The British public loves a good police show. Here are some of the best!
The TV police procedural has been a stalwart of British television since Dixon of Dock Green first walked the beat in 1955. The genre has evolved and developed over the years, but the British TV bobby has never been too far from our hearts as we have tuned in en mass to watch their adventures.
With the recent death of Inspector Morse author Colin Dexter, and the highly anticipated 4th series of the amazing Line of Duty starting later today, Snooty Ushers Dave and James have put their heads together to make a list of our favourite British TV cop shows. The only rule was that it had to be about actual British police (so no Sherlock, Cracker, or any of those amateur sleuth shows). So, in no particular order, let us begin
Just missing out: New Tricks, The Fall, Ripper Street, Between The Lines, Rebus (with Ken Stott, not John Hannah), Maigret (because it is French!), A Touch of Cloth
Line of Duty (BBC, 2012-)
Dave: What better place to start than with the original inspiration for this list, the brilliant Line of Duty. The show focuses on AC-12, a special team of elite officers who investigate the police. While this echoes the similarly themed Between The Lines from the 90s, it stands on its own as one of the best British police procedural dramas. About to enter its 4th season, each series focuses on a different, but interconnected case, fronted by a high profile British actor. The AC-12 team recur throughout. It is grounded firmly in reality and it is so brilliantly written, intricately plotted and tightly directed that something as simple as 3 people sitting in a room having a conversation can deliver such incredible tension. The cast to deserve so much credit, the AC-12 officers led by Irish stalwart Adrian Dunbar’s damaged every-man Superintendent, Martin Compston is instantly relatable as the terrier like DS Steve Arnott (although I do take issue with him not using his Scottish accent), but it is Vicky McClure as DC Kate Flemming who is the real star. The 3 series so far have weaved such a tight web of intrigue and tension that I wouldn’t dare revel any plot points here, I would just implore you all to catch up before the new series starts. If you need another reason, Keeley Hawes, in Series 2, gives one of the most devastating, intense and down right brilliant performances in recent memory.
James: This is a show that proves that British TV can match anything from around the world. It’s also my favourite ongoing British show of any genre. One mistake seemingly ruins a promising young police officer’s career, and he is shunted to the AC-12 (“Internal Affairs” if we were in America), in an attempt to push him out of the force. But instead, DS Arnott truly finds his niche, as does the show itself. There are loads of police shows with conflicted and morally ambiguous lead characters, but Line Of Duty focuses almost entirely on their feet of clay, yet never falls into witch-hunt territory. Lennie James, Keeley Hawes, and Daniel Mays have given three different performances as heroic cops who come under AC-12’s gaze, and the three series so far have all taken different paths, never covering the same ground. And the interrogation room scenes are the high point of the show as weeks, sometimes years worth of story lines are brought together. A truly great show.
Life on Mars (BBC, 2006-07)
Dave: If Line of Duty is grounded in reality, this is something different all together. Sam Tyler (John Simm) is a DCI working in Manchester. When he is involved in a car accident, he wakes up in 1975. He is still a cop, but a rank lower and finds himself working for the oafish DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). This just worked on every level. The ambiguity surrounding Sam’s predicament kept us guessing. Is he dead? crazy? In a coma? Or has he actually traveled back in time? The world of modern policing contrast with the good old days of the 70s made for some thrilling moments and some genuinely funny moments too, with the chemistry between Simm’s straight laced, lateral thinking, by the book copper and Glenister’s blunt instrument works a treat. The ambiguity continued after the conclusion of the series, with the story continuing on the 80s set sequel series Ashes To Ashes, which saw Gene Hunt move to London and paired with a female detective (Keeley Hawes). While never hitting the heights of Life On Mars, it ran for 3 seasons and gave us a satisfyingly heart-breaking conclusion. This will be forever remembered for giving us immortal and unforgettable DCI Gene Hunt.
James: Whether it was their intention from the very beginning or not, the makers of Life On Mars got to cherry pick all of the best bits out of 70s cop shows. We got a modern piece of television – Sam Tyler struggling with the nature of his reality and Gene Hunt getting into car chases and punching criminals. And as someone who lived in Manchester it was great to see how they shot around the city to get that Seventies feel.
Also, the third series of Ashes To Ashes also deserves a mention, as Daniel Mays (who featured in Line Of Duty as well) gave a fantastic performance that shepherded the whole saga to a great conclusion.
Snooty Usher TV Trivia Fact #711 – The American version of Life On Mars (with Harvey Keitel as Gene Hunt) ended after one season, and being years away from wrapping their own version, the original writers gave their US counterparts free reign, and they came up with a doozy. Both the “modern day” and 1970’s realities were both just a simulation to keep astronauts minds active on a mission to Mars, and a glitch had causes Sam’s program to jump from one simulation to another.
