Mark Simpson on the way public information films about policing and justice throw an arresting light on our recent past

The London Times

Some trace the demise of the British way of life to the day when RAC patrolmen stopped saluting. In fact, as Police and Thieves, a marvellous two-DVD collection of historical documentaries on policing and the justice system from the vaults of the Central Office of Information, shows, the rot set in when bobbies stopped wearing skin-tight white gloves.

The reassuring paraphernalia of policing that I remember dressing up in as a kid to play cops and robbers has pretty much disappeared from our streets today, along with kids playing cops and robbers (everyone wants to be a robber). But in The British Policeman, in 1959 to teach the Commonwealth about the Mother Country, is nothing less than porn for hardcore nostagalics. Pointy helmets and chunky handcuffs, shiny whistles, wooden truncheons, police boxes and those white gloves — perhaps intended as a reminder that, as the very received-pronunciation voiceover intones, “The British policeman is a friend to all except the criminal … he is taught that he is the servant not the master of the public.”

And not a high-visibility jacket or stab-vest to be seen. Back then bobbies were a comforting symbol of the order of British society and the invincibility of its class system. This is underlined by the way that no one shown in the film actually speaks: the clipped voiceover speaks serenely for everyone. Today, of course, police are seen only when there’s trouble — if you’re lucky.

Filmed in crisp black and white on a warm sunny day in a Leicester that looks more like Trumpton than a major Midlands industrial town, this was the high summer of Ealing Englishness, before the 1960s ruined everything. The clumsy propaganda of The British Policeman, like many COI films collected here, is easy to ridicule now — and probably was then too — but it also provides a priceless glimpse of a world that now seems at least as quaint and foreign to us as it did to its intended audience.

No one, except the avuncular bobby protagonist of the film, is overweight. Almost everyone in what may soon be Britain’s first majority non-white city is Caucasian, save for a Commonwealth gentleman at the beginning of the film who asks our helpful bobby for directions. Middle-aged women wear scarves like hijabs. Sullen bequiffed Teds hang around all-night coffee stands. Our bobby helps old ladies to cross the road, untangles schoolboys’ fishing lines caught in trees and attends to a pig-tailed girl’s grazed knee. Proving he’s no pushover, he also apprehends a burglar in a donkey jacket, his pocket full of chisels, who practically shrugs and says, “Fair cop, guv”. Only one female PC makes an appearance, turning up to babysit a runaway girl who has been hanging around with the Teds.

This world thought it was going to last for ever, but the end was waiting just around the corner, cosh in hand. In Unit Beat Policing, a 1968 recruiting film, the white heat of technology has replaced white gloves — and bobbies. Filmed in Chester, it’s a celebration of hardware: panda cars, walkie-talkies, central radio control, electric typewriters and “collecting information”, complete with a Z-Cars-style theme tune. A technocratic chief constable enthuses: “A squad car can do the job of five men on the beat. Which in turn allows us to spend more money on technology that saves manpower . . .”

No female PCs are to be seen in 1968 either, but we do see some women pushing prams and a gossipy lady reports a neighbour for being unmarried, living with a girl, not having a job and generally being shifty. By 1973 in another recruitment film, Anything Can Happen, excitement is now the selling point: big sideburns, action, mateyness, sexism: Life on Mars without the irony. While the young male bobby protagonist is now allowed a voice (albeit a slumming RADA one), female PCs are just dumb bait for recruiting male PCs — two years before the Sex Discrimination Act.

In the 1970s the COI started to move away from documentaries and towards the TV shorts that it is most famous for. Bicycle Thefts (1974) stars a suspiciously pretty, fey young man in a fedora and cravat who seems to have inspired much of David Walliams’s oeuvre: “I’d rather not say what was in my saddlebag. It’s personal.”

Police and Thieves also includes some COI documentaries showing the workings of the post-war justice system: Four Men in Prison (1950), Probation Officer (1950), and the remarkable Children on Trial (1946) (pictured). The public-school paternalism of the age is evident in all these films: “At work and at play we expect you to act like men — we run a civilised, high-class community,” says one governor in his welcoming speech to the new intake. But it is a surprisingly enlightened paternalism that has rather more faith in human nature and rehabilitation than we do today. The future turned out to be much more democratic, but also much less forgiving than class-bound Britain, white gloves and all.

Police and Thieves, the COI collection, Vol 1 is released by bfi