Law and Order

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Director: Les Blair; BBC DVD

Those impatiently awaiting the final series of The Wire might like to check out Law and Order. Over four episodes Law and Order tells the story of the British criminal justice system - a robbery, a police investigation, a trial and a prison sentence.

When it was first shown in 1978 it created a firestorm of political controversy. Furious questions were asked in parliament, newspaper editorials attacked every episode and the governor of the BBC was summoned to explain himself to the Labour home secretary.

For the first time on British television (or in a British film for that matter) Law and Order had the courage to show just how corrupt, stupid and brutal "justice" and "the law" were in Britain. The two central characters, career criminal Jack Lynn and career policeman Detective Pyle, are not enemies - they are co-workers in the business of crime and punishment.

Two things made Law and Order compelling. First the story it told was fictional but entirely true to life. In the 1970s British justice was indeed a contradiction in terms (no great change there then). The vicious injustices served on Irish men and women like the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six were just the colonial extreme of a system that was putrid from top to bottom. The joke at the time was that the police were so crooked that they had to screw their boots on. GF Newman, who wrote Law and Order, spent a year interviewing criminals, police footsoldiers and lawyers. That first hand research is there on screen.

But the second thing that made Law and Order so special was that it was brilliantly made. Newman was a new angry writer who had drifted into drama from journalism. Les Blair was a veteran left wing director who had developed his craft on countless Play for Todays, and the whole thing was produced by Tony Garnett, then Ken Loach's collaborator and producer. Law and Order was made with enormous passion and artistry using the documentary style - non-professional actors, minimal use of music, real-life location filming and an austere shooting style that eschews fancy editing and special effects.

Interestingly, Steve McQueen has revived exactly this style in his new film about Bobby Sands, Hunger. The dialogue was so authentic (and so impenetrable for anyone not from London's East End) that the Radio Times carried a "dictionary" to help viewers keep up. The aim was to tell it like it is - and for once Law and Order delivered.

The irony here is that when it was made the prevailing television image of the police was still fixed by Dixon of Dock Green - the decent and loveable "bobby" on the beat. In today's oh so sophisticated television marketplace we've traded that lie for a new one. Now the benchmark is Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes where police work becomes science fiction, and the police hooligans are fantasised into decent and lovable rough diamonds.

Of course it is dated; of course it's uneven in parts. Of course it is not as good as The Wire (but then few things in life and nothing on television ever will be). However, there has never been a British television cop show that has got anywhere close to the power and truthfulness of Law and Order.