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Best British Police Dramas

Now that we’re all out of new episodes of Line of Duty

Photo by Benn McGuinness on Unsplash

Nobody, but nobody, does police drama quite like the Brits do.

Whether it’s because not all of their cops carry guns and therefore storylines have to be a bit more creative, or because something about the dark and quirky British sense of humor lends itself to cop stories particularly well, nobody knows.

Recently Jed Mercurio’s massively popular twisty-and-turny police drama masterpiece Line of Duty concluded its run — although its last episode was met with some harsh reviews (SPOILER ALERT AT THOSE LINKS) — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t tons of other great British police dramas to keep you occupied if you’re not quite ready to get back out there yet in the wake of the coronavirus.

Bodyguard

We begin our list with a political thriller, not a cop drama, but Bodyguard demands inclusion here because it was also created and written by Jed Mercurio (creator of Line of Duty).

From the very first episode, former soldier David Budd (just back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan) is dumped straight into the deep end, also known as the train he’s traveling on to return his children to their mother (his estranged wife), which also happens to be the target of a suicide bomber. Budd is able to detect and defuse that situation, and for his diligence is rewarded with a job in a special branch of the London Metropolitan Police, responsible for providing protective services to high-profile targets. If he thought he was in the deep end before, his new job will prove that he’s still in the water, and he’s been joined by piranhas.

The person he is assigned to guard is the staunchly Conservative Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), a politician for whom he feels little affinity but whose life he is sworn to protect. What follows as the protected and the protector get to know one another is one of the darkest cat-and-mouse games ever seen on television.

Happy Valley

In the trailer for series one of this program, veteran cop Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) introduces herself to a drunken perp and tells him she’s divorced, her sister’s a recovering heroin addict, one of her children is dead, and she’s responsible for looking after her grandson Ryan. And even after that monologue she’s still got secrets: she’s sleeping with her ex; she’s never dealt with her grief over her daughter’s death and is having panic attacks and hallucinations; and she’s tracking her daughter’s rapist, who has just been released from jail after serving time for drug offenses.

There is nothing particularly happy about Happy Valley. And yet Catherine persists.

The story arc of the first series follows the events of a kidnapping-gone-wrong, and it features ordinary (not particularly evil, which is what makes the entire thing so unnerving) people often making really terrible decisions. It’s also noteworthy for its lack of guns; for those used to American cop dramas, the absence of endless shooting scenes provides an entirely different viewing experience.

The Fall

A serial killer is targeting and killing young brunette professional women in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For the viewer, there’s no mystery as to who is the Belfast Strangler: very early on he is shown to be Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), a married man, father of two, and professional bereavement counselor.

For the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), however, the identity of the killer is elusive and their investigation has been plagued by blunders, missteps, and bad publicity. Eventually they invite Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), a Metropolitan Police Service Superintendent from London, to travel to Belfast and investigate the investigation (as well as to provide support in trying to apprehend the killer). Gibson brings to the investigation not only her superlative investigative skills but also her habit of engaging in sexual trysts with men she believes will be disposable and keep their mouths shut.

Life on Mars

Manchester Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler (John Simm) is busy enough in 2006, trying to solve a rape and abduction case (in which a colleague might be the next victim), when he’s in a car accident and wakes up…in the 1970s.

The rest of the series finds Tyler using his investigative skills primarily to try and understand if he has died, if he’s in a coma and dreaming, or if he really has just time-traveled. Luckily for him, he wakes up in the 1970s with papers marking him as a detective who is transferring to a new police station (which is the same police station in which he was working in 2006). Things are very different, though: the detectives are much more casual about their work and forensic methodology, women cops endure endless amounts of sexual harassment, and Tyler’s new boss is a sadist named Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), who does not take kindly to Tyler’s enlightened ways.

So why is Tyler in 1973? Are the cases he solves there related to the ones he was working in 2006? What can he do to get back to his present life? Does he even want to? Don’t try to understand it— just watch it. Even if you never do really get it you’ll enjoy the ride.

Luther

John Luther (Idris Elba) is emphatically not your typical police detective. He’s angrier than most, he’s more driven, but most importantly, he’s smarter than most of his co-workers and the criminals he tracks. Which is a good thing, because the crimes he investigates are some of the most unpleasant you’ve ever seen portrayed on television.

Most of his colleagues are not the type to question the sometimes-rogue brand of justice that Luther sometimes can’t help but pursue, but his playing fast and loose with the more by-the-book requirements of modern police work also gain him a number of enemies within the police force.

Another way in which he differs from his colleagues is in his frequent collusion with a woman he knows to be a serial killer. Their relationship is a complex one of co-dependency; he often relies on her for help and insight into the criminal mind, but he is also at her mercy (because he has not arrested her for the crimes he knows, but can’t prove, that she has committed).

Prime Suspect

Any list of the Best British Police Dramas simply has to include Prime Suspect, even though it is dated. It is still just so damn good, and every time you watch it, you will find something new to appreciate in Helen Mirren’s portrayal of main character Jane Tennison.

Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison doesn’t care if you think she’s not good enough to be an inspector because she’s a woman. She doesn’t care if you think less of her because she sleeps with whom she wants when she wants, even if they’re junior colleagues. She doesn’t care about you or your shit in general, because she is as sharp and as skilled an investigator as ever worked for Greater London’s Metropolitan Police Service.

Over the course of several series, Tennison investigates a broad range of crimes, from straight-up murder to serial killings, hate crimes and sex crimes to international crimes of retribution. Along the way she struggles with the sexism and “old boys’ club” nature of the Met, as well as with her own personal life. But she always, always, gets her man, even when it’s a woman, and even when it’s a perpetrator with whom she feels some small degree of sympathy.

MI-5

Technically, it’s a spy drama, not a police drama, but this program might actually rival Mercurio’s for twists, turns, and upright characters who turn out to be nefarious (and vice versa).

MI-5, titled Spooks in the U.K., is espionage drama that features an ever-refreshed cast as old characters give their all — truly — in the defense of Queen and country, and new characters take their place in MI-5, the British domestic spy service. From the very first episode the tension between doing the job and trying to maintain outside relationships is apparent, as Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen), Spy Extraordinaire, finds himself spinning ever less likely tales to explain to his girlfriend and her daughter why he, a run-of-the-mill tech worker, has to rush to work at a moment’s notice, or even, on one memorable occasion, has a bomb planted at the home where he lives with them. That’s the sort of thing significant others tend to wonder about.

Throughout the series, the threats to British national security (and the safety of MI-5’s intrepid officers) vary from homegrown extremists to religious terrorists, from the Russian government as well as the American one (which often oversteps its bounds in taking over joint operations). In addition to threats from outside, there are many subplots involving betrayals and unclear loyalties within the secret services and the British government. In short, you never really know who is on what side, and you feel a real sympathy for agents trying to remain true to their own codes of honor in the face of swiftly changing loyalties among MI-5 and government leaders.

This article adapted from Bingeworthy British Television, by Sarah Cords and Jackie Bailey.

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Sarah Cords

Sarah Cords

Author of “Bingeworthy British Television.” Fellow curmudgeons welcome at citizenreader.com.

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