Line Of Duty, Marcella: How important is authenticity in crime drama?

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 20:30:01 on 07/03/2016 - Programme Name: Line of Duty - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: PC Rod Kennedy (WILL MELLOR), Sgt Danny Waldron (DANIEL MAYS), PC Hari Bains (ARSHER ALI), PC Jackie Brickford (LEANNE BEST) - (C) World productions - Photographer: Steffan Hill
(C) World productions – Photographer: Steffan Hill

Everyone enjoying Line Of Duty? Let’s see a show of hands… hmmm, yes, that’s pretty much all of you. It has been another rip-roaring, two high-octane episodes so far, confirming Jed Mercurio as one of the country’s premiere thriller writers. The pace, the shocks, the twists, the sheer audacity and willingness to kill off key characters at any given moment… and those interview scenes. Still so brilliantly taught, choreographed and acted. But here’s a question: while you’re watching the show are you thinking about authenticity? Are you thinking: this is a great story, but I do wonder if the portrayal of the police is an accurate one? Yes? No? After reading a piece in this past week’s Observer, which called out Mercurio and how accurate the show was, it got me thinking (I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this week, and it’s starting to hurt): does authenticity in crime drama matter?

It’s an age-old, thorny-old chestnut for any crime writer or crime drama: how authentic do you make the world you set your stories in? I’ve been to many crime author panels and this question always pops up, and it always receives the same sorts of answers – yes, authenticity is important, but only up to a point. A crime writer has to create a believable world in which to set their story, but this world isn’t everything. The plot, its pacing and the characters embroiled in it are far more important. So if this world isn’t a carbon copy of the one in the real world, then that’s fine: fiction, after all, is a hyper-real version of the truth.

For some, though, authenticity is extremely important. I read this fascinating and excellent article by cop-turned-novelist, Kate London, in The Observer this weekend, who talked about her exasperation while watching Line Of Duty. I’ve picked out some key quotes to illustrate her argument.

I’ve followed authorised firearms officers under investigation, even on trial for murder. Before I was a writer I was a cop and depended on AFOs. When there was a threat from guns I needed the firearms ninjas to run towards the danger. This sequence – not just the initial shooting but also the shocking cover-up – felt not only implausible but also unfair to a group of people who risk their lives and their liberty.

Jed Mercurio, its creator, has secured advice from officers. He’s created a world that feels “police” on some levels. I accept that not every bit of procedure needs to be bang on. I don’t care that he can’t use the Independent Police Complaints Commission for legal reasons. We have to make changes to make our stories work, but if we want to ask bigger questions we have to be clever about which changes we allow ourselves.

Here’s a detail that troubled me: after the fatal shooting the officer is returned to active firearms duties in a matter of weeks. My professional experience is of officers sitting behind desks for months, even years, unable to progress within their career or even resign from the police.

As entertainment, it’s great: it has thrills and spills, unexpected twists, cliffhanger endings, torture, a sex abuse revenge storyline. Two episodes in, the firearms team have murdered two suspects and one of their own. One of them has had enough and topped himself – or was he too murdered? The fictional Central Police Force has certainly raised the bar on corruption. It’s an entertaining world but there’s a lot going on and I’m not convinced it invites me to think about the issues at the heart of policing.

It’s not that I don’t admire Mercurio’s ability to deliver twists and turns. And I’m not against addictive TV. But for it to be more than that, I would need to be watching something that touched more convincingly on the world I used to move in.

Kate also quotes the Twitter account, @4policing, in her piece who said: That must be a record. A whole 5 mins into #lineofduty before I couldn’t stand it anymore & switched channels.

So, for some, authenticity is paramount. Note though, that many of the people who make this argument are people who have either worked in the force or are currently still in it. In a world where procedure has to be followed to the letter, anything that strays from this

Do people outside this world really care if it’s absolutely authentic? After all, Line Of Duty is much more about manipulation and peer pressure. I totally understand why someone like Kate, who is now an excellent writer and was a good cop who had to endure all the mundane bits of the job as well as the sporadically explosive bits, fumes when she sees something that is set in a world that just doesn’t look or feel right.

Another police person offered his opinion during the opening episode of Marcella last week:

Yes, that was a humorous tweet but it reveals the same sort of sentiment: this isn’t real and please don’t think all police people are like this. In a world where the police are so understaffed, so overworked and so misrepresented in the media, is it any wonder that the police fraternity want to see authentic representations of themselves? No, it isn’t.

But what about the rest of us? For me personally, I recognise that the world Jed Mercurio has set his story in is a made-up one. I’m not expecting it to be absolutely authentic. It’s the world that frames the human story, not the other way around. Danny Waldren and the shifty members of the armed response unit is what I’m more interested in, and how they’re manipulating each other, what they’re hiding and what they will (and have) do/done to conceal the truth.

What about you? How important is authenticity in a police drama to you?

Paul Hirons

For all our news and review on Line Of Duty, go here

For all our news and reviews on Marcella, go here



5 thoughts on “Line Of Duty, Marcella: How important is authenticity in crime drama?”

  1. Hello Paul

    My concern with Marcella was how quickly she was allowed to return to work and into a murder room. If she’s taken an extended period of leave to raise children, which was implied, then she would have needed retraining in, for example, new police policies, educating in new relevant guidelines and laws and surely would have had some sort of ‘fit to return to work’ assessment – which I doubt she’d have passed (!)

    As far as the broader issue is concerned – authenticity vs. storytelling. Perhaps it goes like this – it matters to you when you know it’s wrong. Just as I cringe if and when librarians are portrayed as book-issuing “shushers” or book publishers are show as posh, privileged people, I’m sure that police officers (serving or otherwise) must cringe when they watch most fictional cops. However, unlike librarians and publishers, I would say ‘cops’ (broad definition) have been well-represented recently by documentaries. And – every now and then – the documentaries have such amazing twists that they rival the best fiction. Take for example the scene in that documentary about Ray Teret when the police officers stripped the wallpaper and found evidence corroborating what witnesses were saying about his abuse of girls. As gripping as any drama.


    1. Hi Val. Thanks for your excellent comment. I agree with everything you say here! I think authenticity is important, to a point, but even more so if you come from a world you have knowledge of. Anyway, I just wanted to ask the question in the post…


  2. Hi Paul, I know the police advisor to Line of Duty- he has worked about 3 times longer than Kate London. He works meticulously through the scripts with Jed ….. and isn’t trying to get into tv !!!


    1. Hi Celia. Thanks for the response. I guess I was trying to raise the idea of authenticity in crime drama, using Kate’s arguments as a kick-off point. To be fair to Kate, it didn’t read as though ‘she was trying to get onto TV’ and her arguments, from her perspectives and experiences were very sound.


  3. There has to be a way of pushing a drama along. After all, most of us are aware that it can weeks, months or even years for some crimes to be solved, and that there is the sifting through what could be called a mountain of evidence, before that Eureka moment and that would make very boring TV.

    There has to be a belief that there is some truth behind any fiction for the program to be watchable, and there has to be some empathy for the characters, hero or anti-hero. Equally, belief has to be suspended to create an element of suspense.

    However, more crime dramas are focusing as much about the dynamics of the team, the agreements and disagreements that can occur, or even the strengths & weakness of the character/s, in the likes of Happy Valley, Engrenages, Forbrydelsen, and The Bill.

    I think it helps “humanise” the people who daily put their lives out there to protect us


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