Snooty Usher TV Trivia Fact #712 – There are currently Czech and Russian versions running in those countries that take their Sam Tyler character back to Soviet-era police, giving another level to the show.
Inspector Morse/Lewis (ITV, 1987-2015)
Dave: Based on the novels of Colin Dexter, Inspector Morse ran for 33 episodes across 13 years, becoming one of the nations favourite detectives. He was the epitome of the gentleman detective, a middle class bachelor with middle class interests, he drove a classic Jaguar, listens to opera and has a fondness for real ale, this was contrast in his relationship with his partner DS Lewis, a working class family man from the North East. Set in the beautiful city of Oxford, with the various colleges and classic architecture used as a stunning back drop. Now, the term national treasure is banded about a little too often for my tastes, but is there a better way to describe John Thaw? His gruff nature embodies Morse with an every-man quality that masks his vast intellect. Kevin Whately’s Lewis is perfect foil as his put upon Sergeant. Their relationship is central to the show’s success and longevity. The series ended in 2000, when Morse collapse and died of a heart attack, his legacy would live on however when in 2006, Kevin Whately’s Lewis would return.
Robbie Lewis is now a Detective Inspector, he is widowed and his kids are grown. Paired with a new DS, James Hathaway played by Lawrence Fox. Hathaway is a chain-smoking, emotionally detached intellectual. Lewis is Colombo like, in as much as his scruffy appearance and the fact that is not an Oxford man, means he is constantly under estimated by the high brow university community. While he relies of Hathaway’s classic education at times, he is more than a match for Oxfords criminal element. Lewis and Hathaway’s chemistry would rival but not quite eclipse that of Morse and Lewis, but was the driving force behind this shows success. It was baffling when after 7 series and a natural conclusion, they brought the show back for 2 more years, changing the dynamic of the leads, with Hathaway promoted to DI, with a new partner and Lewis as a consultant. it was still head and shoulders above the rest of ITV’s output, but for the first time in nearly 30 years, you got the sense that the show began outstay its welcome.
The conclusion of Lewis was not the end for the franchise. In 2011, ITV turned back the clock with the prequel series Endeavour. Set in 1965, it focuses on Morse’s early years as a DC. Shaun Evans does a great job of honouring Thaw and giving us a believable young Morse and Roger Allam adds a touch of class as Morse’s noble DI, Fred Thursday.
James: Morse is a national treasure. It really is the gold standard that all detective shows are aiming for. The character work between Morse and Lewis was brilliant, and they knew when to inject some levity and humour into what was a serious drama. Decades before Sherlock, theses were basically films that were shown on ITV, and we got thirty three of them. Although Lewis is slightly in its predecessors shadow, it featured a nice change of dynamic with the two leads, and in a nice touch of symmetry, there were also thirty three episodes of Lewis.
I would echo Dave to say that Endeavour really does uphold the quality of the shows that came before it. There’s the same sheen of quality, and Shaun Evans portrays Morse’s traits without simply mimicking John Thaw.
Snooty Usher TV Trivia Fact #713 – Inspector Morse author Colin Dexter made a cameo in all but three of the Morse episodes.
Snooty Usher TV Trivia Fact #714 – In the pilot episode of Endeavour, Morse questions a newspaper editor. The editor asks if they have met, as he seems familiar to her. The editor is played by John Thaw’s daughter Abigail. She recurs throughout the series
Luther (BBC, 2010-16)
James: Neil Cross wrote for Spooks and Doctor Who before being Luther, and his writing deserves a lot of credit. He has created a conflicted detective haunted by his past, and set him in a harsh, yet real-feeling London. However, in this could be the set up for almost any detective show – Idris Elba makes Luther into a great piece of work. His performance really nails the complex character, making him sympathetic but still hard as nails. He will make a great next Bond… or Doctor Who!
The show also stands out by giving Luther a full-on nemesis. Ruth Wilson play Alice Morgan, a character who comes in and out of the show. Cross has always said Luther is inspired by Sherlock Holmes and Columbo, and by giving the detective his own Moriaty, Luther raises the bar again.
I truly hope that we get more episodes of Luther. The most recent series was only two episodes, and surely it would be possible to squeeze another couple into Elba’s (and Cross’) increasingly busy schedule. Perhaps just even a one-off to finally wrap up the series, although the end of the third series seemed to do that quite well – coat and all – before it was brought back. Maybe Netflx or Amazon Prime could throw enough money at it to get another go around.
