Bearing Witness... Tony Garnett on Cops, Community and the TV Audience

By M.K. MacMurraugh-Kavanagh

Throughout an illustrious television career dating back to the sixties, Tony Garnett has delivered a series of ideological and dramatic shocks to the system through such powerful and innovative productions as Up the Junction, Cathy Come Home, Days of Hope and Law and Order.

Last November Garnett discussed his new television series The Cops at one of a series of research seminars organised by the “BBC Wednesday Plays & Post-War British Drama” project at the University of Reading. Here, in a transcript of the question and answer session following his talk (edited by M.K. MacMurraugh-Kavanagh, the project's post-doctoral Research Fellow) he talks about his attitude to genre, narrative structure, and the role of research in the creation of TV drama.

cops-tony-garnett-1.jpgSaturday afternoon in the custody room… three “buried narratives” come together

The “Wednesday Play” project, financed by the Higher Education Funding Council of England, has, over the last three years, generated numerous publications and a three-day international conference on television drama 1965-2000. Keynote speakers at the latter included Ken Loach, Tony Garnett, John McGrath and Trevor Griffith. A permanent centre for television research is to be set up at the University of Reading when the project terminates in February 2000.

Question: The Cops is the third police-drama you’ve produced: do you have a particular interest in the genre?

Tony Garnett: No; these shows have not expressed my interest in the police, or in the cop show genre, as much as my interest in the relationship between the police and the community.

Q: Why do you think that cop shows have such audience appeal?

TG: Most cop shows are about investigations into the things that the audience would like to do. Crimes are committed, but closure always involves the solving of the crime so the audience can sleep easily afterwards, and also feel at ease with its own fantasies. Cop shows allow you to have the best of both worlds because they deal simultaneously in internal and external law and order.

Q: What kind of research was The Cops based on?

TG: No-one is allowed to write for this show who hasn’t spent at least two weeks out with the cops – night-shift, day shift, out drinking with them, the lot. I make the directors and all the actors do the same. Research is crucial because what’s going to happen if the writer’s imagination isn’t feeding on a direct observation of the subject matter is that he or she is going to be feeding off episodes of The Bill or off American cop movies. After all, the imagination has got to feed off something. So I insist that the writers have to “bear witness” to the reality; the drama that is then produced is the result of the provisional sense they’ve made of a situation, observation, or experience.

Q: Why did you select Lancashire as the location for the show?

TG: We decided to shoot in Bolton simply because it was convenient. We wanted to set The Cops in a small town rather than in a big city because it gave us the chance to develop face-to-face relationships with non-police characters who could become semi-regulars in an entirely credible way. In creating Stanton, a fictional town, we could include many of the problems of any big, urban centre but still have a context where the cops would know many of the people who live there. The cops could then take us into parts of society and individual experience that are not usually seen on television.

Q: The characterisation in The Cops is extremely complex: how does this connect with your overall dramatic project in the show?

TG: One of things that we tried to do with The Cops was to introduce “stock” characters whom the audience could immediately recognise; we reinforced their prejudices to begin with, but then totally turned them around by making the “stock” characters behave in a way that the audience wasn’t expecting. In rethinking their judgment of the character, the hope was that the audience would have to rethink its own prejudices.

The easiest editorial decision, the easiest decision all the way through, is to create and follow a “hero” figure. The audience consists of viewers who ache to root for a particular character; we forbid this because we argue that the situation is more complicated than this would imply. This means that we’re withdrawing from the show, and withholding from the audience, the one element of drama that is always expected, can always be provided, and can usually be relied upon. It’s so easy to provide it and to fulfil this audience need, but that would have the effect of making all the things that we’re trying to observe and to make sense of serve the purpose of traditional dramatic effect. On this show we abjure that easy dramatic effect and disappoint the audience in this regard. Instead, we use a type of alienation effect so that the audience can be persuaded to move beyond its fixation on a hero and instead move towards an examination of its own judgments. When the audience responds emotionally to some situation, it must then have an opportunity to analyse why it responded in that particular way.

Q: So for you are the cop-show categories of “hero” and “villain” redundant?

TG: It’s not helpful to say: “Aren’t our boys and girls in blue wonderful? I won’t hear a word said against them”, but nor is it helpful to assert that the police are all corrupt, brutal “pigs”! Neither response is accurate and neither is helpful. Given the fact that we need the police, then we need to understand the nature of the job and the kind of people who do it. But the problem I have with the police involves the issue of their arbitrary power and the lack of adequate democratic sanctions that are capable of controlling their exercise of this power. A situation where the police investigate themselves is, for me, just not good enough.

