Tony Garnett has been making ordinary lives into extraordinary television for 35 years. And, as Gordon Beveridge discovers, the Cops is the best example of all
All it took was a line of coke and the nation was hooked. It was a masterstroke from one of British television’s most successful directors, but then that’s what we’ve come to expect from Tony Garnett. Who else would have the nerve and ingenuity to kick-off a new police drama with a WPC snorting Class A in a toilet cubicle?
Dixon of Dock Green it definitely isn’t, much to the chagrin of the duty office, not to mention the numerous members of the force who had hoped for something a little less provocative with The Cops. But pulling punches is not Tony’s style. And he isn’t all that keen on acting either, now you mention it.
As one who subscribes to the Spencer Tracy theory of acting -“don’t ever let them catch you doing it”- the last thing this director wants from his players is a “performance.” Having made the harrowing Cathy Come Home in the ‘60s – and, in the intervening 35 years, delivered such classics as Kes, Up the Junction, Between The Lines, Bollykissangel and This Life – there is enough evidence to suggest he may be on to something. “I tell people hat I want what the characters would say, not what the writer would write,” says Tony, explaining his “Trojan Horse” approach to acting and drama.
“And, when I watch the rushes, I remind the actors of the Spencer Tracy theory and tell them I don’t want any acting. Not that there isn’t a lot of skill and guile and acting going on Ñ which I respect. But I don’t want to see the wheels going round.” Garnett had been mulling the stunningly true-to-life BBC series The Cops around in his mind for some years. As he explains, “I had two ambitions with The Cops. One was to try to do a show about uniformed “If I said, ‘Can I do a series set on the Skeetsmoor Estate?’ or even a series about social workers, I might be shown the door” officers in order to escape the genre – that straitjacket of detective stories in which the narrative is predictable because you start with a crime and a dead body and the story is about who did it. It’s difficult to escape the narrative rules. But I thought that, if we did a show about uniforms, we could get away from that and try to find the human beings behind the ranks.
“The second ambition was to include that sector of the population who don’t usually feature regularly in television drama in the UK today. Some would say there’s 20 per cent who don’t live in the Blair paradise.
“I knew that if I went to a broadcaster and said, ‘Can I do a series set on the Skeetsmoor Estate?’ or even a series about social workers, I might be shown the door. But, if I said, ‘Could I do a cop show?’ I might be given the money. So this was a cop show but it was also not a cop show. It was a way of exploring experiences in this country.”
And, notes Garnett, The Cops is in the same mould as all his other work. “You could look back at a show I produced in the mid ‘60s and look at this one and say that it was part of the same tradition. For me, life is too short to make referential shows. Postmodern irony is an excuse for not having beliefs.”
All the regular cast returned to Stanton Police Station in Christie Road for the second series, including Natalie and Mel (Glare McGlinn and Katy Cavanagh), Roy (John Henshaw), Wishaw (Danny Seward) and Sergeant Giffen (Rob Dixon). However, there were some unusual problems to overcome as a result of the show’s realism.
Some members of the cast expressed concern that, considering the high profile of the programme, the~’ were surprised about how few offers they were getting for further work. The trouble was, it seemed, that The Cops was so lifelike, so natural and so well staged, that many assumed it was a docu-soap. Grittier than Hotel, racier than Cruise, but still a programme about real policemen.
Garnett comments: “It’s a pity if the actors had trouble finding work afterwards. I was very pleased with them and proud of the way they settled into the second series and did better work. They hadn’t let the attention and exposure they got following the first series go to their heads. They felt comfortable with their characters in the second series and we then stretched them to give them more challenges.” Aside from the audience reaction to the too-authentic drama, many viewers also missed the subtle sense of humour in The Cops. “We all thought there was a lot of laughs in it. It was pretty black humour, but many people claimed it was too depressing for them,” says Garnett.
And then there was that tricky moment when the police withdrew their help. Greater Manchester. The trouble was that The Cops was so lifelike, so natural and so well staged, that many assumed it was a docu-soap about real policemen. Police expressed extreme “disappointment’ over scenes such as the cocaine-snorting WPC and repeated brutality against members of the public.
There was no way they were going to have anything to do with the second series. A terse statement from the police read: “Our main responsibility is to our is to our local community to ensure, where we can, that any portrayal of the police does not increase the fear of crime. As we did not feel the series met this aim, we felt that we could not offer any further assistance.”
Garnett remains philosophical: “I understand their reasons and I wasn’t surprised. All institutions would like the media to project a certain image of them. Most police shows present an image which the top brass approves of. I don’t see why they should co-operate with a show that doesn’t deliver the public relations advantage. So, from their point of view, it is quite understandable. But from my point of view, I’m not in the public relations business.”
“I like shows with energy and bounce and life in them. I like pace. I have got more energy than I had 30 years ago and more stamina”
What does please the publicity-shy Garnett is the response from ordinary policeman. “That has been extremely positive,” he says. “The actors are often greeted very warmly by uniforms on the beat.” But how much further can the whole concept of The Cops be taken?
“Every show has a different lifespan and you can’t predict them. But I only do two series of anything because I get bored and there is always a new show I want to do. There is a third series being prepared now, but I won’t be doing it.”
So what is the catalyst that drives Garnett, a northern man with firm working-class roots?
“I remain curious about the world. Curiosity keeps me going… and anger,” he says. “I do appreciate tha we lead a very privileged life. We get paid quite handsomely for being given a passport to travel into other people’s lives and find out about them.” And, despite feeling that he has “got to an age now where I don’t know how many more shows I have got time to do,” 64-year-old Garnett assures us that he is not ready to throw in the towel just yet. “There is always another show playing in my head and that is the one I want to do,” he explains. “I like shows with energy and bounce and life in them. I like pace. I have got more energy than I had 30 years ago and more stamina. As you get older, you learn how to work. You learn how to dispose of your time effectively.
You learn how to focus it better. “One of the greatest pleasures I get now is nurturing another generation. All my colleagues are half my age or less and it is an enormous pleasure for me to be working with their energy and freshness,” he says with a tangible sense of enthusiasm and pride. “I’ll continue to plough the same furrow. It is an attempt at the distilled naturalism that I have been trying to make succeed for four decades.” Garnett knows he has been fortunate in his career. “My old man would phone me and say, ÔWhere are you? In the office? You’re lucky. You’re in out of the cold and there’s no heavy lifting.’ Of course there are pressures in my career too, but it is a privileged existence for those lucky enough to be working. My saying goes. if you’re working, don’t moan.” And, for as long as Garnett continues to make such compelling television drama, neither should we.