Screenplay Writer: Arthur Ellis, Producer: Brenda Reid, Director: Guy Slater
Transporting a character from one era of policing to another, and asking us to consider how both policing and its television representation had changed: these are some of the reasons why Life on Mars (2006-7) and Ashes to Ashes (2008-2010) were rightly acclaimed, but these tactics had previously been attempted in a more ideological way in 1988 by The Black and Blue Lamp. This Screenplay production transported characters from the world of Ealing film The Blue Lamp (1949) to the corrupt, violent world of 1980s policing, here fictionalised as a drama-within-a-drama, The Filth. Whilst Gene Hunt became a popular cultural figure referenced by politicians and media, this play’s view of the police, and of police drama, was so controversial that it has never been repeated or commercially released. Recapped at the start of the play, The Blue Lamp introduces P. C. George Dixon (Jack Warner), the archetypal British policeman, the kind of “bobby on the beat” idealised by successive Home Secretaries. Dixon outlived the film by 26 years (some feat given that the character is killed in the film), appearing in his own series, Dixon of Dock Green (1955-1976), during which time there were marked changes in television drama’s attitudes to the police. The Black and Blue Lamp juxtaposes the world of Dixon with more cynical modern depictions of the police, producing an Ortonesque darkly comic farce in which there isn’t simply a comedy of culture-clash but a deconstruction of the Dixon icon and a witty, political questioning of the relationship between fictional treatments of the police and their role in society.
This essay will focus on ideas raised by the play (“reading” police drama on the terms set by the play, with the inevitable biases of that approach), but if you want to read a more historical account, with a very detailed synopsis, the history of the Screenplay strand including an interview with producer David M. Thompson, previously unpublished production documentation and correspondence with cast and crew such as Ralph Brown and Sean Chapman, my 2004 production file is still available at The Mausoleum Club here (as a PDF).1
According to the film’s press book, The Blue Lamp establishes veteran Dixon as “representative of all policemen throughout the country, steady-going, tolerant, unarmed, carrying out a multitude of duties”.2 Dixon passes on to PC Andy Mitchell (Jimmy Hanley) his local knowledge, gained from years of experience as a copper both of and from the community, and integrates Mitchell into inter-related families: Dixon’s own family (replacing Dixon’s dead son), and the occupational family of the police, which with its choir, darts team and camaraderie is, as Steve Chibnall noted, “repetitively signified as being loosely integrated within the wider community”.3 In this community and the police service, to quote a song sung by Dixon and repeated by the 1980s Hughes in The Black and Blue Lamp, “all” is “correct”. But this society is under threat from a crime wave, personified in Riley (Dirk Bogarde), a young delinquent excluded from the film’s normalised society. Unlike Mitchell, Riley fails to join an occupational family, as the criminal underworld rejects him for lacking the “code, experience and self-discipline of the professional thief”. The juxtaposition between them is reinforced by editing, as in a cut from Mitchell shining a torch to Hanley lighting a cigarette, on their respective night beats around contrasting London streets – Riley’s being the jazz-scored neon-lit underworld. The film cuts between Dixon, his wife and Andy in their respectable working-class house to the squalid flat in which we find Riley, his girlfriend Diana and associate Spud. The Dixon family, including visiting colleagues, are filmed in a placid cinematic style, as if we too are sitting contentedly round the table with them. By contrast, Riley, Diana and Spud argue in compositions stressing their disunity, each seeking dominance in the frame, and stylised camera angles which almost expressionistically show this as an off-balance world.
These two worlds come into conflict in the film’s pivotal scene, around halfway through, when Riley shoots Dixon. What’s striking is the powerlessness of the armed man, who commits the cardinal sin in British cinema of losing control (the rest of the film shows him to be sexually charged). His own accomplices scream and call him a “maniac”, and as the getaway car careers around the streets, the subtext is clear: the policeman’s enemy is a danger to the rest of us too. After this we see the controlled professionalism of the police, in a semi-documentary montage of police procedure as they process the information. This begins to restore order: they will trace the threat on our behalf. Dixon’s sacrifice is good propaganda, reminiscent of the death of a fireman in Humphrey Jennings’s Fires Were Started- (1943), a plot development that was requested by the Ministry of Information to warn of the sacrifices that would be required to defeat Nazi Germany.4 Dixon may be the lead character, but as reviewer Dilys Powell argued, “The real hero of the piece, in fact, is the police force”.5 The Blue Lamp was made with the unprecedented support of the Metropolitan Police (who warmly welcomed it at a time when they were developing new public relations strategies), and is dedicated to them.
