television.
This is a documentary that champions British policing but doesn’t paint them as heroes. It shows them for what they are: normal people doing their job. It captures them at their angriest and most determined and sometimes most frustrated. It’s also not being afraid of shining a light on the difficulties and traumatic things that police encounter on a daily basis. The show arrived at a time before we developed an obsession with true crime. Pre-dating podcast Serial, or Netflix’s Making a Murderer, the show seemed ahead of its time in terms of its ability to tell these true stories in real-time with the kind of twists and turns we’re used to in a scripted drama.
In one remarkable episode in 2018, cameras captured the shock of officers who realised they’d stumbled upon the criminal activity of one of their own when it emerged that a police officer blackmailed a man after photographing him visiting a sex worker. Gareth Suffling from Luton, was a detective constable at Bedfordshire Police when he demanded the victim pay £1,000 or pictures he took would be sent to family members and neighbours.
It’s also a show that I believe has had a dramatic effect on the way the police are portrayed in dramas. Chris Lang’s Unforgotten, which arrived on ITV almost a year after the first series of 24 Hours in Police Custody, had lead characters that would sit just as easily in the offices of Luton and Bedfordshire police as they do in their own fictional station.
Nicola Walker’s Cassie and Sanjeev Bhaskar’s Sunny aren’t ‘television police’ they feel like real people. Just like the police in Luton, they’re calm, considered, mild-mannered, ordinary and all the more interesting because of it. Like 24 Hours in Police Custody, Unforgotten has dealt with some dark and difficult subjects over the course of its four series, but it remembers that the police are ordinary members of the public whose job forces them to confront the worst society is capable of.
I don’t believe we’d have fictional police like Cassie and Sunny if Police Custody hadn’t aired. TV policing before it had been populated by chain-smoking men and women who trashed their desks when a case wasn’t going the way they wanted. They were billed as people who, ‘didn’t play by the rules.’ They were mavericks who often blurred the lines between good and bad. Even Lynda La Plante’s Jane Tennison wasn’t immune to the TV police tropes we’d become accustomed to.
While they are still that larger-than-life TV police readily available, the majority of modern crime drama has learnt from 24 Hours in Police Custody how the police behave. My love for the show has made it virtually impossible for me to enjoy any new drama with a maverick police presence at its heart because I’d much rather watch these real police officers do their job.
TV drama has had to adapt to this new world where documentaries can be just, if not more compelling than anything written by an acclaimed screenwriter. I’ll always champion scripted drama but increasingly I’ll choose to watch a true-crime documentary because it’s instantly more authentic and compelling. The fact that you know something is true and that you can hear from the people involved is immediately more interesting.
24 Hours in Police Custody has an incredible knack of always offering something new. The episodes never feel as if they’re going over old ground. From the double episode Black Widow, which told the story of Victoria Breeden who tried to persuade three men to kill her husband between 2014 and 2019 after losing custody of their child following the couple’s divorce in 2008. To the most recent episode which saw a man posing an Amazon delivery driver, entering a home and brutally assaulting three women in their home, I’m often left full of anger, but I’m always enthralled and fully engaged with the stories.
I fully believe the popularity of the series, and the rise of true crime as a genre has forever changed the way we view the police on television. All of ITV’s recent true crime dramas have put famous faces in their lead roles, but each has had them playing a more modest, human policeman, with the shows keen to portray these people as people rather than stereotypes. Be it Martin Freeman’s portrayal of Det. Supt. Stephen Fulcher in An Confession or Martin Clunes’ take on DCI Colin Sutton in Manhunt, they’re very keen that the drama comes from the intricacies of the investigation or the brutality of the crime rather than those investigating them.
24 Hours in Police Custody is now available on All 4