Screen • World Productions • Between the Lines

Off-Cut: Between The Lines

John Wilshire and Tim Vaughan came to see me and asked if I was interested in a cop show. I wasn’t. I’d been personally interested in the police since I’d been a little boy, but television was all formulaic celebration, whatever the surface pretensions of tough realism. I had said what I wanted to say in the mini series Law and Order, written by GF (Gordon) Newman, in the Seventies. But out of courtesy I asked them to tell me about it.

They had both done service on The Bill, a volume show about the Met. It was produced to a high professional standard, had tight stories and considering its assembly line turnarounds, was good quality. Over the years I recruited young script editors and directors from it. But you can’t make a volume cop show in London without the full co-operation of the Met. It would be too expensive and too much aggravation. Therefore it had become a public relations promotion for the Met.

So the writer John Wilshire, who in his research had spent serious private time with all ranks, knew stuff that could not find its way into The Bill. He pitched a show about the police investigating the police. I bought it instantly. I realised that the investigation of crooked cops meant we could explore ethical questions freely, because that was the premise of the show. I knew John to be a good writer. He was bursting to break out and have the freedom to use all that research and all those contacts.

John and Tim Vaughan, who I took on as script editor, were easy to work with.

Steve Bochko was shaking things up over there, but otherwise there had been little movement, which explained the formulaic deadness of the form. I decided to start from first principles. I knew I needed a narrative line which resolved each week, one which started with a predicament – not necessarily a dead body – and ended with a resolution. Even occasional viewers would have their reward. But we incorporated two other strands: one which showed, through the interplay of relationships, clear character development in each episode; the other a long run, overarching narrative which would be resolved, unexpectedly, in the last episode, unravelling a series length story arc.

I commissioned John, on a full episode fee, to write a document which suggested possible stories of the week, but would concentrate on laying down the bones of the main strands, involving the strengths and weaknesses of our characters, and how they affected each other. The writer of each episode would explore these further, stage by stage; and would either take John’s suggestion of an A story of the week, or write a new one. We were trying to make a variation of a nineteenth century episodic novel, chapter by chapter, rather than a traditional drama series.

The more I thought about the possibilities the more I warmed to the challenge. The problems lay in the execution. Budgets were tight. This show had to shoot all over London, a logistical nightmare; and I’d decided that it was to be formally lit, with a nod to film noir, not grabbed. So we would be trying to put a quart into a pint pot. We needed to plan ahead. I was strict about deadlines, insisting on finished scripts in advance, so that money could be thoughtfully and knowingly put on the screen.

There were, still are, a number of misconceptions going around the business and I needed to make myself clear. First, I told everyone that money is only wasted if it’s spent unknowingly. Otherwise, any accusation is actually about taste, about production decisions. If you say, for instance, that the big scene showing the Cossacks coming over the hill was a waste of money, you’re saying you would have spent it on something else. But if you don’t know how much it cost, you are in real danger of wasting money, because you’re not weighing the value on the screen against the cost. I wanted every penny spent consciously: money decisions are artistic decisions. This was easier now. In the BBC of the Sixties it was many months before I knew how much a show really cost and even that was a guess. I pleaded with management, wanting a system of real costs of services and equipment to show in my budget, so that with a weekly cost report I could monitor each category; the accepted system used in cinema films. Michael Checkland and John Birt were trying to impose some realistic financial discipline now. That was resisted in a BBC which deep down thought any talk of money was grubby and beneath it.

Secondly, a budget is not determined by the length of the schedule. That’s too crude. It’s governed by the minutes in the day when the camera is turning. Therefore top quality production management would materially affect artistic quality.

Thirdly, I said I didn’t want the sheer repetition, the knowledge it was “only a series”, to encourage shoddy work. I told everyone I expected each episode to be a stand alone film in its own right.

Our leading characters in Between the Lines worked in A10 (the department has had many changes of name), set up to investigate internal corruption: the famous “rubber heels”. The first series concluded with the revelation that the worst, most consistent, criminality and corruption were in the highest reaches of that department. Tony Doyle played one of these corrupt senior officers involved in the most complicated deceit. Tony would arrive on the set and play him with convincing authority. The fact that he didn’t understand a word he was saying didn’t diminish the credibility of his performance. He was a convincing liar who convinced you that black was white. I watched him in awe, trying to understand what made him so believable. If you talked to him about the situation in the drama, he would blank you. He had no interest or understanding. But he became this complex Machiavellian figure in an instant. Tony was an impressive example of how some actors just command one’s belief.