BETWEEN THE LINES
by GARETH PRESTON
(Editor's Note: This article contains "spoilers". Watch the episodes first!)
The Fast Show once ran a sketch about a TV show called Monkfish. Time after time, a man called Monkfish would appear in a trailer advertising a new BBC drama series. But whether he was a detective, a vet or a doctor, both the series and its eponymous hero appeared to be virtually identical. It was an eloquent comment on the formula nature of most drama series which are based on a profession. Police series especially suffer from this sense of deja vu. To rise above the crowd and actually give a fresh insight into the world of police work is clearly an achievement and one of those rare programmes remains Between the Lines.
For three seasons, Tony Clark, Harry Naylor and Maureen O'Connell investigated corruption in the police force and beyond it. For the first two years they worked within the Complaints Investigation Bureau but in the final they were forced into the private sector. How that happened, we'll come to later. It was a superb programme combining intrigue, moral dilemmas and uncomfortable insights into the realpolitik underpinning the establishments we were supposed to trust. The regular characters were memorably played by a group of very talented actors, the programme's production values were always high and the whole series was guided by the strong vision of it creator J C Wilsher and executive producer Tony Garnett.
J C Wilsher was an talented writer who had established his career in the late seventies and early eighties writing plays for radio. Although he had written a couple of single plays for ATV, his big breakthrough on television came in 1988 when Thames TV decided to change the format of The Bill to a series of half-hour episodes. This required new writers being brought in to share the workload and they found that Wilsher was very adept at writing good thirty minute dramas. He became a regular contributor to the series and gained a lot of knowledge about the police force in the process. In time, The Bill's producers began discussing the idea of running one or two major 'event' stories, spanning two or three episodes. Wilsher suggested that DCI Burnside, already known for his maverick behaviour, could be investigated by the CIB. Eventually the idea was dropped because it was felt to carry too many long reaching consequences for future stories. However the seed had been planted and he began to develop the idea of a series based around a CIB investigation. Originally he imagined it as a self-contained four part serial but his proposal caught the imagination of the BBC and he was offered the chance to turn it into a continuing series. As well as creating the programme's bible as a guide for guest writers, he defined the story arc for each season, generated story outlines for other episodes and personally wrote nine out of the thirty five episodes including the vital first two season openers Private Enterprise and New Order. Special mention should go to his superb two part closing stories for those same seasons. He worked in tandem with script editor Tim Vaughan. Other writers provided the rest of the programme's consistantly good stories, amongst them were Rob Heyland who contributed seven impressive scripts including Manslaughter and Julian Jones who wrote to of Mo's most significant stories, Jumping the Lights and A Face in the Crowd.
Behind the camera Between the Lines benefits from a string of talented directors and designers. They set the programme in a cold landscape of soulless office blocks, smoky pubs and grubby apartments. Even when the story moved into luxurious gentlemen's clubs or the corridors of power, the atmosphere remains hard and chilly. Compared to shows such as The Sweeny the action sequences were sparing but the sudden outbursts of violence seem much more important as a result. Tony Clark is far from being an action hero and more often than not if he got involved in fight he would come off the worst.
The first rule of Between the Lines seemed to be that justice is a far from black and white matter. Again and again investigations are compromised by political expediency, inflexibility and vested interests. The second seemed to be that there were few rewards for people who challenged the status quo, even if they are right. Especially during the first two seasons, the detectives would find themselves unwelcome arrivals at the scene of a crime. Other policemen and policewomen regarded them as traitors and backstabbers, people who lived in an ivory tower and did not understand the realities faced on the beat. Many suspects considered themselves part of a thin blue line, their actions justified by the greater evil they saw around them and tried to combat. Others succumb to temptation for the sake of a quiet life or simply out of greed and cynicism. It was usual for the CIB officers to spend a fair amount of their time combating brickbats from their fellow officers, in some cases facing organised campaigns of intimidation and non-cooperation. In real life J C Wilsher found that most of the police wanted the 'bad apples' to be exposed. The people at the bottom had plenty of criticisms about the higher echelons of the force. One or two officers complained that the programme was painting too bleak a picture but overall the reaction he got from the police was very positive. However the grim world view of the programme and its stories is lightened by its superb sense of ironic gallows humour. Many of the exchanges between characters are shot through with dryly funny comments which not only leaven the darkness of the scripts but more importantly tell the viewer a great deal about the characters. Those humorous moments are all the more important because the general mood is downbeat and serious. Even when Tony and his colleagues achieve a successful collar, there is rarely any satisfaction or feeling of closure. Most episodes end with compromises, unanswered questions and the victims left to pick up the pieces on their own.