The collision between Dixon and Riley is particularly effective because they represent conflicting aspects of post-war society. The Blue Lamp shares the core elements by which an image of Britishness was constructed in comedies made by the same studio, Ealing: a belief in community and tradition, stoicism and stability.6 This connection was heightened by the allocation of the screenplay to T.E.B. Clarke, author of key Ealing comedies; The Blue Lamp and Dixon’s character had been developed by Jan Read and by Ted Willis, the writer who was subsequently often viewed as his sole creator. Dixon is a reassuring figure, representing the normative qualities of a nation to be returned to after wartime upheaval. This is reflected structurally: we are given a sense of community, it is threatened by an outsider, and then, as the community reasserts itself, all returns to normal (the fact that The Black and Blue Lamp shares this structure, but restores a very different normality, adds to its sense of bitter critique). The restoration of normality is related to the police in the repetition of images from the start of the film at its end: a blue lamp outside a police station, and Mitchell giving the same directions to a member of the public that Dixon gave at the start – one generation takes over from another, but continues its values.
Dixon’s killer is equally the product of war. A voice-over describes Diana as “showing the effect of a childhood spent in a home broken and demoralised by war”, producing delinquents who are “responsible for the post-war increase in crime”. However, the idea that war has caused social dislocation is underplayed, and must be placed in the context of Riley’s capture at White City. The dangerous loner is repelled by the community, including the criminal underworld. Consensus is therefore rooted in wartime rhetoric – it’s another menace that we can defeat together, if we stoically overcome traumatic losses. After his death, Dixon’s absence dominates the film. A sense of lost fathers works its way through the film (an auteurist critic might point out here that director Basil Dearden lost his own father as a child during the First World War): Mitchell finds a surrogate father, Riley doesn’t (arguably, he kills him, refusing to give up his gun as Dixon asks – and a psychoanalytical reading could find performative evidence in the phallic way Bogarde handles the gun in later scenes). The association of the police with paternalism is part of the film’s representation of the police, and that representation has retained its symbolic potency.
These ideas were reinforced by Dixon of Dock Green, which relocated Dixon from the real Paddington Green to the fictional Dock Green. That his return was so successful was hardly surprising: The Blue Lamp had been 1950’s most successful film, and won Best British Film, whilst Jack Warner remained a major star. Making his name in radio series like Garrison Theatre7, in which his comic songs on censorship earned him the sobriquet Jack “Blue Pencil” Warner, Warner had played the father of the Huggett family in four 1940s films from Holiday Camp8 to The Huggetts Abroad9, and the Huggetts transferred across media too, appearing in the radio hit Meet the Huggetts between 1952 and 1961.10 Warner soon became synonymous with policemen, to the extent that a famous song was reworded “If you want to know the time, ask Jack Warner”.11 In the mid-1950s, the early Dixon years, he appeared as policemen in such diverse films as Ealing’s dark comedy The Ladykillers12 and the science-fiction horror The Quatermass Xperiment 13 In 1965, after Dixon was finally promoted to sergeant, the Queen presented him with an OBE and told him that she looked on Dixon as part of the fabric of Britain. Dixon of Dock Green drew large audiences well into the 1970s – even though Dixon had been approaching retirement age back in 1949 – and ended in 1976, when Warner was 80 years old. The series was overseen by Ted Willis, who – ironically, given the dominance of police series in the schedules ever since – was sceptical that he could find enough material to fill six half-hours. He needn’t have worried, as the series ran for 430 episodes over twenty-two seasons.
Opening episode ‘P.C. Crawford’s First Pinch’14 introduces the series as a mid-1950s variation on The Blue Lamp. It borrows the film’s structure – Dixon assimilates a rookie P.C. called Andy into the police family – but also introduces us to Dixon’s daughter, whom Andy will soon marry. Displacing the psychological tension and post-war symbolism of the Dixons’ dead son, Mary is the Dixons’ daughter, whose homely qualities offer Andy a more literal marriage into the family. The series remains evocative, with its opening sequence ripe for nostalgia – the blue lamp of the police station, the whistled theme (initially “Maybe It’s Because I’m A Londoner”, later “An Ordinary Copper”), the to-camera introduction (“Evenin’ all”) and conclusion by Dixon, as episodic drama’s need for weekly narrative resolution led to the replication each week of the film’s sense of all returning to normal. This device was quoted in Ben Elton’s sitcom The Thin Blue Line,15 with Rowan Atkinson’s quaintly anachronistic copper affectionately satirising Dixon (at one point reprimanding armed robbers with the line “I’ve never seen such naughtiness”).
