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The thin grey line

The thin grey line

Thursday 18 March 2021

Line of Duty, the UK’s most popular cop show, returns to BBC One this weekend for its sixth season. As well as being great TV, it poses truly contemporary questions about the conduct, accountability and powers of the police in 2021


With uncanny serendipity – in the week that public trust in the police has dominated the news – Line of Duty returns on Sunday 21 March (BBC One, 9pm). Now in its sixth season, Britain’s most popular cop show is back, after a two year hiatus, to enthral, challenge and unsettle us.

Since its launch in 2012, the drama has grown from a plucky BBC Two series with three million viewers to a BBC One blockbuster that routinely captures an audience of 13 million. 

At its heart is the anti-corruption unit, AC-12, and a trio of core characters: Detective Sergeant Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), formerly an authorised firearms officer, transferred in Season One to AC-12, after refusing to cover up an unlawful killing; Detective Inspector Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), a much-commended undercover specialist; and the unit’s guv’nor, Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), a flinty Ulsterman with zero tolerance for bent coppers but – naturally – a past full of secrets and unexpected emotional complexities.

Through the trio’s claustrophobic, morally-fraught world has passed a galaxy of vivid characters, played by the very best British actors: Lennie James as Detective Chief Inspector Tony Gates; Keeley Hawes as DI Lindsay Denton; Daniel Mays as Sergeant Danny Waldron; Thandie Newton as DCI Roseanne Huntley; Craig Parkinson as DI Matthew “Dot” Cottan; and, in Season Five, Stephen Graham, turning in yet another stunning performance as DS John Corbett. 

In Season Six, Kelly Macdonald joins the line-up as DCI Joanne Davidson – but for how long? One of the hallmarks of show-runner Jed Mercurio is a brutal readiness to kill off characters who seem set for the long haul (as fans of his 2018 hit series, Bodyguard, know all too well). 

A former trained RAF pilot and accomplished novelist (try American Adulterer [2009], his fictional account of JFK’s life, seen through the prism of the president’s health and physical afflictions), Mercurio revels both in authenticity, researching his plots in great detail, and audacious breaches of the traditional rules governing narrative arc in television drama. 

Part of the nerve-shredding appeal of Line of Duty is the suspicion that a lead character may be removed from the stage without preamble or warning. Mercurio loves to tease and tantalise his viewers, unleashing flocks of geese for them to chase and presenting clues that may or may not mean something significant. 

Example: the trailer for Season Six released nine days ago included a brief glimpse of a magazine cover on which – if you froze the frame – could be seen a QR code. This, if you scanned it on your phone, led you to a letter from Chief Constable Philip Osborne (Owen Teale) to Deputy Chief Constable Andrea Wise (Elizabeth Rider). 

 “I think it is high time we had a much closer look at AC-12,” the hidden letter read. “I’m beginning to question whether this department is fit for purpose especially under its current – and let’s be frank – extremely difficult leadership.” Such are the fiendish mind games that Mercurio loves to play with the show’s fans.

Yes, the governing theme of the series has been a traditional one. Who runs the mighty Organised Crime Group (OCG) and who are the four (or more?) corrupt police officers it has embedded in the force, code-named “H”? Beyond that straightforward battle, everything in Line of Duty is shades of grey. 

In this respect, Mercurio has much in common with, say, the late John le Carré in his espionage novels, or David Milch in his extraordinary Western series, Deadwood. He takes a well-established genre – in this case, the television staple of the “police procedural” – and uses it to create a floodlit stage, upon which he can subject his characters to extreme stress, physical exhaustion and ethical confusion; and, in the process, dig deep into the human psyche. Nobody in Line of Duty is free of sin, or immune from doubt. 

Just as we think we have got the measure of a character, Mercurio pulls the rug out from under our ingrained expectations. Hang on – this officer is having an affair with a witness? Is she really on the take? Not him – could even he be a wrong’un? 