Entering the world of the CIB through Tony Clark's experiences, the first episode, Private Enterprise, saw Clark's own police station under investigation following accusations of corruption from a drug dealer turned informer. A high-flyer, Tony is cajoled into assisting Harry and Mo with the veiled promise of a promotion to Detective Superintendent if the he handled the case well. He reluctantly uncovered the proof that his superior, Patrick Salter, is running a protection racket of his own. Unfortunately this not only lost him his friends at the station but his promotion came with a transfer to the last department he wanted to work for, CIB. This opening story not only works very well in its own right but it quickly establishes the characters of the main three and introduces a fourth figure who would grow in importance as the series progressed, their superior, the wily but cold-blooded John Deakin.
If the first episode is good, then the second episode showed the difference between the good and the truly great. Out of the Game contains a riveting multi-thread plot line, filled with salty dialogue and faultless performances all round. Beginning innovatively through the viewfinder of a camcorder, we see a teenage gunman trying to break into his girlfriend's flat before being shot by the police. When Tony and co. come to investigate whether the police marksman had shot him out of panic or in line with the law. They find that what seemed like a simple incident is in fact a can of worms where no one is telling the whole truth. What is more, both the criminals on the estate and local Chief Superintendent Jamison wants to use the shooting for their private causes. The search for the truth becomes engulfed in a Toxteth styled riot on the estate whilst Jamison goes to fight it whistling "Ride of Valkyries". Fast moving, politically aware and with some original observations, this is one of the best stories in the whole series.
In fact the quality is consistently good though out the first season. Amongst them the highlight is The Only Good Copper in which CIB encounters even more hostility than usual from their comrades whilst investigating a respected officer after he has been murdered. Clark's investigations gain an added dimension of seediness during this case, even though we know rationally that he is doing the right thing. Although they do discover he is corrupt, it doesn't stop the man's young son saying the last ironic line, "I want to be a policeman just like my dad." Another memorable storyline is the tragic Lies and Dammed Lies which ruthlessly demonstrated that upholding and enforcing the law inside the police force carried a grave penalty for the whistleblower as well as the corrupt officer. Mo persuades a popular sergeant to admit that he saw one of his colleagues beating up a suspect. As a result he is thrown out of the local lodge and ostracised and persecuted by the rest of the station. Eventually he commits suicide. As we hear his car engine starting up, a police horseman rides by obliviously, a violent image to end on.
Towards the end of the season, a number of carefully laid subplots come to fruition. Tony's wife leaves him. His mistress, Jenny Dean, is under investigation herself for not reporting her colleagues and Tony abandons her to stop mud sticking to his career. Desperate and alone she commits suicide by throwing herself from a tour boat on the Thames. Already traumatised by that, Tony and his partners uncover evidence during a seemingly routine misdemeanour that several high ranking members of the police force are corrupt and working side by side with organised crime. This major story largely takes up the final three episodes. Almost too late they realise they are being used by their own boss, John Deakin, to discredit his rival, Commander Huxtable. Together they are able to expose Deakin and arrest him aboard HMS Belfast. But though Tony has scored a significant victory, in this series there are no pat happy endings. The final scene sees his celebrations spoiled by Harry and Mo making their excuses and him seeing his wife laughing in the arms of another man.