Having said that, it is not one of our purposes in The Cops to say: “This is what ought to be done”. When you’re young, you’re certain that you know all the answers, but now, I’m not even sure whether I know all the questions. If you compare Cathy Come Home with The Cops, for example, there may not be a difference as far as the social and political stance is concerned, but there is a very big difference in terms of closure and in terms of “certainty”. Cathy Come Home was just a howl of rage, but now I’m not as sure as I used to be that you can make a film and change the world. Films don’t do that: politics does.

cops-tony-garnett-2.jpgThe most conventional narrative of the first series… and the most popular with viewers

Q: Could you comment upon your experiments with narrative form in The Cops?

TG: Conventionally, an episode in a drama series will set a hare running at the top of the show and catch it at the end; that will be the “A” story. You may also have a “B” story and a “C” story, and they’ll all finally be resolved. To me, this structure gets in the way of believing what you see. The ambition in The Cops is for the audience to spend fifty minutes with one of our shows feeling that they just happen to be following a group of cops through an eight-hour shift. Whatever happens, happens: if nothing happens, then nothing happens.

That’s what we want viewers to feel, but, obviously, if that’s all we did, we’d completely lose the audience: there has to be some narrative running through an episode because otherwise you are not going to stay with the show. So the idea is to “bury” narratives in such a way that they’re not obvious. Basically, we’re playing with the question of how to set up a narrative without it seeming that we have set it up. One of the things we do that goes with the grain of most cops’ daily lives is that we show not much happening: we show a situation where there isn’t that much crime, and where what crime there is doesn’t get solved; or the criminals are brought in and then get released, or they’re brought to court and then let off.

Q: Is it easier to have a looser structure when you have a cast of several characters?

TG: The Cops is a “gang show”, but this makes things more difficult because you have to keep so many balls in the air. You can cut easily between the characters, which is useful, but then you’re in danger of having a very bitty show. Only the most sophisticated viewers will live with that. Audiences tend to like linear narratives.

Q: When you’re planning a new show, are you concerned with what the audience is going to think of it?

TG: If I didn’t care about the audience, why would I work in television? But what I always explain to the people I’m working with is that we want to get the biggest audience we possibly can, and we want to respect that audience, but we want to get it the difficult way, not the easy way.

For example, I know that next year I could put over a million viewers on The Cops if I was prepared to do certain things. Just three or four quite easy changes would increase the audience from around 3.5 million (with the Saturday repeat) to 5 million. First of all, we’d create much more sympathy for the police; we’d turn one or two of our cops into heroes; we’d include a clear narrative hook in the first couple of minutes and we’d use very clear narratives in each episode. But I’m not going to do any of these things, and luckily BBC 2 is not going to make me.

Q: Could you comment on the working methods that you’ve used with the actors? In particular, to what extent do you encourage improvisation?

TG: The actors are encouraged to improvise because you have to remove props and even the script from them so that they have nothing to hide behind. If you give them the freedom to improvise, it means that they can’t hide behind the lines because they have to listen to what’s being said and respond to it. You can see the difference on screen, just as you can always tell when actors are simply waiting for their next cue.

Having said that, when we reach the cutting-room we find that what we end up with is ninety per cent as written in the script because usually a good writer can write a better line than a good actor can make up. But the ten per cent of improvised material that we’re left with is like gold; it’s given the actor some freedom to really get into the situation, which is all I ask in the first place. All I want them to do is to inhabit their characters in the moment, but that’s actually asking an enormous amount. To persuade them to do this involves giving them confidence and a sense of security in the affection of others: then they’ll open up because they trust you and feel that they’re valued. And if an actor doesn’t open up, then what’s the point of being there?

My attitude towards improvisation is that we should use anything valuable that’s thrown up by it. The Cops is not written in iambic pentameter.

Q: How would you respond to the charge that The Cops presents an entirely credible but nevertheless distorted version of “truth”?

TG: There’s only one serious obligation that we have to the audience: that is to tell the truth. Of course, only God, should he or she exist, knows the truth, but we have an obligation to tell our truth. If you present your understanding of the truth, but make people aware that there are other potential “truths” you’re giving them the opportunity, the encouragement, and the confidence to examine their truths.

Stills courtesy of World Productions Limited.