Though not the first series to showcase police corruption – the BBC’s Between the Lines (1992-1994) did that – Line of Duty came along at a time when trust in institutions, accountability and the corruption of the powerful were all becoming issues of huge political and social importance. 

The show takes one of the oldest questions in human affairs – Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will watch the watchmen?) – and puts it to work in a fully modern setting. In the week that the position of the Met Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, has been challenged and the new police powers proposed in Priti Patel’s latest legislation have dominated the headlines, this question is closer to the bone than ever.

If you haven’t seen the first five seasons, they are all available on iPlayer, and – if you want a quick refresher course – there are recaps here and here.

We’ll be exploring the question of trust in the police at Sensemaker Live on Friday 19 March at 1pm GMT (book your place here). And – following last week’s celebration of Nineties retro culture – do come along to the next Creative Sensemaker Live on Monday 29 March at 6:30pm GMT, at which we’ll be asking whether life was simply better in that brash and wonderful decade.

Here are this week’s recommendations:


Watch

Judas and the Black Messiah (VOD)
Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield have both received Oscar nominations for their performances in Shaka King’s magnificent movie about the Black Panthers, and rightly so. The film – which hinges on the true-life relationship between Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), chairman of the movement’s Illinois chapter, and FBI informant, William O’Neal (Stanfield) – is also the first with all Black producers (Shaka King, Charles D. King, and Ryan Coogler) to be nominated for Best Picture. Jesse Plemons (Todd in Breaking Bad) is silkily menacing as O’Neal’s FBI handler, Special Agent Roy Mitchell – and watch out for a chilling cameo by Martin Sheen as FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, willing to go to any lengths to thwart the rise of the Panthers. Raw, gripping and rippling with tragedy, this is an unmissable movie. 

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (VOD)
One of the many independent-spirited and fiercely-creative women who emerged from the punk scene, Poly Styrene – AKA Marianne Elliott-Said – was the lead singer and principal force behind the band X-Ray Spex, formed in 1976. This fine documentary, directed by her daughter Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, has plenty to say about that era in British culture, but is also an exploration of parenthood, and what it means to be the child of an icon: Bell is fearless in her account of her mother’s bouts of mental illness, the price she paid herself and the strength both women mustered to achieve full reconciliation.

Allen v Farrow (Sky Documentaries)
A year after the publication of Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing, this four-part HBO series resumes the battle that has now raged for almost three decades over the allegations of child abuse made against the veteran director by his former partner, Mia Farrow, and their daughter, Dylan. Allen v Farrow has been widely criticised for favouring the case against Allen, but this is a flimsy objection. True, the directors, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, are dismissive of the defence of Allen by his son, Moses Farrow, and his wife, Soon-Yi Previn – Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, with whom he started an affair while he was still in a relationship with her mother. On the other hand, Allen and his wife declined to cooperate with the film-makers – who have left a standing offer of a fifth episode on the table should they change their minds.

Much of the material is deeply harrowing, not least the home video of Dylan’s testimony in 1992 when she was only seven. This is a case riven with profound pain, excoriating claims and counter-claims, and (as the series shows) the distortive power that stardom can exercise over supposedly dispassionate investigations. Make your own mind up – but do not avert your eyes from the disturbing questions that Allen v Farrow poses.

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier (Disney+, March 19)
After the surreal triumph of Wandavision, Marvel Studios makes a speedy return to the hyper-competitive world of streaming with a more conventional action format, pairing Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier) with Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson (the Falcon). With their shared connection to Captain America, the two superheroes engage in buddy show banter, punctuated with the usual tensions that are part of that formula. The early indications are that The Falcon and The Winter Soldier will do exactly what it says on the tin. Its broader significance is that, like the Star Wars franchise, Marvel is now devoting at least as much attention to the streamable series as it is to the big screen blockbuster movie – remember them?