That is the stereotypical view of Dixon: that this old-fashioned promoter of family values did not change along with the times, and that the show became “an anachronism, and a dangerously naïve one at that”.16 Its representations of race have certainly dated – take Dixon’s unmasking of an Eastern religious guru as a blacked-up white conman in ‘Bangles, Baubles and Beads’ in 197517 – as has Dixon’s attitude to domestic violence. In The Blue Lamp, he laughed at Mitchell hurrying to an incident because the husband “don’t kill his old woman off too quick as a rule”; and in the early Dixon episode ‘Pound of Flesh’18 observed that “if I arrested every bloke in Dock Green who clocked his wife, I’d be working overtime”.
Dixon of Dock Green’s supposedly transitory qualities are heightened by the BBC’s archive holdings: only 43 episodes still exist, and only 5 of these are from its 1950s peak. But the series remains interesting, not least for its longevity: as The Listener noted in 1976, it “has reflected changes in society, in attitudes to the police, and in the police forces themselves”.19 Also, Dixon of Dock Green does comment on its own worldview. In ‘The Roaring Boy’ in 1956, Dixon is held hostage by an armed man who sneers at Dixon’s daughter marrying a cop because “you lot stick together closer than ants”, and rejects Dixon’s paternalism, snapping at his repeated use of the term “son”.20 Of particular interest are episodes that discuss the possibility of police corruption or incompetence. In 1965, ‘The Late Customer’ looks at the possible conviction of an innocent man,21 while in 1974, ‘Firearms Were Issued’ showed the CID being investigated after shooting an unarmed criminal with a gun issued by Dixon. As in The Blue Lamp, crises close with the resolution of the status quo; the latter episode ends with Dixon’s complacent statement that “I think I’d’ve done the same… in those circumstances. Goodnight all”.22 The earliest surviving episode, ‘The Rotten Apple’ from 1956, shows Dixon angrily confronting Paul Eddington’s corrupt PC: “There’s nothing worse than a rotten copper… the lowest thing that crawls on God’s Earth”. That the miscreant is the rotten apple in the barrel, separate from the police as an institution, is shown symbolically in Dixon’s refusal to arrest him until he has removed his uniform, and is then reinforced by Dixon’s closing speech: “that was the only bad copper I ever met… the police have to build on trust… when we find a bad ‘un we’re down on him like a ton of bricks”.23 He may not have been “the only bad copper” on duty in the 1950s, but he was certainly a rare sight on television.
The officers of Z Cars (BBC-1, 1962-78) were initially promoted as a reaction against Dixon: flawed men, with less conventional family lives (and in Steele’s case, as likely to commit domestic violence as investigate it) and an occasionally more cynical attitude to police work – notably, the prospect of confronting an armed robber in ‘Ambush’ doesn’t fill Lynch with the desire for a Dixon-style sacrifice.24 Director John McGrath insisted that the show should have “No slick tie-ups. No reassuring endings, where decency and family life triumph”.25 Where Dixon’s officers brought “care” to their own community, changes to social cohesion were reflected in Z Cars’ ‘Newtown’ setting. The series was welcomed by critics as a welcome relief from Dixon’s “sugary nonsense”, a “too good to be true copper” written by Willis who, for those critics, seemed to be “the police’s PRO”.26 A 14-year-old letter writer stated that “If Dock Green is authentic I am not surprised at the high crime rate in this country”.27
And yet, the series remained popular, precisely because of its style and setting. The series did have a core of research; Willis based Dixon on a P.C. that he met at Leman Street Police Station while researching The Blue Lamp, and years later reiterated that if you “go into any London police station… you will find a Dixon”.28 Before each series, Willis would visit Scotland Yard’s Public Relations Officer, who “outlines the main points they would like to put over. He doesn’t interfere with the programme in any way, but he mentions such things as ‘can you put in a bit about locking your car when you leave it?’… This advice keeps things topical”.29 Its take on the “police procedural” series represents a purity for which later series, notably The Bill (ITV, 1983-2010) in its first decade, strived. In its own way, Dixon was innovative, as Ted Willis sought “to break away from the accepted formula for police and crime stories. Dixon couldn’t be Dixon in a programme which was full of wailing sirens, screeching brakes, gun fights… The average policeman might go through a life-time of service without being involved in one murder-case. His life is one of routine… Would [viewers] take simple, human stories about a simple ordinary copper and the people he meets?”30 Ironically, this search for routine and de-dramatized ordinariness is what marks out some of the most distinctive early Z Cars episodes, especially those written by Alan Plater. Meanwhile, it would be ironic to attack the show now given the popularity of Heartbeat (ITV, 1992-2010), a quiet, primetime family drama set around an idealised representation of old-fashioned police, though this was made a consciously nostalgic package – through its period detail and pop music – as if signifying that people wouldn’t accept that the police are like this now.
