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Silent Witness - the bodies soon pile up

Silent Witness – the bodies soon pile up

The opening scene of the new series of Silent Witness aired Tuesday 6th January sees Emilia Fox’s pathologist Nicki Alexander out on a jog in the beautiful English countryside, a place that is soon to become a place where snipers will make their ‘nest’.

She stops for a breather just as a potential date also on a jog takes his. They sneak a look at each other while catching their breath. He manages to break the ice with a vaguely poetic observation: “The kind of day that makes you think anything’s possible. You could climb Everest, fall in love, learn origami.” It seems such a well rehearsed chat-up line, but of course in terms of the plot, at least, it is to prove ironic, because what ensues is a day of mass murder…

Big viewing figures for Silent Witness 18 series in

This is now the 18th series of Silent Witness and it still pulls big viewing figures. For Episode 1 it clocked up 6.7 million viewers, only a million less than its ITV rival, Broadchurch, which had plenty more ad spend behind it. So it’s got to be doing something right, you’d think. Then again there are lots of brands that keep on making money even when their ingredients have become if not past their sell buy date, very stale.

Forensics who get to play cops and society’s guardian angels

Forensic man Jack plays murder detective

Forensic man Jack plays murder detective

The storylines often start with sufficient credibility – murder followed by forensics turning up and dazzling us with their powers of deduction – only to deteriorate quickly into melodrama and nonsense as the forensic team become not so much the cops leading the investigation but rogue private investigators on a mission of self and public cleansing.

Ten years ago most of us knew very little about the role of the forensic investigator and were prepared to believe he or she got actively involved in criminal investigations, marching into buildings alongside armed detectives who had just knocked in someone’s front door to save a kidnapped woman or child.

CSI very successfully sold us this idea that the forensics team were also the cops who went out with guns to catch the killers. We’re not so keen on guns over here, but we too insisted on pushing our forensics out into field work – for the sake of raising the stakes.

Ask anyone who works in forensics and he or she will tell you it’s a lab job, a desk job. Yes, they collect stuff and give evidence in court from time to time, but they don’t join the police chasing criminals over fences and they certainly don’t conduct illegal searches.

So, for a good ten years now, we’ve been willing to play along with this fiction because it was diverting, but it’s got beyond a joke surely – we simply feel we’re being lied to.

But what is more tiresome is the unremitting dourness of the show. And not just this procedural but nearly every procedural that is made in Britain.

The UK’s predilection for unlikeable characters

Every principal and support actor in these primetime UK cop shows is directed to play their part in a state of heightened anxiety or bitchiness.

The detectives are invariably uptight, unsmiling, overworked, beset with men or women issues, have a default position of sarcasm over kindness and humour, and never stop frowning. Really nice bunch of people to spend 60 minutes with, eh?

Their helpers are invariably anxious work slaves, striving every second of their waking lives to prove their worth, underachieving do-gooders we must feel sorry for.

Is this what plays for catharsis these days? Do we watching thinking, Oh, at least my boss isn’t that bad.

We seem generally better at playing and writing for bad guys – but even they are so washed out and miserable. Take The Fall, another recent procedural with the emphasis on the killer’s procedures. Full kudos for daring to look closer at what makes a psychopath tick… and yet, the entire series lacked any light and shade – it was all just stone faced cut your wrists sort of grey.

Even the killer, Paul Spectre (Jamie Dorman) we’re asked to spend so much time with never seems to show any evidence of having enjoyed the power that he claims he’s enjoyed over his victims – his ‘work’, if we can call it that, seems nothing but the feeding of a dreary compulsion without end. I realise this passes for deep and sophisticated, but what is it we’re supposed to be fascinated by exactly? It’s a sort of bloodless torture porn.

And Spector’s opposite – the detective – is another bundle of joy: borderline alcoholic, utterly disillusioned by men, yet weirdly drawn to the man killing lots of women, and, as played by Gillian Anderson, utterly humourless, languid, my god have you ever seen a copper so languid, and just really depressing to be around.

In this last Silent Witness of our main characters only the forensic woman in the wheelchair isn’t overwrought and anxious all the time.

Never a smile from this week's embattled DCI

Never a smile from this week’s embattled DCI

The lead detective DCI Jane De Freitas (Zoe Telford ) is a thirty something careerist who lives in perpetual fear of being shat upon. She not only throws a sulk when her superior and lover DCS Robert Drake (Steve Wall) calls it off, “We’re no fun anymore…” – no kidding! – she has to stab him in the hand with a pen. Ouch. (Can you imagine the complaints if he’d done that to her hand? Anyway…)

She then spends the rest of the show getting her knickers further in a twist over a killing spree she fears will ruin her career and make her look even more foolish in front of her now former lover’s eyes. When she’s not bickering with her ex, she’s spitting venom at a tall Scottish PR woman who stalks her every move with incendiary condescension spitting directions at her about how to handle the media.

