Pungent as Old Spice and smooth as cheap nylon: the BBC’s Law and Order 40 years on


Derek Martin in Law and Order

Revisiting the show reveals all the ways in which we, and television, have changed since 1978.

The BBC is screening GF Newman’s acclaimed drama Law and Order (10pm, 12 April), a series once deemed so controversial (for its depiction of corruption in the judicial system) it has never been repeated until now, in honour of its 40th birthday. Or at least, this is the line the corporation is trotting out: in truth, as it must surely realise, this particular hot potato reached room temperature long ago. Of course it’s no bad thing that the BBC has got around to showing it again; why it doesn’t make more of its archive, I don’t understand. But this isn’t to say that we’ve all been missing out in the meantime. You watch it now not to be gripped and held, but in order to note ­­– mostly with relief, but sometimes with a fleeting sense of sadness – all the ways in which we, and television, have changed in the long years since 1978.

Newman’s series comprises, in essence, four 80 minute-long plays each depicting a police investigation and its ramifications from a different point of view: the copper, the villain, the brief, the prisoner. The first episode, in which a bent detective played by Derek Martin fits up various low-rent criminals with a little help from his favourite snout, inevitably brings to mind Life on Mars (I wonder now if that was inspired in part by Law and Order) – though it comes with an authenticity, pungent as Old Spice and smooth as cheap nylon, no costume department could successfully fake. This is just what people looked like then. Its male characters, their skin the colour of chewing gum, tend to sweat lightly in the manner of cheese left out too long; they have preposterous comb-overs and snug, high-waisted jeans that draw the eye determinedly to the part of their anatomy with which we know, thanks to their almost every conversation, they’re entirely obsessed. Meanwhile, its female characters… Oh, yes. There are none, unless you count a lone barmaid, fiddling with a gin optic while yet another bloke fixes his mongoose stare coolly on her backside.

It’s very slow. Most scenes are overly long; the dialogue, for all its veracity (keep your dictionary of slang to hand), has a proudly unedited feel. The performances, however, are truly brilliant. We tend to imagine (well, I do) that since the late Seventies, acting has grown ever more naturalistic. But this is not quite the case. In the 21st century, actors wear their realism like a velvet cape; it’s just as showy in its way as the old hamminess. In the once revolutionary Law and Order, on the other hand, the actors’ devotion to this cause is the polar opposite of flashy: its celebrated documentary style is their triumph just as much as Newman’s. How brilliantly they deploy their eyebrows. How studiously they mumble. Sometimes, they seem hardly to be acting at all.

While we’re on hardly …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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