Season two opens up in fine style with the cleverly entitled New Order. Clark is now the acting Chief Superintendent in place of Deakin and is taking every opportunity to rub his rival's noses in it, especially the fast track graduate David Graves. The biggest case on Clark's desk is a witness whose evidence indicates a link between the police at Bold Street Station and an extreme right-wing group called New Order. As they investigate they not only meet an undercover operative who might have become too wrapped up in his role as a fascist thug, but indications that New Order had connections in MI5 and the government. These revelations set the tone for this season. J C Wilsher wanted to explore the wider stage in which policing is only a part. He "didn't want to say that all the evil in the world was down to bent coppers." The tone of the programme changed as well, becoming darker and more overtly political. As the stories unfolded it would become clear that MI5 or at least some elements within were involved in far reaching and very illegal conspiracy. In the meantime, Clark failed to get his promotion and had to call the smug Graves 'Sir' instead.
New Order is followed by the incredibly gruelling and very well written Manslaughter. Or "Man's Laughter" as an angry Mo writes on the office white board. Detective Superintendent David Lindsay rings his station to confess the killing of his wife in a moment of madness. Yet as Tony, Harry and Mo dig deeper they begin to suspect that Lindsay's crime had been carefully planned rather than being impulsive. In fact he has been having an affair with his sister-in-law which certainly provides a motive. Frustrated by being unable to find conclusive proof, Tony and Mo gamble on forcing him to confess before their time runs out to formally charge him with murder rather than manslaughter. Those last five minutes in the interview room are almost unbearable to watch as the tension just ratchets up. But more than that, the whole episode is seeped in misogynism that, like Mo, the viewer becomes hyper-aware of. A brilliant but very disturbing fifty minutes.
Although it's not too bad, perhaps the first disappointing story for the programme is Honourable Men. An MP who is chairing an investigation into the police is caught by the press with his mistress. Had he been set up by his police bodyguards? The truth turns out to be more personal. What lets the story down is the rather melodramatic scenes in the Palace of Westminster that conclude with the victorious minister practically twirling an imaginary moustache as he sees his rival deposed. There is a lack of the usual subtleties throughout.
However any worries that the programme was beginning to flag were swiftly crushed by another peerless episode, "Some Must Watch..." Writer Rob Heyland delivers a complex conspiracy thriller in which CIB comes up against MI5 and finds itself outflanked on every side. With superiors on both sides seeming to be more concerned with fighting each other than terrorists and criminals, Tony and his friends find themselves caught in the crossfire. At first their investigation into the killing of a janitor at a Territorial Army Centre points to a botched MI5 operation, then to police incompetence, then back to a very secret project that must not be exposed, regardless of what the law says. It might even be that MI5 is trying to undermine the police force as part of a larger power struggle. Tony is left fuming impotently as MI5 simply claim National Security whenever he asks a question. As well as all the intrigue, the episode provides some dryly funny sequences such as the intelligence officer struggling with the push/pull doors and a top secret meeting being interrupted by a canteen worker. A MI5 liaison officer called Angela Berridge arrives, played by the elegant Francesa Annis, describing her self as a liaison between CIB and MI5. Tony does not trust her and so it appears, with some justification. But he is also attracted to her which only leads him into trouble. The story ends on a chilling note. As Tony walks away in disgust after reaching another dead end, a pair of glasses on a cafe table demonstrate that he is now under MI5 observation himself. Only the viewer is aware of the fact and its implications. Marvellous in its own right, this episode also begins a major storyline that steadily builds throughout the second half of the season, during which the hints and small details which have been carefully laid ever since New Order, begin to bear fruit.