Though The Sweeney (ITV, 1974-78) is often described as smashing up Dixon’s cosy world, this ignores a number of other police series from the period that are also worthy of attention (and to which this site will return), but it also ignores the anomaly that Dixon of Dock Green survived into this era (with Dixon a desk sergeant and Andy Crawford in CID involved with “shooters” and “blags”). Furthermore, according to Arthur Ellis, and this is the interpretation that underpins The Black and Blue Lamp, there is a fundamental connection between the likes of The Sweeney and Dixon of Dock Green: “in the mid 70s, when Jack Warner was about 200 years old… the idea of a decent beat copper was supplanted by John Thaw’s Regan, who was a tad more aggressive in his pursuit of criminal scum – aggressive, but non bent – pretty much an updated version of Barlow [from Z Cars]. The interesting thing was, both series, requiring cops as heroes, played into the hands of the Met, in terms of PR… The only variant was that The Sweeney, cashing in on what was happening all around it in films, romanticised screen violence, which gave the Met a nice tough little image that invariably helped them employ it”. Of far more consequence was Law and Order from 1978.31 As Cornell, Day and Topping put it, writer G.F. Newman, “a graduate of the ‘all coppers are bastards’ school”, provided such brutal and corrupt characters that Law and Order “made The Sweeney look like boy scouts”.32 Far from Dixon’s “one bad apple”, Newman believed that “the person who becomes a policeman has almost exactly the same pathology as the criminal”.33 The impact of Law and Order has been documented recently in a new study by Charlotte Brunsdon for the BFI’s TV Classics range.34
In The Black and Blue Lamp, Arthur Ellis confronts the 1949 Tom Riley with this breed of copper, charting the changing perceptions of the police in the media and society. Ellis was friendly with Newman, and admired Newman’s Terry Sneed novels, which began with Sir, You Bastard, a book which “entirely changed the perception of how the police operated. They also had a high influence on officers themselves, who for the first time saw themselves written about as in fact they would like to be perceived… [meeting a cop a few years later, he said that] a few years back the books, though fiction, were documenting procedure and lingo, now the lingo was being adopted by the incoming cops. Fiction was influencing fact”.35 Law and Order in turn “completely changed the way TV looked at cops, with an authority that had no basis in The Sweeney’s romantic and Met friendly propaganda. Naturally enough The Police Federation and the police in general loathed the series and demanded redress”.36 Writing for the Screenplay strand to which he had earlier contributed drug addiction piece Christine in collaboration with Alan Clarke,37 Ellis found himself writing a more traditional television studio play, of the kind which was being phased out. Ellis recalls that producer Brenda Reid “had a 60 minute studio tape slot she needed filling and nothing to fill it with. I wrote up the 2 page premise and, as I recall, within four days or so, was given the nod by Brenda to write up the script… The only rule given me was that there could be absolutely no exterior or location filming. The entire thing had to be shot in the studio. Which was fine by me. It gave me boundaries, format, discipline and structure, without having to think about them… I completed the script within maybe a month or so”.38
After an opening montage of clips from The Blue Lamp (a sequence that Ellis would now “compress […] because it’s way too long”),39 The Black and Blue Lamp enters borderline telefantasy territory as, in an engagingly unexplained switch, Riley and Hughes end up in a 1980s police station. Riley observes the markers: graffiti on the walls, a radiator, strip lighting, and the sound of police sirens, modern telephones and screams. Riley’s period banter draws Superintendent Cherry (Kenneth Cranham)’s response: “you’re gonna put your hands up to this one, son, or I’ll take your bollocks off with a Stanley knife”. As that realisation sinks in, we see another title sequence, this time for imaginary 1980s police series The Filth. Nicely observed in terms of its graphics and shots of officers striding purposefully down corridors, it also shows a chain of bribery. This sequence is the third title sequence to feature in the play, after those of The Black and Blue Lamp itself and The Blue Lamp. This repetition of title sequences underlines that police dramas are representations which use codes and conventions to guide our reading not only of the fiction but of the world to which they correspond. This is echoed by the play’s end credits, which feature a melancholy alternative theme, as if recalling the end credits of The Sweeney.
