Spoiler alert: this feature discusses the plot endings of both Undercover and the third season of Line of Duty.
Once upon a time there was a wise king and in his kingdom a poisoned well. When his subjects drank from the well they turned mad. However, the king didn’t drink from the well and the people grew suspicious. “He’s crazy,” they said, and plotted to kill him. Frightened, the king decided to drink from the well too.
Line of Duty and Undercover are both available to buy on DVD and digital download.
This parable is told to the character Frank Serpico in Sydney Lumet’s eponymous 1973 movie. But Serpico isn’t like the Wise King. He refuses to drink from the well. He is a cop intent on working clean but even after working in every district in New York, he is deterred. Across almost every rank and file, his colleagues brush aside paperwork, take bribes, bully suspects, split drug busts. These cops aren’t evil people; they’re just people – motivated by self-interest and the fear of not fitting in. As Serpico discovers, it is personally much easier to become part of a culture, no matter how corrupt, than to reject it.
Serpico, based on a true story, leaves us with a deeply troubling question: is the king wise because he initially refuses to drink from the well or because he eventually drinks? Is Frank Serpico smart for trying to clean up the police force or mad for suffering isolation, persecution and eventually a gun shot to the face in exchange for his efforts? And doesn’t each of us face a similar conundrum at least once in our lives? Do I do what I know to be right or what others expect?
I revisited Serpico recently after watching a number of new BBC TV dramas centring on police corruption. I wanted to understand why, 40 years on, Serpico still presents a more disturbing vision of corruption than these contemporary versions, and I realised it’s all to do with that wise king.
Line of Duty is on its third series and I’ve been an avid watcher since the first. Air-tight scripts and stand-out performances lead to regular living-room standing ovations. Writer Jed Mercurio is a master plotter, one of the best in the business. If it were up to me, he would have BAFTAs thrown at his feet every time he’s out doing his groceries.
Line of Duty is based around AC12, a unit designed to weed out the bad apples on the force. This particular series took on a devastating contemporary issue. The story involved a seemingly bent copper who, we soon discover, is living with post-traumatic stress after suffering years of sexual abuse at a children’s home. Danny Waldron is played so hauntingly by actor Daniel Mays that it was easy to forget he only made it to episode three.
AC12’s investigation finally leads to the uncovering of a powerful paedophile network involving a local councillor and a police department head. So intent were the show’s makers on making the contemporary link that a photoshopped Jimmy Savile was even included in a scene. It can be difficult to make fictionalised dramas based on real events but when it works the effect is visceral. When abuse victim Joe Nash sees a photo of his childhood abuser and projectile vomits, I’m shaking with rage because, as we watch, a real-life parallel storyline is unfolding in the news headlines. Mixing the real and the imagined is the heart of great drama. We pivot between being entertained and transformed. We are even awarded a helpline number at the end of each episode.
Line of Duty’s plot lines turn on suspicion. Who is innocent? Who is not? Just when we think we know who to identify, the suspect lineup shifts. Who knew evil Lyndsey Denton, from series two, would become our Serpico, a highly principled cop who’d stop at nothing to get to the truth? Such turns require highly skilled plotting and character development. Luckily this is the writing team’s wheelhouse.
At the end of season three we finally discover the true identity of the Caddy, the evil mole within the force. We thought we had collared the brute at the end of last series – a perception-shifting performance by Neil Morrissey. As DC Morton, Morrissey really does behave badly here. We finally learn that the real baddie is AC12’s very own Matt Cotton, played like a buttoned-downed praying mantis by Craig Parkinson. Cotton is a master manipulator – that is, until DC Kate Fleming, a defining role for the steely Vicky McClure, snares him in his own web. The final episode shifts from a series of sublime interrogations to a flamboyant car chase that would be a nice set piece in a Bruce Willis movie.
As Line of Duty closes, order has been restored. AC12, like sheriffs in the wild west, live to fight another day. Here, corruption is big, bold and decidedly evil. There’s the white-suited and the black-hearted. While the series plays smartly with our perceptions of which side each character might fall on, ultimately each character does end up on one side or the other.
This vision of corruption is far more orderly than the death by a thousand cuts that Serpico tried to stem. If AC12 had to root out the kind of institutionalised corruption Serpico uncovers, Line of Duty would feature far fewer car chases and a lot more paper-chasing. Drama of course needs to be just that – an imaginative extension of reality, not necessarily a replaying of it. But I’m left wondering whether it wouldn’t be more dramatic to portray a closer truth – that good and evil do not sit across an illusory divide, and institutionalised corruption relies on a shared culture of consent which is often easier to participate in than not.
I followed this train of thought as I moved onto the BBC’s Undercover. The first episode was a real kicker. Opening scene: a woman played by Sophie Okonedo, whose facial expressions change as dramatically as the British weather, driving helter-skelter down an empty Louisiana dirt road. She is panicked. Her phone rings and she tries to reach it. She risks her life to take the call. Is she the one working undercover, we ask ourselves breathlessly?