All three leads become embroiled in personal journeys. Mo's boyfriend leaves shortly after she meets attractive businesswoman Kate during an assignment in Nottingham, Manoeuvre 11. As a matter of fact, this story is partially filmed in my home town of Bolton with its instantly recognisable town hall. She becomes confident enough to 'come out' with her at the annual CIB dance, during Jumping the Lights. It is quite a warm, touching sequence. Meanwhile Harry's fortunes take a turn for the worse as when his wife Joyce reveals that she has Multiple Sclerosis. Her illness and growing symptoms are very subtlely phased in all through the first half of this season. Horrified and feeling helpless, he takes on a second job with a security firm to earn money for the very best treatment. When his moonlighting is discovered, CIB has to investigate him for corruption in What's the Strength of This?. Ironically Joyce is relieved when she finds out because she thought he had been seeing another woman. Initially he considers taking early retirement in order to keep his pension for Joyce's sake. But she angrily tells him to fight for himself and he faces the tribunal. It is touch and go for a while whether Tony will stick his neck out for his partner or drop him as inconvenient. Happily he does testify for Harry and helps reduce the punishment to a demotion rather than expulsion. Tony's own personal life becomes increasingly strange as he becomes obsessed with Angela. They spend an afternoon in bed together. Later he follows her home but the sight of her husband and family seems to shake some sense into him. She is able to dissuade him but not before unseen enemies have gained compromising evidence of their affair. Worst of all, Tony, Harry and Mo find that a trail of evidence concerning a secret faction working within MI5. An operation that is being masterminded by their old boss John Deakin. Deakin is working as a private 'security consultant' and seems to be in league with the IRA as well as the secret services. It is one Deakin's men who (unintentionally) incriminated Harry and exposed him. When Tony tries to expose Deakin, he discovers that Angela is a part of the conspiracy as well and that Deakin is prepared to destroy her reputation if Tony hurts him. Just for good measure, Deakin sets him up in a trap with a paranoid ex-IRA man turned Special Branch informer. At the bloody climax of Big Boy's Rules, Tony kills the informer in self-defence but is found covered in blood with a gun in his hand by the police. In a neat slice of dramatic irony, the last scene of season finds Tony on the opposite side of the interrogation desk, accused of murder and facing down his CIB colleagues with the challenge, "Prove it", the same phrase he has heard so often from his own suspects. The final three stories of season two are exciting, near perfect pieces of drama and J C Wilsher has a particular fondness for them out of the scripts he wrote for the series.
By now Between the Lines was flying high with critics and viewers and its stars were all firmly identified with their characters. With a BAFTA for best television drama series and nominations from the Writers' Guild and the Royal Television Society under its belt, it was only natural that the BBC was very enthusiastic about a third season. Initially though the production team were unsure whether there were many more places for the programme to go, without them repeating themselves. Just as importantly, the end of the season had placed Tony Clark in a difficult corner. To simply have him return to his desk in the next episode and carry on his CIB job would be rather unrealistic. Their solution was to take their leads out of the police force altogether and thrown them into the private sector, with the idea of seeing how they coped outside of the establishment. It was a move that surprised many viewers, especially since the original formula seemed to work so well but with hindsight it was really the only direction they could have taken it to avoid repetitive storylines. Furthermore it was in line with the programme's philosophy of expanding circles of corruption, of showing the complex interworkings between the police and other parts of establishment. The first season had concentrated on the police force, the second zoomed out to incorporate the government, secret services and the IRA. Now the third season would bring in international politics, mercenaries and the illegal arms trade. By circumstance or design there was an elegant structure to Between the Line's story arc.
Stylistically the third season also felt glossier and somehow lighter than its predecessors. Clark has moved out of his suburban semi into an stylish apartment overlooking the Thames. There is overseas filming to enjoy. More fundamentally, although the stories still tackled serious issues and moral dilemmas, none of them matched the gruelling, upsetting quality that the best episodes of the previous years such as Lies and Dammed Lies or Manslaughter. Nevertheless the series' formula was now broad enough to tackle any subject in the newspapers. All of this is demonstrated in the opening story, Foxtrot Oscar (a euphemism for a phrase I would not repeat in a reputable fanzine like this). To prevent a trial which could embarrass MI5 and CIB, Tony Clark is released from prison a week or so after the events of Big Boys' Rules. Dismissed from the force, he is escorted from his old office by a smug Graves who has cleared his desk. Nearly everyone he knows regards him as being a murderer who has got off through a loop hole and only Mo and Harry turn up for his leaving party, a far cry from the noisy, cheerful send off Mo had enjoyed when she took up her promotion. Looking forward to a bleak future, help comes from an unexpected quarter. Deakin offers him a job to get him started in new career as a private investigator/consultant like him. His ex-boss says he feels slightly responsible for Tony's plight but more than that he senses a kindred spirit in him. A seemingly harmless errand to travel to Tunisia and contact and hopefully bring back, an ex-pat male prostitute who has offered a tabloid the story of his under-aged affair with a government minister. Clark doesn't trust Deakin with good reason but he needs the large cheque involved so he goes to North Africa, taking Harry with him at Joyce's urging; she is fed up with him mooching around the house making constant cups of tea. All goes smoothly at first but just as Tony has decided he likes working in the private sector, he discovers the job is yet another setup. At the airport, he is beaten up by MI5 officers who have been expecting him and the rent boy disappears with a combination of hush money and threats. However for Harry the outcome is far worse. Returning home a day early, he learns the real reason Joyce wanted him to be away. She has decided to take her own life rather than live with the pain. Harry discovers her when it is almost too late and in an intensely moving scene, gives in to her plea and lets her die. But to the judgmental CIB it looked like assisted suicide at best and possibly murder. After deservedly punching Graves, he walks out of the force and joins Tony. It is a fast moving and quite emotional story and helps launch the third season extremely strongly.