Riley and Hughes have replaced 1980s versions of Riley and Hughes, after the murder of an 80s version of Dixon. The Blue Lamp is playfully satirised – Cherry takes one look at the Bogarde character and asks, “Is that the presence of a hardened criminal? He looks like he’s just come out of RADA”. Hammond sneers: “Twenty-five years a pissing woodentop and old George still didn’t learn anything… you wouldn’t catch me trying to win an award with some wanker aiming a twelve-gauge at my meat-and-two-veg”. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that one of the first lines is “Dixon. Isn’t anything sacred?” The comment that Dixon’s killing is “good PR” – “the training schools’ll be having them in and out quicker than a pork sword in a knocking shop” – is reminiscent of The Blue Lamp’s origins as police propaganda – as Dearden’s collaborator Michael Relph said, The Blue Lamp was “more an animated recruitment poster than an analysis of youthful crime”.40 Cherry ruminates on what makes “an old-fashioned PC”: “A man of experience, unswerving in his desire to serve the public, polite yet chirpy, conciliatory but always ethical, a bastion of moral fibre and a power of example. And then we join the Filth”. The case against Riley can be enhanced by fingerprints added to a sawn-off shotgun and, to suit the zeitgeist, a VHS of Rambo,41 while the comment that a character has had a mild stroke prompts Hammond’s response: “Genuine, or one of ours?” Worse still is the realisation that Dixon’s death saved him from facing unsavoury allegations – as Cherry puts it, “Blimey, a case of P.C. Paedophile. I don’t remember this one on Scotland Yard Mysteries”. Ellis admits that “I was expecting flak from Ted Willis, creator of Dixon, for suggesting his character was involved in child swapping parties. But not a word from him. However, The Police Federation came out vehemently against the play via a full page Daily Mail article, even though they hadn’t then seen it. Thousand and thousands of pro police TV hours, and they resent the occasional hour going the other way”.42
The Black and Blue Lamp isn’t simply a parody of The Blue Lamp, after all Ellis “loved The Blue Lamp“,43 but is a brilliant inversion of its source film, with Riley carrying Forties values into a view of the police which is just as mythologised as Dixon’s cosy world. When P.C. Hughes’s breakdown leads him to challenge Riley with a gun, the scene directly quotes the scene from The Blue Lamp in which Riley shoots Dixon, but this time it is the unarmed villain who is trying to talk down the armed policeman: their dialogue is the same, and when Riley is shot, Sean Chapman captures Jack Warner’s facial expression as he falls. Given that the dialogue reverberating in Hughes’s head is a surprisingly harsh line from The Blue Lamp – “We’re onto the bastard that shot George Dixon” – it has an eerie sense of 1940s coppers acting out vengeful impulses which that film could not represent. By this stage in the play, “the difference between them and us”44 has gone, and the play implicates the act of representation in this. After all, it is Hughes who commits the worst atrocities in an identity crisis caused by discovering that he “was not the affable beat bobby he was back in the late 40s”, and by being corrupted by this mode of representation. That the 80s Hughes is “irredeemably bent” had been made even clearer the first draft, which, as Ellis explained, contained a scene in which his wife visits him at the station “to ask for more money to pay off her innumerable debts and the rental of Taffy’s splash pad – a rented room where Taffy (in his post modern existence) had sex with a variety of young boys and girls, and stashed his graft… The scene was cut due to Brenda not wanting me to present the only female in the story as a leech… [and by me wanting] to make the entire play a male arena”. Another element which was “watered down, though still in the script somewhere, was the fact that Taffy’s father was, as a young man, at Rourke’s Drift (see Zulu), and though discovering proof of his own corruption, needed to believe himself more heroic and courageous than the slowly revealing facts were telling him… he saw himself as a VC winning soldier (with John Barry’s Zulu score written into the script), just like his old man, and not as the corrupt character”.45
The play revolves around the collision of conventions of set design, costume (Cherry’s wardrobe contains a row of identical macs) and, particularly, dialogue. As Mark Lawson wrote, Ellis “was alert to a war of words”, and “delighted in the time-travel of language so that the chump, chummy, mug, mullarkey of Tom Riley met the blag, monkeys, shooters and copy-cat Rambos of Supt Cherry and Sgt Hammond”.46 Turning wearily from a conversation about a “fag blag”, Hammond observes that when he retires he’ll be happy to put this “CID semaphore behind me. Janet hasn’t understood a word I’ve been saying for twenty years”. Meanwhile, Riley is beaten up after not knowing what a “blag” is, while Hughes is shocked by hearing policemen “using rude words”. The sense you’re left with is that The Blue Lamp, Dixon of Dock Green and the programmes on which The Filth is based have tricky relationships with their times.
