Review: Coppers, Channel 4

The return of the documentary following British police officers delivered searing light and shade, says Jack Seale

“I’ve always thought police officers are people who’ve been bullied at school. Now they want a bit of power over someone, do you know what I mean?” This was the wisdom of Thomas “Hodgey” Hodgkinson, a ratty but slightly twinkling young burglar, the bane of Mansfield CID. The return of Coppers – C4’s unpredictable documentary strand that tours the country filming police business – centred on the black farce that is Hodgey’s endless battle with Mansfield nick.

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Hodgey does burglaries, but the cops can’t pin them all on him because of bureaucratic trifles like evidence and burden of proof. So Hodgey spends a lot of time being arrested, questioned and released. Given his cocky interviews with the Coppers crew, you’d think he enjoyed his hobby, had he not also been filmed crying every time the cops strode into his nan’s house to accuse him.

Then again, one of the police pointed out that these weeping fits didn’t come with real tears and were perhaps part of Hodgey’s pathetic but effective armoury – like the increasingly hilarious interrogation where he answered “no comment” to every question, to the point where the interviewing officer must have been tempted to start throwing in things like: “What’s three times five?” 

This was the programme’s small but important revelation: police work means having to deal with being lied to and obstructed all day, and with constantly failing to bridge the gap between what you know and what you can prove – a pointless, grubby game, like The Shadow Line remade by Shane Meadows.

It was better for mostly avoiding a debate about whether Hodgey should be tasered on sight and banged up for ever, or whether we should pour everyone a camomile tea and look at the underlying causes of young men not seeing other life choices. This was a rare study of what it’s like to exist every day within the social problems and situations other programmes theorise about.

At the same time, the officers’ quotes made you wonder if the gravity of law enforcement had hit home. One detective gave us a startling image of more shocking crimes making him go home at night and stare straight through the TV, unable to believe what he’s seen. But DS Marcus Oldroyd, the man in charge of nailing burglars, had a giggly bravado not a million miles from Hodgey’s.

“They are lowlife scum,” said DS Oldroyd, objectively. “You wanna go out burgle [sic], you’ve put your gauntlet down. Have some!” Later, a suicide victim being dragged from a ditch offered a break from all the break-ins. “I hate the smell of death, I really do. It f***ing honks.”

After a while you sensed he was doing it on purpose. “How would my kids react if that [the suicide] were me? It puts things into perspective, I suppose. Now, I don’t know where my sandwiches are. I’m famished!”

Coppers didn’t need its participants to play up to the cameras. Its subtle storytelling and unrestrained access meant it could astonish at will. 

When a very serious case came through the doors, you forgave the coppers for their previous detachment. News that a boy had been molested in local woodland sparked adrenalised determination to catch the perpetrator, then proud triumph when he was found.

As the paedophile shuffled up to the desk, the police – who had seemed for half the programme like gung-ho kids – didn’t shout, spit or rabbit-punch. The atmosphere was quiet, rueful, gentle. What could be gained from anything else?

Even the sex offender’s story had dark irony. After a long period of institutional care, he’d been rewarded for his progress with two hours’ unsupervised free time, on a school-day afternoon. But there was nothing wry or piquant about his one allotted phone call, to a brother who was about to disown him for ever. 

The pauses were unbearable. “Hello. I’ve got to tell you some bad news, and you may put the phone down when I tell you and I can fully understand if you do that… I re-offended… towards a ten-year-old… Wednesday…. I can tell you’re upset by the way you’re not saying anything… I’ll leave it to you to tell the rest of the family. All I can say is: I hope your lives go well in your future.”

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He handed back the phone. Now we were the ones staring straight through the screen.