Undercover made the headlines, erroneously, as the first all-black-led British TV drama. It isn’t. There have been many others, including the very good Babyfather in the early 2000s.
A series with two black leads was always going to be mired in cultural politics, and why not? The proposition of a police thriller powered by a black woman is exciting.
As the first episode progresses, the salivating complications begin to grow. No, she’s not the cop. She’s Maya Cobbina, a top lawyer trying to save a black man on death row in the US, and to solve the mysterious case of Michael Antwi, an African man killed in British custody 20 years before. She has one of those investigation boards in her office full of mug shots, pushpins and twine. Her writer husband takes care of their three children. They seem a happy family; but by the end of the first episode we begin to realise that all is not perfect in Buppieville. It’s the husband, played by Adrian Lester, who is the undercover cop, and he has been charged to investigate his own wife.
What a great premise and, like Line of Duty, what a rich seam of contemporary politics to mine. In Britain 500 black people have unaccountably died in police custody since 1990, and not a single policeman has been prosecuted. Across the pond, we recently watched six cops choke Eric Garner, an innocent man, to death on a street corner in broad daylight. As the abuses of innocent black people at the hands of those paid to protect us mount, this show is timed well. But as episode one waned so did my excitement. The storyline began to frustrate.
Why is our lawyer and everyone else fixated on this one case from 20 years ago, given that 500 black people have died since in similar circumstances? Who exactly are these shady ‘Higher Ups’ who scuttle suspiciously along stately corridors? If Lester is supposed to be a writer then why hasn’t he published anything in 20 years? Were there really militant black groups in the 1990s so feared that they would prompt a major undercover investigation? Would Mrs Antwi really be allowed to live with Cobbina, her representative lawyer, and if so, isn’t it a conflict of interest that, when promoted to Director of Public Prosecutions, Cobbina tasks her team to re-open the Antwi cold case? And are we really expected to believe that daughter Clem’s wig is her real hair?
But anything can be made plausible if written well, and here writer Peter Moffat could learn a thing or two from Jed Mercurio. Undercover’s story grew baggier as the episodes progressed. Black British artists used to speak of the ‘burden of representation’: the impulse to represent the entirety of the black British experience in a single work lest there be no other chance. Maybe the Undercover team were weighed by the same burden. Too much was thrown in here: the politics of death row in America, black deaths in British custody, the ethical issues of undercover policing, autism, epilepsy, corny depictions of black middle-class family life. The show became increasingly unfocused.
And one big question nagged at me throughout: if Maya is the most powerful lawyer in the country, driven by a fierce sense of social justice, would she not take on the wider issue of institutionalised corruption and racism rather than just two cases? Wouldn’t her fearless attempts to core out a major human-rights abuse at its root make her a much more fearsome figure to the Higher Ups and the police force, and therefore make it easier to imagine why they would choose to tail her for 20 years? This would of course shift the focus away from a few shady individuals to a more nebulous but potentially darker look into the heart of corrupt culture. Reducing this epic issue to two fairly unremarkable cases essentially reduced the dramatic potential of the show.
At the end of Undercover we discover that Michael Antwi, the man killed in police custody, may not have been the hero we were led to believe, and so probably deserved what he got. Which is of course the way corrupt police forces behave – shifting the attention away from their own misdeeds by demonising the public.
We know this because we recently discovered how, in the Hillsborough case, South Yorkshire force police officers were forced to change their statements to shift culpability onto the football fans. We know that when schoolboy Stephen Lawrence was murdered, the police investigated Stephen and his family rather than the murderers who walked free. We know both of these things, not because of an AC12 type internal investigation, but because of the tireless campaigning efforts of ordinary people.
Like Frank Serpico’s story, these real-life events are far more chilling than the conspiracy versions of corruption we are fed on TV. Real life reveals that corruption is a culture far messier, more human and dramatic than our imaginations can perceive.
Nothing heroic happens at the end of Serpico. No car chases. No police award ceremonies. We see Frank alone with his dog waiting to board a boat to Switzerland. Yet this final scene is deeply arresting. Serpico leaves us with that haunting question: would I choose to drink from the well or would I be brave enough not to? Both Line of Duty and Undercover are admirable dramas. Line of Duty consistently shows off masterful storytelling. Undercover’s attempts to centre a burning civil-rights issue in a prime-time slot was much welcomed. However, while both shows are supposedly designed to explore police corruption, they ultimately restore our faith in those institutions.
As the efforts of Serpico, Hillsborough campaigners and Doreen Lawrence have proved, corruption isn’t the result of a few bad apples bobbing about in a barrel. It is the water the apples bob about in that is poisoned. Just like the wise king’s well. Admitting that fact makes for a far more dramatic premise. The uncomfortable truths are more frightening than any fiction.