With the grief stricken Harry at risk of climbing into a bottle, Tony feels that he is doing the right thing by taking him on as a partner in his new firm. Mo is not so sure, seeing a disturbingly violent side emerging in Harry's normally phlegmatic nature. However she soon has problems of her own when Tony cajoles her into looking up some information from the police database for him during A Face in the Crowd. When she is found out, it doesn't take long for her also to be sacked from her job. It seems a rather extreme punishment, especially considering her excellent record, something that was taken into account when had Harry faced a disciplinary tribunal. Its the only such lapse in the writing when the changing gears of the plot badly effect the realism of the programme. Although she agrees to help out her former CIB colleagues with some resignation, her partner Kate wants her to take up a new career altogether, a conflict which soon begins eating away at their relationship as Tony puts more and more pressure on her.
Deakin maintains an interest in Tony's new firm, putting various jobs their way or trying to warn them off other cases, advice that Tony generally ignores when his suspicions have been aroused. Harry and he usually end up the losers in virtually every story, betrayed or outmanoeuvred by both their enemies and their clients. It ironic that their most successful job is acting as bodyguards for former South American dictator, in the episode Close Protection, who is clearly in the wrong even if he has the law on his side. On a happier note both men find new relationships. Tony meets Sarah Teale, a liberal freelance documentary maker while Harry tentatively begins a romance with their accountant, Ellie. But it is just when they are beginning to find their feet that a job begins to snowball into an extremely dangerous venture indeed.
It begins in Free Trade. With his firm in the red, Tony allows himself to be persuaded by Deakin into working for an gregarious illegal arms dealer. Meanwhile Mo is approached by her old boss and a MI5 agent who tell her their suspicions that Deakin has continued his close connections with a rouge section within MI5. If she will keep them informed of his and Tony's actions, they will not only reinstate her in the force but promote her as well. With her relationship with Kate in a trough and no prospects except more grubby private investigations, it is an offer she can hardly resist it. Just as Tony's fortunes seem to be improving, unfortunately for both of them his new client is murdered, leaving Tony with a large consignment of incriminating automatic weaponry on his hands. Then in the final two-parter The End User, Deakin, ever the master puppeteer, offers him a chance to help MI5 carry out a major sting on the IRA. He and Harry must pose as arms dealers with fascist sympathies, offering to sell their guns to the terrorists. Not only will Tony's reputation be redeemed but since he'll be allowed to keep the proceeds, as Deakin puts it, "You and I will soon have more money than God." Tony and Harry have no idea that these MI5 operatives are working to their own agenda. Assuming new identities, they travel to an international fascist rally to meet their IRA contact Leavis, played chillingly by David Calder. By the way the convention is a real event held in Belgium which J C Wilsher had heard about and some of the cast were filmed walking amongst the actual attendees on location. Unknown to them, their activities are being relayed to another part of MI5 by Mo. After a nervous period, the deal goes ahead and the pair return to England very relieved, only to find out from Mo that they've been used, not to expose the IRA but to arm them. Right wing elements within the establishment, the police and MI5 are planning a massive upsurge in terrorist activity, almost a final solution. Although tempted to just go into retirement with their fortunes and girlfriends, in their hearts Tony and Harry know they have to try and sabotage this plan. To her horror Mo realises that far from doing the right thing, her actions have betrayed her friends and placed them in mortal danger. Worse than that, she has already lost Kate, after she leaves her one time too many. She bullies Deakin into mounting a rescue party with some of his security contacts but she is too late. With her information, MI5 ambush the IRA gun dealers while they are on a boat, just as Tony and Harry are aboard trying to capture them. The siege soon degenerates into a gun battle and the boat explodes. All the traumatised Mo can do is watch the flames.