Trotting behind our embattled Jane is Sean Gilder’s bored DS Jim Clout, who would once have been your token lad’s mag interest (as a geezer, that is) and is now offered up as fodder for feminists on the hunt for yet more unreconstructed male chum to feed on. Clout – who has little, er, clout – is given to making smart arse sarcastic remarks about female co-workers because of course that’s what older, out-of-shape guys think about younger more attractive women in positions of power, isn’t it. Yawn.

Raising the stakes often has an undesirable side-effect – melodrama

By the time we get to episode 2, all this steaming, brewing, festering resentment among the powers that be starts to erupt into bouts of ludicrous melodrama. For instance, Sean Gilder’s DS Jim Clout going from sarcky old timer bored of being overlooked to a sort of King Kong screaming from the rooftops of the police station when he fails to catch the sniper who just killed one of his colleagues. I think the word is ‘ham’.

Who's next?

Who’s next?

And as the plot gathered pace, it also became less and less plausible. For instance, what were the police and forensic team hoping to achieve by standing in the school playground, looking out at the surrounding woods and the many possible ‘nests’ for the sniper when the last bell went? Catch a kid when he or she is hit by a bullet? At the very least they could have been been combing the woods for the man instead of looking at them.

Toward the end, one of the snipers not only somehow activates the police fire alarm without anyone having a clue he’s in their midst (this in spite of the fact they have a photo fit of him by now), he then takes up position on the school roof with his sniper rifle and shoots one of the coppers who has evacuated the building. And escapes. Really? All those coppers in the yard and they can’t catch the man who just popped a shot at them from their own roof?

But the writer’s focus appears to be elsewhere: he’s less interested in the sniper story about a gun-head who pops at people cos he didn’t fancy a course in anger management, a story cribbed in some detail from the real life Washington sniper, I believe, he’s more interested in his subplot about a 16-year-old boy whose dad used to beat him and his mum up, and who has now joined forces with the sniper so he can hide his planned assassination of his father in a heap of bodies (a neat plot idea which just happens to open Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher).

And it’s an interesting enough set-up of itself, the boy’s story, I mean. Except that we are asked to believe that he is at first super smart avoiding phones and email by using only SOS signaling with a torch, then super dumb when he lets his pride get the better of him and reveals to forensic guy Jack Hodgson (David Caves) exactly how he shot his dad.

Oops, teen sniper shows his real feelings to Jack

Oops, teen sniper shows his real feelings to Jack

Not only is the boy smart then stupidly smug, we’re also asked to believe that super sharp Jack, our forensic guy, had figured the boy as innocent, in spite of all the evidence suggesting otherwise. Why is Jack like this? Because the script editor and team, would tell you, this is jack’s learning curve, his story arc. He has to be shown to LEARN something, he can’t just be savvy and smart the way Jack Regan was back in the old days of The Sweeney, for instance, that’s too straightforward. 180 degree plot twists are as mandatory as following brand guidelines these days.

Returning to this minor issue of credibility, what on earth was Jack doing visiting the boy in the first place? He’d just been suspended for allegedly assaulting the boy. No police force in the land would have let him anywhere near a suspect under such circumstances. I have to wonder if it wasn’t actually illegal for Jack to go within 100 yards of the boy. But again, the Silent Witness format demands that our forensics guy catches the bad guy.

Why is it, you have to wonder, UK procedurals have to be so lacking in light and shade?

They aren’t in the States, where guns are ubiquitous. They pepper their procedurals with laughter and snappy banter, quirkiness and gestures of kindness, and although many wind up their stories with sentimental and often far too convenient resolutions, they positively glow with human warmth – and a sort of optimistic longing – compared to ours.

The tone of British procedurals is almost invariably and unremittingly bleak and morbid. I can just hear one of the editors talking about brand values of the show and tone of voice at every juncture in the scripting process – as if directing a funeral. Well, sorry, but it’s boring and draining. And to underline how boring it really is, take a look at the refreshingly honest and revealing documentariy 24 Hours in Police Custody, on Channel 4, examining ‘in unprecedented detail the inner workings of a [Luton] police station as captured by more than 80 cameras’.

What comes across so well in this documentary is the mixture of humour and even jollity among these coppers of all ranks. They aren’t all pent up and angsty about every damn crime that hits their desk, not even when it comes to gruesome stabbings. How could you possibly work in the police if you were!

These Luton officers see some pretty ugly things, but they have a smile for each other, they josh with each other, as well as sighing in despair from time to time. And being very much fly on the wall in style, there’s nothing to suggest that these coppers are under their best behavior for the camera – they’re just being themselves.

Of course drama is going to be more stylized than documentary, but perhaps our police procedural writers and directors might draw on these kinds of documentaries to give us more rounded characters, people we can actually like, and truly warm to.


One Response to “Silent Witness Series 18 – and other UK police procedurals”

  1. Phil Taylor says:

    Great review Nic, I enjoyed the first episode and then for me it lost it and we never really got the full story with the sniper . Watching Broadchurch as many others with great interest , just hope it doesn’t drag on like the first series !


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