TV review: Law and Order

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Four-part drama series about the 1970s criminal justice system: A Detective’s Tale; A Villain’s Tale; A Brief’s Tale; and A Prisoner’s Tale

  • BBC Four 40th anniversary broadcast: 12 April to 3 May 2018
  • Programme creator: G F Newman
  • Director: Les Blair
  • First broadcast: April 1978 on BBC Two

This spring, the BBC re-broadcast Law and Order, its 1978 dramatic series depicting the criminal justice system. It was written by the then 31-year old G F Newman who would go on to script the far glossier if enjoyably implausible Judge John Deed. It stands up remarkably well.

The basic story is straightforward. The police are tipped off by informers about an impending armed robbery. They try but fail to catch the criminals on the spot, but they nevertheless arrest four men one of whom was not there. The defendants stand trial but the man who wasn’t there is the only one convicted. He begins his long sentence. The focus shifts in each, overlapping episode duly called A Detective’s Tale, A Villain’s Tale, A Brief’s Tale and A Prisoner’s Tale. The wealth of physical detail comes across through a very immediate, naturalistic, documentary style of filming. The camera and the audience are right there in the room with the characters. We smell the pubs and the courtroom almost as easily we hear the clack of manual typewriters. The only drawback is the amount of mumbling. You get the idea even if you have no idea what the actor just said.

The controversy at the time was the casual way in which the series depicted corruption. The shock is the utterly matter of fact way the police go about doing things – it is their way and they get away with it. Interviews with suspects take place before the arrested man is allowed to see his solicitor, not before. They begin with ‘you’re a villain, sit down and we’ll see how you shape up’. ‘You help the system and the system will help you’ is another inducement. A man in possession of a gun does what he’s told, to avoid prosecution. The police take money to drop a case. If they get investigated, their mates will do what they can to help them out.

"The controversy at the time was the casual way in which the series depicted corruption. The shock is the utterly matter of fact way the police go about doing things – it is their way and they get away with it"

Jack Lynn, the main villain at the centre of the story, is fitted up by the police because ‘it’s his turn’. Evidence is planted (hairs in a Balaclava he didn’t wear) while other evidence is suppressed. The lawyers are as bad as the police. Indeed the two are on excellent terms, and will cut a deal when it suits them, even if it does not suit the man in the dock. ‘I’d like to see if we can do business with the Old Bill, I know Inspector Pyle [of the Flying Squad], he’s accessible,’ Lynn is legally advised. Lynn is also told that his case is too complicated to be done on legal aid and the barrister he should instruct won’t accept a publicly funded brief. The lawyers who conduct his appeal promise him that it will succeed but it duly fails. His Old Bailey trial is a version of business as usual. The officer stands in the witness box and denies under cross-examination any wrong doing in the investigation. Afterwards he goes across to the pub and has a drink with Lynn’s solicitor. The latter is happy to take the case of the officer’s ‘well-liked mate’ aka a bent copper. Needless to say, the judge is wholly prejudiced. Throughout this is an almost exclusively male world. Women appear only at the fringes.

Two of Lynn’s many drawbacks are his temper and his big mouth. In prison he constantly misbehaves, culminating in a failed attempt at escaping. After that the authorities spend six months breaking his spirit utterly until finally he is docile. The prison sequence ironically is the least shocking to us. True, there is slopping out, the warders are sadistic and the prisoners are allowed to gang rape (off camera) a sex offender. Unlike our own times, though, there is no overcrowding, the prisoners spend most of the day out of their cells and the place is not high on recreational drugs.

The performances are completely believable. Did actors really have such different looking faces and bodies back then? It is an era worth remembering. Our own problems of criminal justice are different but no less real.

Reviewer: David Wurtzel, Bencher of Middle Temple and member of the Counsel Editorial Board

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David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.