The End User had not been explicitly meant to the final story, even though it turned out to work quite well as one. Tony and Harry were shown being blown away from boat, potentially meaning that they could have survived the explosion. However the option to make another series was not taken up. The critical reaction to the series had been mixed, even though the ratings had remained consistently good. All the lead actors felt it was time to move on and Tony Garnett decided to finnish the series while it was still fairly strong, rather than risk a lacklustre fourth season. Storywise the programme had reached a natural conclusion, Tony's self-destructive tendencies and bad luck having reached the inevitable conclusion for him and his friends. I personally feel that a fourth season would have still provided some good episodes but the dangers of repetition or that the show would grow blander and indistinguishable from other BBC detective series would have become harder to avoid.
Between the Lines has been supported by several pieces of merchandise over the years. BBC Video released the first season on four volumes with stylish photographic covers. These were re-released a couple of years ago at a budget price. Silva Screen produced a CD called Between the Lines with Tony Clark on the cover but disappointingly only Hal Lind's haunting theme music appeared on it. The rest of the album was made up of other TV themes. Two novelisations were published by Warner Books in 1993: The Chill Factor by Tom McGregor and Breaking Point by Diane Pascal. However the strangest product was undoubtedly a book called Between the Lines - Tony Clark's Dossier, written by Krystyna Zukowska and published by Boxtree in 1994. It purported to be a collection of case reports assembled by Clark while he was trying to work out who had been sending him death threats. However it is clear from the purple prose of the opening sentences that this was not written by any Tony Clark we knew. To add insult to injury there was a collection of photographs from the first two seasons, pretending to be from his own photo album. If the idea of Clark taking photographs of people during an investigation was not surreal enough, captions such as "Us, shortly after we collared Deakin" push this book into Monty Python territory. A terrible missed opportunity to write a useful handbook for the programme.
Radio Times' coverage began slowly but by the second season the programme was enjoying the star treatment. Private Enterprise was marked by a postcard sized piece at the front concentrating on Neil Pearson. Strange to see the big drama event of that week was the truly lamentable historical pot-boiler Covington Cross. Two weeks later there was a similar piece on Lesley Vickerage (Jenny Dean) who revealed she liked playing tough characters. More interestingly Nothing Personal was accompanied by one page article illustrated by a photo of Neil Pearson and J C Wilsher. As well as confirming the growing popularity of the show, the piece asked how accurate the series was in its portrayal of CIB. When the second season debuted the momentum of the series was now such that it featured on the front cover with a portrait of Neil Pearson. Inside there was an interesting interview with the cover star. Some Only Watch... was promoted with a short article on Fransesca Annis who explained that she had been on the lookout for something completely different and wouldn't normally have done a police series but she thought the part of Angela Berridge was very refreshing. The Great Detective found Tom Georgeson the subject of a one page feature. Big Boys' Rules enjoyed a glowing tribute on the programme page which commented on the enormous success of the second season. All three regulars graced the front cover when the third season began. Within the issue was a general overview of the series, illustrated by a marvellous photograph of the main cast gathered around a rehearsal table. The writer asked why such a successful format was being altered so drastically but was assured by the team that the changes would be for the better. The series was regularly in the today's choices section of the programme pages. For Unknown Soldier, the writer commented that the series was still very popular in its new incarnation. Finally in the same issue there was a 'spotlight' on Siobhan Redmond. Amongst the trivia on offer was the revelation that prior to acting success she had considered running a mobile massage business called "Feels on Wheels"!
By turns a detective mystery and a political conspiracy thriller, Between the Lines was a class act. Every episode tells a complex story but never comes across as contrived or unbelievable. As the Radio Times observed during its first season, Between the Lines had done the apparently impossible, it had found a new way to look at the television police series and it can now be regarded as a high water mark for the genre.
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