'We have a fascination with evil and the concept of it' - crime writers reveal what makes us fall in love with police dramas
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The UK’s love affair with crime shows can be traced all the way back to the 1950s when shows like Interpol Calling and Big Guns were a treat for those with a TV set.
However, in an era of non-stop TV releases, and bingeworthy box sets, there is an almost endless supply of TV cop dramas for viewers to sink their teeth into.
But what makes audiences continue to watch a genre so relentlessly, and what makes viewers fall in love with crime shows?
We spoke with TV writer Jake Riddell and director Matthew Evans to find out the key ingredients behind a hit police drama.
‘A sense of security and comfort’
Jake Riddell worked as a story producer for The Bill, as well as writing 12 episodes for the hit ITV police show.
Riddell explained that police dramas have always had a huge appeal to UK audiences, thanks to the feelings evoked by the subject matter.
“It all goes back to Dixon of Dock Green, where a show provided a sense of security and comfort to an audience,” Riddell pointed out.
The BBC police procedural series, Dixon of Dock Green, ran for 22 series, becoming one of the most popular TV shows in the UK in the 1960s. Centering on Constable George Dixon, the show focused on a typical ‘bobby’ cop, giving audiences a character they could relate to.
Whilst crime dramas are now known for telling highly intense storylines, often inspired by real events, it may not be the big explosions and terror situations that keep the audience engaged - rather the problem solvers within all the carnage.
“Detectives bring order out of chaos, it's very Shakespearean in that way,” Riddell explained. “The equilibrium is upset, i.e. someone is murdered. The heroes and heroines work through the complexity of the chaos, and then bring order to that chaos by arresting the right perpetrator at the end.”
“It's a catharsis that really people enjoy, and I think that's universal,” Riddell added.
Through all the chaos, the sense of fulfilment felt at the end of a series, as we witness justice being served, is an enduring ecstasy for the audience, but it's a feeling we don’t often get in the real world.
Riddell said: “I think the enduring obsession with crime, whether its drama crime or true crime, means that we have a fascination with evil and the concept of it. It allows us to experience it from an arm’s length and know about it, and then bring a closure to it at the very end.
“Even though, when you are caught up in the very real crimes, you will probably never get that kind of catharsis.”
Creating a Rubik's cube of mystery
As well as providing comfort for the audiences, police dramas must create a mystery and plot line compelling enough to retain viewers for the subsequent episodes.
“There is a particular format for a decent mystery/police show,” Riddell explained. “You put out your suspects. You will miss-direct the audience to think it's one person, where in fact they are acting suspiciously for another reason that you uncover, and then they serve a different role as a witness or a victim - and they give you another part of the puzzle.”
Riddell, who has also written for BBC cop show, Death in Paradise, said TV crime show writers make it look so “effortlessly simple”, when in reality, it’s a very tough task.
“You have to try and create a Rubik’s cube of mystery that allows the audience to keep guessing for 55 minutes, until it ends and they go ‘yeah I knew it was him all along’.
“Midsomer Murders, which is another wildly successful show, presents its audience with a guessing game, with funny relatable and warm characters at its heart, and the setting is familiar and unfamiliar.”
Tension is crucial for making it a hit
Being able to create an element of tension within the plot line and characters is one of the crucial ingredients for a hit police drama.
TV director Matthew Evans, who has worked behind the camera on Rebus, The Bill, and Silent Witness, said that good crime shows present an opportunity for audiences to enter a problem right from the off.
Similar to Donald Rumsfield's 'Unknown Unknowns’ theory, audiences “enter a drama between the things they know, and the things they don’t know,” Evans said.
Audiences will then find themselves asking questions - including “what are the things that you really, really don’t know, and that you will discover when watching. That's the joy - when the twist comes at the end.”
Evans said that as a director you “want to take stories to the point where the audience will think that’s where they are going - then you make it uncomfortable for them. Then you continue to make them truly uncomfortable, creating that feeling of ‘anything can happen’.”
Praising Jed Mercurio’s work on Line of Duty both Evans and Riddell note that tension is what has made that show such a success.
“Line of Duty is so good because you think you’re on a set of rails, then suddenly you’re not even on a train,” Evans said.
“When a show allows the audience to engage with the thread of tension that goes through it, like Line of Duty for example, the audiences love it,” Riddell says. “The “who is H?” has been a question for over five seasons, and that enduring question has driven everyone mad with delight.”
‘People are obsessed with the idea of truth’
Audiences search for answers through crime dramas because they are obsessed with understanding the concept of truth, Evans believes.
“We are completely obsessed with the idea of truth. What’s the physical truth deep inside a body, what’s the truth of a crime, and what's the truth of the events that have got us to this place that we are?” he says.
“We find it fascinating, but we are also blind to so much of it as well. We shut ourselves out to so many elements of it. But cop dramas have this amazing ability to jimi open the bits in us that we are uncomfortable with.”
It is through watching characters confront these questions, and observing their experiences of finding an answer that makes for such unique and compelling viewing.
Evans said that when he is directing a show, in every scene he handles, he asks: “what is the transformation that is happening in this moment?
“When a character walks into a room expecting one set of outcomes and something completely different happens - that gap is what fascinated me as a director.
“The gap that opens up between expectation and what actually happens.
“Within that gap, the character has a choice. The choices they make in that moment are the things that make the audience understand why the story works. The moments where the characters are confronted with massively unexpected events, and how they actually deal with them, are the things we are fascinated by.,” he says.
Unlike a soap opera or a sitcom, audiences see the character confront the problem head on, watch them work it out, struggle to deal with the tension, then find an unexpected solution.
It makes for uncomfortable but unforgettable moments on TV.