Crims Ain’t Wot They Used To Be

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