Sunday 20 November 2022

Between the Lines: The Best British TV Police Show Ever Made

By G. Neil Martin

Up until September 4th, 1992, if you had wanted a fictional TV cop show or police procedural that really got under the skin of the police, one that really inserted a scalpel under the gangrenous epidermis of the boys (and it was usually boys) in blue, you would have to have looked very hard.

There had been the original Law & Order - written by Tony Garnett and GF Newman - a short, 1978 series which followed a criminal, Jack Lynn, as he went through the criminal justice system, and was unsparing in its portrayal of the conduct of police, lawyers, and the villains themselves. But apart from this, most British TV police procedurals followed a pretty well-rehearsed template: crime commission, crime investigation, villain banged up after either a succession of car chases and fisticuffs (The Sweeney, The Professionals) or stately detection (Dixon Of Dock Green, Juliet Bravo).

But it was Between The Lines, the show executive produced by Garnett and written by JC Wilsher, that changed all this. Between The Lines revealed the dark underbelly of police corruption and spawned a mini-genre of cop shows - The Cops and, more recently, Line Of Duty, are two obvious examples where police corruption and misconduct is the focus and core of dramatic tension.

Between The Lines ran for three series from 1992 to 1994 on BBC1 and charted the rise and Icarus like defenestration of Superintendent Tony Clarke, a young, rakish, ambitious Met police detective strong-armed, following his promotion, into running the Complaints Investigations Bureau (CIB) of the Met, an internal affairs division established to investigate corruption in the police force.

Clarke, played by Neil Pearson, was a boyish exterior clad in Cecil Gee but the clean-shaven prettiness belied a dirty recognition of the seedy, greasy world in which he worked. He was not naive in the right circles but where it counted, he was as artless as a pickpocket, a weakness he fatally demonstrated when confronted by his brilliantly Machiavellian, Janus-faced, and brutally clipped boss, Chief Superintendent John Deakin (Tony Doyle). If the Met was a barrel of apples, Deakin was one of the most putrid fruits in it and it took Clarke a series to discover it. In fairness, that’s also how long it took us, following a tour de force of deflection and stunning dramatic misdirection.

Deakin was a phenomenal piece of work. “If you find you’re having us over backwards, Tony” he says in one character-establishing early exchange, “we’ll do your legs like a steamroller.” No-one saw Deakin’s true purpose and character coming. Prime Suspect and Line of Duty more or less assume that wrong-uns at the top are a given. In 1992 TV land, it was a novelty.

First broadcast at the fag-end of the Thatcher government, Between The Lines' first episode is winkingly titled “Private Enterprise” and opens with a black and white shot of Battersea to the straining strings of Hal Lindes theme tune, and a thin blue line which expands vertically to occupy most of the screen. A montage of thuggery and canoodling follows and, as the titles end, Lindes strings transform into a stunning, marching, pounding crescendo punctuated by a virtuoso Spanish guitar glissando.

The opening case involves a drug pusher who is also a snout for Mulberry Road police station, Clarke’s old station, and a suspicion that coppers in the station are bent. Clarke’s exasperation at his new role is evident in his response to his first case: “Infiltrate my own nick?!” And thus his baptism begins - the wrestling with the need to investigate his own colleagues while wishing to remain one of the boys.

Clarke loses these qualms as the series progresses and he delivers a series of dead-eyed, steely interrogations with resentful, defensive, prickly, suspect coppers. In his final interrogation in season two, he’s on the other side. Beaten, shot at, fingers broken, cigarette hanging from a cracked lip, and accused of firearms offences, entrapment and all sorts, he retorts from a busted face to a charge sheet of vices: “prove it”. Cue: Lindes’s strings. It is almost Grecian. It also echoes the words of another accused copper (Kendrick) interviewed by Clarke in episode 6 of season 1.

One of the reasons Between The Lines works supremely well - and there are a myriad reasons - is not just the charismatic lead, the scalpel-sharp scripts addressing the political and societal issues of the day, but also because of the tight-knit investigation team. A tacit, worldly, lank-haired Inspector Harry Naylor (Tom Georgeson), a man tightly wound with restrained rage, and Sergant Mo Connell (Siobahn Redmond), a methodical, conscientious copper and the first bisexual character to appear as a main player in a cop show. In episode 3, when Mo’s sexual status is still ambiguous, Clarke says to her “You know what it’s like for a red-blooded male”. She replies, “Can’t say I do, sir”.

At the end of series one, we discover that Deakin is as bad as the corrupt coppers his unit was set up to investigate. A successful 12-week run led to a second series in which Deakin re-appears, this time as a private security consultant undertaking business for all types of clients, shady and, well, almost exclusively shady. One such association, with Angela Berridge a civil servant with MI5-connections, drives the series and episode five begins with a clash between spook and plod where spook, naturally, wins. The first act is almost The Avengers-like in its surrealness.

Series two ends with an almost broken Clarke charged with a variety of offences and it is clear that his career is at an end. The third series sees him setting up his own private security company, taking offers of work from who else, but Deakin. The least successful of the series because it is untethered from its initial cause, it is missing that essential something that the first two series had. It is the detective show equivalent of the sitcom that goes abroad.

But the first two series, dripping with politics, sex, seediness, corruption, duplicity, friendship and bittersweet denouements - episodes rarely ended on a satisfyingly happy resolution - confirm Between The Lines' place as the greatest British cop show ever made.

Professor G Neil Martin is a psychologist and author. 

Twitter: @thatneilmartin

This article originally appeared in issue one of the Curious British Telly fanzine.


  1. The chaps in my circle all had a thing for Lesley Vickerage.

  2. Just been watching it over last few weeks and have got to series 3, its been great. To my dismay they have taken Clark out of the Police, terrible decision, I wont be watching series 3,.

    They have ruined it, totally took away the whole premise of the series, such a shame,

  3. Jed Mercurio is a brilliant writer, and Line of Duty produced many edge-of -your seat moments, but the drama of Between the Lines really is where it all began, as this writer says. It needs to be seen not just for its many standout episodes, culminating in the brutal end of Season 2, but for the measured but gripping development of its story arc.
    And great incidental elements, like Maureen’s “ Man’s Laughter “ moment at the start of Season 2, and the great writing, like the scene where Harry visits an Indian restaurant at closing time, and presses the weary Asian proprietor who is sweeping the floor as to whether a particular CID officer was present in the group attending a recent Police function there - he shows a photo of the suspect to the guy, who shrugs, saying “ can’t help you I’m afraid - you cops all look the same to me.” 😊