The Blue Lamp itself isn’t afraid to satirise its own vision of consensus – a robbery victim who tries to hide his identity because he is with his mistress is frustrated by interfering busybodies who swarm around to help or to ring 999, and a driver berates Mitchell for stopping her for a petty violation when there’s a cop killer on the loose. Far from being a consensual nation with the occasional dangerous loner, Britain was suffering a crime wave. As has been recently documented, that most mythologised of consensual eras, the Second World War, was in fact plagued by robbery, rape and murder, from such relatively famous figures as John George Haig and ‘Chicago Joe and the Showgirl’ to innumerable unsolved cases.47 Furthermore, The Blue Lamp was inspired by a real-life killing, that of P.C. Nat Edgar by the 22-year-old army deserter Donald Thomas. Following the 1948 Criminal Justice Act, Thomas was not hung, a decision that angered the police and indirectly led, according to David Yallop and others, to the hanging of the young and innocent “delinquent” Derek Bentley in 1952, one of many miscarriages of justice that were not a part of George Dixon’s world.48
A Royal Commission was set up in 1960 after bribery and corruption scandals emerged. Later, Leeds detectives were found to be involved in a child porn ring. Meanwhile, the famously hard-working and much-commended Detective Sergeant Harold Challenor was investigated under the 1964 Police Act for his overzealous policing techniques (not least fabricating evidence and attacking prisoners), finally suspended in February 1965. Joe Orton, reportedly obsessed by Challenor, used him as the basis for Inspector Truscott in his 1966 play Loot, borrowing the line Challenor is reputed to have said to a protestor at a royal visit: “You’re fucking nicked, my old beauty” (later repeated by Monty Python’s Life of Brian).49 Orton argued that “it’s very unhealthy for a society to love the police the way the English do… When you have that kind of affection for authority, you begin to have the makings of a police state”. In the published version of Loot, Orton uses an epigram from George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance: “Anarchism is a game at which the police can beat you”.50 Sean Chapman picked up on this, eulogising the “sheer, delicious mania of Arthur’s script, which struck me as a brilliant post ‘Ortonesque’ statement about the disparity between the Official, sanctified face of Policing and the actual reality”.51 In the 1980s, the “them and us” relationship between the public and the police was worsened by their deployment as state troops during inner city riots and the miners’ strike. Chapman observes that the play “was written against a recent background of Police catastrophes such as the battles at Broadwater Farm, the Miner’s Strike/Orgreave and the emerging scandal of the Guildford Four. The exposure of corruption in the West Midlands Special Branch was shortly to make the action in The Black and Blue Lamp all too plausible”.52 It’s a moot point whether television has changed the public’s perception of the police, or the media had just got around to reporting incidents that they could not report in Dixon’s heyday.