Taggart (STV 1983-2010)
Dave: Now, I am a Scotsman who has lived in England for the better part of 10 years and this show has a lot to answer for. The amount of times I have been asked to utter the phrase “Thurs bin a murder”, well let’s just say it is more than once.
Set in the Maryhill area of Glasgow, Taggart was and remains the UK’s longest running TV police series. The show survived the death of its title character, when the great Mark McManus died in 1994.
Jim Taggart, was a gruff no nonsense Glaswegian, with little time for sensitivity. The show was just so brilliantly Glaswegian, the best part of watching this growing up was trying to spot the locations where it was filmed. The show declined in quality following McManus’s death, relying on the more gruesome elements to attract viewers, (I recall one episode where 6 people were murdered, too much!!). Those early years though gave us something so intrinsically Scottish that DCI Jim Taggart will forever be one of my all time favourite TV cops.
Heartbeat (ITV, 1992-2010)
James: Trips to Aidenfield were a staple of Sunday nights when I was growing up. It started out with Nick Berry was Nick Rowan, a London police officer who moves to North Yorkshire with his wife , Dr Kate Rowan (Niamh Cusack). The two of them have to deal with small town life, as well as some pretty hard hitting storylines. Bill Maynard’s turn as lovable rogue Greengrass provided the light relief, and the policing team of Ventress, Bradley, and Blakeston were always welcome.
Later series broadened the focus from a single lead character when Rowan transferred to the Mounties in Canada after Berry decided to leave. Jason Durr came in as Mike Bradley, and it became more of an ensemble show, with the storylines moving into the more usual Sunday night territory that. But those early shows left and indelible mark on this Snooty Usher.
Messiah (BBC, 2001-2008)
Dave: The first series of Messiah was one of those shows that just blew me away. It was dark, it was scary, it was gruesome. Ken Stott is DCI Red Metcalfe, he and his team are faced with series of brutal killings. As they delve deeper, they find that someone is killing people, mimicking how Jesus’s apostles died. Now, I am a sucker for serial killers with a religious motive and this is one of the finest examples of it.
Red and his team returned for 3 more series and new cast taking over in 2008 for a further 1 series, with Marc Warren taking over from Stott in the lead. While they were suitably gruesome, it never quite hit the heights of this ground breaking first case.
James: My sister and I used to buy cheap books from charity shops when we went on holiday. One of these books was about a series of gruesome murders that wove religious themes into plot. We talked about how it would make a great film or TV show – and when we got home we found out that it did! Ken Stott was just perfect as the detective trying to get to the bottom of these horrific crimes. He played the role like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, like he constantly had a splitting headache. The supporting characters were excellently cast as well.
A Touch of Frost (ITV, 1992-2010)
Dave: I love Del Boy Trotter as much as anyone, but for me at least, this is David Jason’s finest hour. The gruff, empathetic Detective Edward ‘Jack’ Frost. Based on the novels of R.D Wingfield, A Touch of Frost was a firm favourite in the McKee household. This is set in the fictional town of Denton, in the south midlands and while they are completely different, it is difficult not to compare Frost with ITV other long running Detective series Inspector Morse.
Frost never had an established DS like Lewis, working with a series of different sidekicks which really worked. The humour in the show came from Frost’s interactions with his boss Superintendent Norman “Horn Rimmed Harry” Mullett.
James: A Touch of Frost was great. David Jason knew just how much comedy business to put into his performance. I think everyone was surprised just how good he was in the more serious role, and I remember trying to find out if Denton FC was a real football team.
Prime Suspect (ITV, 1991-2006)
Dave: While I enjoyed the early episodes of Prime Suspect, I was never a massive fan of it, mainly down to the fact that I don’t really like writer Lynda La Plante’s work.
Having said that, the quality of this show and the performance of Helen Mirren demands attention. Ground breaking and harrowing at times, this gave us a really believable, flawed female lead. Tennison has been oft imitated and never, to date, bettered.
The Bill (ITV, 1984-2010)
Dave: And finally, no list of police shows would be complete without this long running series. Set in the fictional Sun Hill Police station, this gave us a load of memorable characters. Remember PC Reg Hollis? WPC June Ackland? DCI Frank Burnside? The list goes on. It lost something for me when it changed from the 30 minute episode format, but I still hold many fond memories of this show
James: I love shows that are truly episodic. Whether it is the monster of the week episodes of shows like Buffy or The X-Files, or the half an hour episodes of The Bill that were on every Tuesday and Thursday. The ongoing tales from Sun Hill lost something when it went to an hour long, but those early episodes will last a long time in my memory.
Until next time, thanks for reading. Stay gold Ponyboy, stay gold, and catch ya later on down the trail.