Read

Confessions of the Flesh: The History of Sexuality Volume 4 – Michel Foucault (Penguin)
If you really want to understand the modern world, forget Karl Marx and Milton Friedman and try the writings of Michel Foucault. Though the French philosopher died in 1984, his ideas have never been more influential – even if that influence is not always experienced consciously or acknowledged explicitly. Foucault interpreted everything in terms of power and its location. Institutions, illness, madness, punishment, sexuality: in his eyes, all were framed by forms of discourse that expressed power, or its absence. Three years after its posthumous publication in French, this fourth volume of his great history of sexuality is finally available in English and finds its focus in the world of early Christianity. As obscure as this might sound, it does more to explain how the social justice movements of 2021 analyse and propose to change the world than any standard textbook of political science.

Klara and The Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber & Faber)
Ishiguro’s eighth novel – his first since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017 – is also one of his best. Like Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me (2019), Klara and the Sun brings an acute literary sensibility to bear on the fundamental questions posed by AI and the prospect of sentient machines. Klara is a solar-powered “Artificial Friend” bought to provide companionship to a frail teenager, Josie, in a world that, it emerges, is arranged around a hierarchy in which the “high-rank” caste has been genetically “lifted”. As in Never Let Me Go (2005), Ishiguro’s masterpiece about a disposable class of clones, his theme is once again the nature of humanity and (by implication) the troubling questions that lie in our own not-too-distant future.

Englishness: The Political Force Transforming Britain – Ailsa Henderson and Richard Wyn Jones (Oxford University Press)
The advent of Brexit and the ever-looming prospect of Scottish independence have focused much attention on the nature of English identity and the vexed question of what distinguishes it from Britishness. Henderson and Wyn Jones bring a refreshing empiricism to the table, drawing heavily on the Future of England Survey and other data to arrive at their conclusions. Intelligent and readable, this is a significant contribution to an increasingly-important cultural and political debate.


Listen

Evering Road – Tom Grennan
Inspired by a break-up, Grennan’s second album is as grandiose as a day in Barcelona with Freddie Mercury and as freighted with emotion as a Covid vaccine clinic. So overt is the Bedford singer-songwriter’s ambition to be a colossal superstar that he sometimes loses the deep sense of intimacy that defines the work of his declared inspirations, Adele and Amy Winehouse. But the ambition is undoubtedly matched by a serious talent, and we can expect Grennan to be a force to reckon with in the post-pandemic performing world.

Chopin: Scherzi & Ballades – Adbel Rachman El Bacha
The Franco-Lebanese pianist and composer is renowned as a virtuoso interpreter of Chopin. The four scherzi were composed between 1833 and 1843 and – though the form is notionally light-hearted – are better-known for their unsettling power and energy. Chopin’s four ballades, meanwhile, composed around the same time, have a lyrical romanticism, based upon, but not constrained by, the sonata form. These performances by Abdel Rachman el Bacha are simply dazzling.

Central Cee – Wild West
This debut studio mixtape by “Cench” has roots in drill but broad horizons (check out the unexpected use of guitar and brass). Like many artists, the Shepherd’s Bush rapper has made impressive use of lockdown to evolve and to explore different genres, and already has two top twenty singles to his name. “I’m always going to be in my own lane,” he insists – and this offering suggests that it’s a promising place to be.


…and finally

On Tuesday 16 March, theatres marked the first anniversary since they were instructed to close in the prelude to what became the first national lockdown. In Boris Johnson’s road-map for the relaxation of Covid restrictions, 17 May is pencilled in as the provisional date when they may start to reopen.

But all this is subject to the latest aggregated data, infection rates, and the continued success of vaccine roll-out, and nothing can be taken for granted. So three cheers for Stellar Theatre, the new digital company set up by Karen Paul and Peggy Vance, which offers bespoke performances of new plays on Zoom, followed by informal discussion.

Stellar already has a terrific line-up of actors and plays – and, even out of lockdown, would be an innovative idea, worthy of your attention. We wish it every success.

Don’t forget to send your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now – take care of yourselves, and each other.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Photographs Steffan Hill/BBC, Glen Wilson/Warner Bros, Falcon Stuart/Modern Films, HBO, Marvel Studios/Disney+, Getty Images