“One of the things that’s interesting about The Blue Lamp”, writes Arthur Ellis, “is that its certain authenticity – procedure, location filming etc – is sponsored in a credit at the opening of the film by the then Scotland Yard Commissioner, Harold Scott. Naturally enough, part of the deal (implicit) for Scotland Yard’s help would have been a script that showed his men in a good light… In no small way, because of TV and film’s portrayal of probitious cops who always get their man, rampant on UK TV through the 60s – Gideon’s Way, No Hiding Place etc – the facts of police corruption were entirely unmentionable, allowing police corruption to thrive with absolutely no scrutiny until the issue was raised in the Kray and Richardson trials, and only followed through a few years later, exploding with Humphries and, ironically, his Flying Squad Soho porn jiffy bag collections. And at that time, retirement with full pension intact, prior to any trial, was de rigeur. The crime wasn’t being bent, it was being caught being bent”.53 Viewing the ending of Dixon episode The Rotten Apple with this in mind, Dixon’s anger at the corrupt officer, and subsequent disclaimer, feel slightly more sinister.
In The Black and Blue Lamp, George Dixon is eulogised by a policeman, but that character is himself suffering from concussion, lending Dixon’s whole representation the aura of a deluded daydream. Even at the time of The Blue Lamp, one critic wrote that Dixon and Mitchell were not “policemen as they really are but policemen as an indulgent tradition has chosen to think they are”.54 Dixon-style “soft” policing became a term of abuse in police circles according to some studies, but the potency of the Dixon myth remains. Roger Graef, whose noted fly-on-the-wall documentaries include Police and Police 2001 (tx: BBC-2, 25th November 2001),55 has argued that, although Dixon may not have existed literally, “a trust between police and their community did… Affection for Dixon’s avuncular persona reflected approval of the police by a huge majority of postwar Britain”.56 Steve Chibnall casts doubt on the nature of the public’s acceptance of Dixon: “it would be naïve to suppose that the Dixon image was embraced as a realistic representation of the policeman, rather than a romantic idea of what he should be like”.57 The police remain a core social myth, and such representations will always outnumber counter-myths. Like Law and Order before it, The Black and Blue Lamp attracted the ire of the police (see Ellis above), and neither programme has ever been repeated or sold abroad. This contrasts with the popularity within the force not only of Dixon (after Warner’s death in 1981, his coffin was borne by Paddington Green officers) but also of The Sweeney’s Regan and Carter, who as Ellis indicates were great PR at a time when the Police Federation sought a “law and order” platform. Despite stylistic and tonal shifts in police dramas, “the dominant myths of the British police retain core (‘caring’ and ‘humane’) values which do not change”.58
Tracing a “dialectical progression” in the politics of policing, Robert Reiner argues that Dixon of Dock Green represents the “thesis”, presenting the police “primarily as carers, lightning rods for the postwar consensus climate”; that The Sweeney is the “antithesis”, presenting the police “primarily as controllers”; and that The Bill represents the “synthesis”, suggesting that “care and control are interdependent”.59 This core notion of community “carer” policing demonstrates that, even in an age of cynicism toward institutions, the ideal represented by George Dixon remains attractive.
Ellis’s script superbly incorporates such ambitious themes within a darkly entertaining and knowing structure. He recalls that he “had a lot of fun writing it… The general approach to writing it was to try to get laughs from credibly twisted situations. Parody certainly plays an element, but I wanted more to get the feel of a farce, with an increasing number of bodies”. Ralph Brown recalls that the cast “all had the utmost respect for the script”, and that Ellis was “a true original”, with whom he later worked in Ellis’s full-length directorial debut (after several highly-respected short films) Don’t Get Me Started (1994, aka Psychotherapy).60 The production doesn’t always live up to the script – see the Mausoleum Club PDF for comments by the writer and cast criticising the play’s direction for overplaying laughs, over-choreographing reactions and for visual techniques that undermined the play’s vital aspects.61
The play’s coda is a treat, inverting the rest of the play by showing the modern-day Riley in the world of The Blue Lamp: when he’s told a detective will want to “grill” him, Riley replies: “What’s he think I am, a fucking sausage?” This ending is so fitting that it’s surprising that Ellis heard – not from producer or director – “that they had decided to cut the final scene […] Though the one ‘fucking’ had been in it all along, for some reason they felt the play would be better without it, failing to take into account that the last scene offered an insight into the parallel world that might have occurred in reverse… It was only through the intervention of Michael Winner, and by default Private Eye magazine, that the scene was pressured to remain”.62
