‘The Thin Blue Line has inexplicably become unsurpassable’

The Thin Blue Line: 'inexplicably unsurpassable'
The Thin Blue Line: 'inexplicably unsurpassable'
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WHY AREN’T there more sitcoms about the police? Jay Richardson does some detective work...

Maverick cops. Bent cops. Psychologically disturbed cops. Police procedural drama is television’s hard-bitten perennial, with the same tropes endlessly recycled, varying only in the length of time it takes DCI Loose Cannon to reach for the bottle.

Commissioners demand results, dammit. Yet when it comes to commissioning sitcoms, these same TV bosses place greater emphasis on superficial originality, on situation rather than comedy.

Somehow, despite an abundance of cops in both drama and documentary, Ben Elton’s 1995 The Thin Blue Line on BBC1 remains the UK’s touchstone police sitcom.

Broadcast for two series over barely a year, the show’s characterisation owed plenty to Dad’s Army, not least in the petty, Captain Mainwaring v Warden Hodges-style one-upmanship of Rowan Atkinson and David Haig’s rival inspectors. Yet The Thin Blue Line has inexplicably become unsurpassable.

In the US, they’re much less reverent towards situation, to the extent of actually buying mediocre British cop comedies inspired by superior American shows. Both Vexed (“Moonlighting for the noughties”) and Feel the Force (“Cagney & Lacey for the 21st century, but with worse hairstyles”) were retired from BBC2’s schedules to no great lamentation. Yet they’re both currently receiving Stateside remakes.

Frequently overblown, Feel the Force reiterated the problems of sending up conventions that were long ago recognised as bludgeoning truncheons of cliché. Even a gentle, mid-1990s parody like The Detectives, with Jasper Carrott and Robert Powell, wouldn’t get on to BBC1 now, not least because top-rated dramas like Sherlock and Life on Mars have appropriated the knowing, playful humour of chalk-and-cheese partnerships.

Spoof has its place, obviously, and there’s nothing funnier than Police Squad. You can understand in-demand writers like Charlie Brooker and Dan Maier jumping at the chance to crowbar every joke they could think of into Sky 1’s A Touch of Cloth. Niche channels are the new home of cop comedies, with Dave about to pilot Undercover, co-produced by Steve Coogan’s production company Baby Cow, written by Miranda’s Sacha Alexander and Simon Dean with Andy Milligan.

This blend of generic convention and emerging channels ought to create sitcoms that are at once recognisable yet new. In A Touch of Cloth’s case, the novelty was the sheer excess of gags and gore the writers threw up on screen. Lacking Sky’s budget though, you only need a couple of coppers to rub together. Ever since BBC2’s Operation Good Guys pre-empted The Office as a workplace mockumentary by some four years, comedy writers have appreciated how much story they can stretch out of a few uniforms, a single camera, authoritative voiceover and snappy editing.

Hence Loaded TV launching last month with the surprisingly slick Marshall’s Law, about a deluded police community support officer, amidst the more predictable output of boobs and blokey banter. And the promising Scot Squad, piloting on BBC1 Scotland last week to generally favourable reviews. Conceived less as a cop sitcom than a vehicle for upcoming comics to improvise dialogue around a theme, it was at once familiar and fresh. For anyone still calling for more bobbys on the beat, let’s hope it gets a full series and transfers UK-wide.