As someone who loves a gritty, powerful, human documentary above all other TV, this has been a blissful few weeks for me. I’m not talking about the shock horror programmes like Woman Who Weighs Seven Hundred Tonnes or Child with Three Heads. I mean documentaries about seemingly ordinary public sector jobs in the police force and social services – except these worlds aren’t ordinary at all. As these programmes show, they’re often unpredictable, gruelling and heart-wrenching and they make for fascinating TV.
The Met, The Detectives and Protecting our Foster Kids may not have sexy titles but they had me hooked more than any recent drama. Monday night’s opening episode of BBC1’s The Met: Policing London showed the daily lives of those fighting crime, but it was much more about an institution that is far from perfect, but certainly willing to admit some of its issues.
As Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe walks down the streets of Tottenham, a part of London with a tricky relationship with cops, he discusses just how much the police are doing to rebuilt trust in a community furious about Mark Duggan’s death. In another scene we sit in on a meeting at New Scotland Yard where the police are discussing the inquest, and preparing a Met response to to the verdict when it comes through. But even with the institution’s problems, it’s impossible not to respect some of the officers who keep the country ticking over.
Then there is BBC2’s The Detectives, a three-part documentary about Manchester police’s Serious Sexual Offences Unit, which is available for a few more days on BBC iPlayer. This is the winner for me, offering an absolutely riveting look at a highly specialised type of crime solving. Murders and robberies are nothing compared to this as the series follows various investigations from the manhunt to the court case.
The main strand is an enquiry into the multiple historical sex offences alleged against Jimmy Savile’s former flatmate and chauffeur Ray Teret. As well as the logistics of gathering evidence of rape and assault, we see suspects questioned, victims’ reactions and the detectives’ daily dilemmas in solving these traumatic cases. The level of access is incredible, and the programme leaves a very deep impression indeed.
Focusing on a different but equally tricky front-line service is four-part BBC2 series Caring for our Foster Kids which first aired on Sunday 7th June. It’s an honest look at the hope and despair involved in all aspects of foster care, and the immense pressures facing the system. “It was a bit like falling in love with someone for the first time,” says Dorset mum Steph about teenager Amy, who she’s just started fostering. “There’s something very special about her.”
It all goes brilliantly well at first, but then the situation breaks down and nobody can stop it happening. There is some hope at the end though, as things look like they might work out for Amy at a new foster home. It’s a deeply sad programme, made sensitively and responsibly.
So if you want an insight into some of Britain’s most gruelling front-line jobs, watch these three powerful, human documentaries, all on iPlayer. Forget TV dramas, this is the real thing.