24 Hours in Police Custody: behind the scenes of the fly-on-the-wall documentary

Life in Luton police station is more gripping than any drama. But why do the suspects agree to appear on camera?

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Simon Ford, mastermind behind 24 Hours in Police Custody, says: “At the beginning, I thought: ‘Why would any criminal ever want to be on this programme? And why would any police officer want to open themselves up to this?’ ”

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Very sensible questions, because this is a fly-on-the-wall documentary utterly swarming with flies – and they’re peering down at a group of human beings going through the most desperate moments of their lives. 

We see into the eyes of men (it’s usually men) suspected of murder, rape, armed robbery. We watch other people emotionally describe falling victim to some of the worst crimes you can imagine; and, most remarkable of all, we stand alongside the police officers as they do their best to piece together what precisely happened.

So how does the programme, based at Luton police station, get made? The day I visit, the production team is 73 days into an 82-day shoot. On the ground floor of a two-storey portable building erected in a sealed-off part of the station car park, Ford and his team are perched in front of a bank of 40-odd TV screens. In one sense, our little patch of TV land is entirely quarantined from the police station. In another, it’s intimately connected. It’s strange to think that the people on screen are just 50 yards away.

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Behind me, dozens of photographs have been taped to the wall, pictures of Luton’s most notorious (alleged) criminals pasted up so that the production team can recognise a villain the moment he’s brought in to the nick. 

Today, things are quiet. There are no scuffles in the custody suite. No blood – “claret” in the trade – down the front of a shirt. It’s a humdrum day unlikely to make it into the series, though, as in almost every episode, there’s a young man in an interview room grumpily repeating “no comment” to every question he’s asked.

That’s the thing with flies on the wall. Some days, there’s not much to see. Other days, the drama is better than any TV cop show – precisely because you know that everything is real. Ford describes the goings-on at Luton police station as “big city problems in a small town”.

But what really strikes me is that none of the police officers or their suspects seems remotely interested in the fact that a TV crew is watching and recording their every step. 

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The live TV pictures are courtesy of 76 remote-controlled cameras – “the same type that were used in the first series of Big Brother,” says Ford – that C4 has temporarily installed all over the station. There are dozens of microphones too, some worn on the officers’ clothing. The cameras – big, white things, as long as your forearm – are mounted on the ceiling and operated remotely from the car park bunker. If a director sees something interesting, he or she can point and zoom at whatever they like.

There are signs dotted around the station informing visitors that their moment of fame might be around the corner. “Please be aware that filming for a Channel 4 documentary series is taking place throughout the police station today… a member of the TV production team may approach you to give you more information about the series.” 

But, with one major exception (as we shall see), no one can force you to be on TV. So, to return to Ford’s question, why do people agree to take part? Never mind the police, what about the suspects?

“I was utterly amazed when we first started that anyone would talk to us,” says Ford. “I couldn’t imagine a more stressful place to be: you know that you might be losing your liberty. But the psychology is that people don’t feel listened to. They’re brought to the station and being asked about specifics of that day, but they want to tell a bigger story. They want to give an explanation of themselves: ‘It’s because of my drug addiction’ or ‘because I was abused as a child’ or whatever.”

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A small number of people decide not to take part in the programme. A few police officers have their face blurred – “Some just say: ‘I don’t fancy it.’ Some are under cover or might be going under cover in the future,” explains Ford – and some victims choose not to be identifiable.

What if a member of the public dials 999 to report an incident and subsequently the crime features in the programme? Ford is duty bound to disguise your voice if he wants to include the phone call and you don’t want to be identifiable: “We’ll change the pitch, or turn a male voice into a female one.” 

But what are the rights of the suspects? From the outset, as Ford has said, most of those being interviewed in the police station have already given their consent. And that consent can’t be withdrawn once agreed.

But what if a villain who hasn’t consented wants to keep his guilty face off the TV screens? “We have to balance the suspect’s right to privacy with the public’s right to know,” says Ford. Just as local newspaper reporters sit in court and publish the names of the guilty, “in cases where someone doesn’t want to be on the programme, we might decide it’s in the public interest for that person to be seen.” 

In other words, if you murdered someone, you’ve forfeited any right to anonymity. What if you’re taken to court and found innocent? Or never charged in the first place? In that case, your privacy will be respected if you didn’t consent to being filmed and insist on remaining anonymous.  

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24 Hours in Police Custody is on Monday 19th June at 9pm on Channel 4