our society contains many divisions besides those of class. Some of these divisions are of a kind in which ‘they’ are detached from ‘us’ by some special expertise, or because they operate as relatively closed communities—such as hospitals, the police, the probation service—which directly enter our lives only in times of trouble. Because of this, these communities hold a fascination for many of us—a fascination often tinged with fear or resentment.
The television authorities have been shrewd enough to exploit this interest. Emergency Ward 10 has been followed by several other programmes of a semidocumentary type in which ‘we’ are able to experience the work of ‘them’ without a trip in an ambulance or black maria. The two programmes I want to deal with— Dixon of Dock Green and Probation Officer—are at least in part concerned with describing the work and social impact of the police and probation service; they are also committed to the firm but somewhat vague duty to entertain. It is an axiom (it may be nonsense but it’s an axiom all the same) among practitioners in almost every mass medium that entertainment and instruction conflict. Do these programmes try to reconcile this apparent conflict, and if so do they succeed?
Dixon (subtitle, ‘Some Stories of a London Policeman’; signature tune, ‘An Ordinary Copper’) is a product of what some call the Ted Willis factory. It has the slowness, predictability and rigid structure of some traditional ceremony. Though the script appears to vary from week to week, the show has its own hard and fast set of rules. At the beginning, Dixon appears in front of the police station, touches his forelock and announces the text for today. During the course of the story (whatever the plot) two things must happen: the audience’s excitement must be relieved by a short break for risibility; and Dixon the Family Man must be worked into a sketch involving his daughter, son-in-law policeman and sundry extras in a tea-drinking ritual. Finally, Dixon again appears in front of the police station, points the message preached in the show and speeds us on our way with a quotation from the highway code.
There was the possibility (and Willis might once have grabbed it) of making this, within its fictionalised setting, an entertaining and informative account of London police work. The depressing thing is that this possibility does not even seem to have been realised, far less attempted. It fails as entertainment because of the weakness of Dixon himself. While the show is written and produced almost entirely from his point of view (it is not so much about law-breakers as about how Dixongets-his-man) he resolutely fails to come alive. He is not so much a type as a piece of jetsam salvaged from The Blue Lamp. So free is he of personality or even of idiosyncracy, one feels that to catch him picking his nose would be like the revelation of some great truth.
The programme fails as documentary because it shows little interest in the subtleties of the relationship between police and public or in the characters and motives of the law-breakers with whom it deals. There is no attempt to place Dock Green police station in some sort of community; it is a hermetically-sealed oasis surrounded by an amorphous, shifting desert in which live the masses—or rather, as Dixon would say, ‘ordinary folk, just like you and me’.
In keeping with the ritualistic flavour of the show, the general attitude towards the police and the idea of police) is one of reverence. Dock Green police are Men of Integrity: true, they consist of ponderous old men supported by naive cadets; granted, they may seem to have the forensic gifts of a gnat; but they’re honest, goddamit!
It’s easy, of course, to criticise a show of this standard. The fact is, however, that the police are an important and powerful element in our society, an element which arouses fear and dislike in many people besides lawbreakers and which, at present, is under greater suspicion than ever before. Any programme about the police—even a sort of commercial for the force, like this one—carries responsibilities. And this is something