The reviews, some of which I have already quoted from, were largely excellent. Mark Lawson called this “a cracking play” and “a velvety black comedy”, and praised Kenneth Cranham and John Woodvine, for playing their parts “like glorious anti-auditions for The Bill”.63 Peter Waymark of the Times was less impressed: “I suspect there was serious intent… but it ends up like a Monty Python sketch which has outstayed its welcome… There are many good jokes in The Black and Blue Lamp but in the end they defeat their purpose. If the modern segment is supposed to be a parody of The Bill… it is not a very subtle one”.64 But Television Today’s Peter Lennon loved it, and put the play in an important context: “T.E.B. Clarke and Basil Dearden’s 84 minutes of goody-goody law and order was the lace curtain behind which bent coppers went about their felonious little affairs for more than 20 years… Arthur Ellis’s witty and cunningly crafted video play landed at a moment when many of us must be weary of the relentless, mechanistic recording of law enforcement barbarity, particularly since this element has quite lost its moral force”. Though “farcical”, the play was “more than burlesque”. “It stirred regret for the old days, along with a proper perplexity about the gulf between the two images that we have accepted about the police… How true was the image of the kindly, honest, reliable copper? He certainly existed for many – those who were not slum kids or blacks or Chinese, or poor European foreigners, or labouring Irishmen, or East End Jews, etc. But has this Bobby totally vanished? Myths have a powerful force, and while the old myth of courtesy and scrupulous fairness still prevailed, perhaps most coppers had to conform to it. But when it was loosened, the Bobby had, again for conformity’s sake, to join the Filth. Ellis satirised received opinions of both tribes, and could usefully start scriptwriters pondering what new approach they could manufacture”.65
The success of Gene Hunt in Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes shows the continued relevance of The Black and Blue Lamp’s approach and its Ortonesque questioning of the relationship between representation and public perceptions of policing. However, Hunt’s success also underlines the political context in which questioning depictions are noticeably absent (notwithstanding the reduction in provocative drama across the board, as noted by Chapman in correspondence). A recent Time Shift documentary on the miscarriages of justice series Rough Justice related the success of Life on Mars to the “new emphasis” of New Labour legislation and a climate of “catching criminals at all costs” which meant that “the process of proving someone innocent all but disappeared from TV screens”. The documentary reasonably argues that Hunt’s popularity “mirrored a nostalgia for the bad old days of police work that Rough Justice had done so much to expose.”66 As this essay has demonstrated, nostalgia and myth have indeed played a part in the development and popularity of police depictions in drama. However, although Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes play on nostalgia to produce a less ideological reading than The Black and Blue Lamp, there are other ways in which these series share vital questions with that play. If Ellis’s play shows the queried idealised golden age of Dixon yielding to brutal new Hunt-style tropes, Tyler seems (in episode 1) to lament the passing of an idealised (though also queried) golden age of Hunt-style tropes, but it’s not a simple swap as Tyler interrogates those tropes, as if trying to construct the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model in his own mind. When Tyler and Alex Drake are transported to other versions of police drama, their worlds are often constructed from unreliable memory and postmodern collages of various texts including police dramas (though Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes certainly make room for real-life corruption cases). Furthermore, the central question of whether their lead characters are in comas or an afterlife signposts the whole depiction of the police as the kind of “benevolent daydream” mentioned earlier.
2012 edit: for more coverage of Dixon of Dock Green in the 1970s, please see this post.
Thanks to Arthur Ellis for his generously detailed correspondence (March 2002), and to David M. Thompson (interview, BBC Films, Mortimer Street, London, 7 November 2002), Sean Chapman (letter, November 2003), Ralph Brown (letter, December 2003). Thanks also to Erin O’ Neill at BBC Written Archives, Nick Cooper, and to Mr Wolf at The Mausoleum Club for additional research, inspiration and continuing to host my original production file.
Originally posted: 24 April 2011.
[This piece collates, in rewritten, revised and abbreviated form, three previous pieces:
Conference paper ‘The afterlife of P.C. George Dixon: from The Blue Lamp to The Black and Blue Lamp’ at the University of Leeds conference “Retrieving the 1940s” in 2002.
Piece for the Mausoleum Club website in 2004 still available at The Mausoleum Club here (as a PDF).
Conference paper ‘The afterlife of P.C. George Dixon: from The Blue Lamp to The Black and Blue Lamp’ – a slightly different paper at the University of Hull conference “Ealing Revisited” in 2006.