Wednesday, 2 July 2014

A Long View of the Law

When I grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the policemen depicted on screen all seemed to follow a certain type.  The Professionals, Starsky & Hutch, The Sweeney – they all drove fast cars, had notable hair, dressed in the casual fashion of the time and I don’t remember ever seeing them in a domestic setting.  Not that I studied too closely, these things were usually on after my bedtime.  I have no doubt that most of the boys in my class at school wanted to be one of the characters in the above mentioned series.  They were meant to, that’s how BBC and ITV fought the battle for viewing figures.

When I watched ‘The Long Arm’ (1956) I reflected that just 25 years earlier things were very different in terms of how the police were represented on screen.  The hero of the film, Supt. Halliday, is played by the fine and upstanding Jack Hawkins.  We are obviously meant to hold Halliday in high esteem, just as ‘80s boys were meant to hero worship Bodie and Doyle.  But the difference between these lead characters shows just how much and how quickly society changed after the 1950s.  Hawkins was aged 45 when he played this role – quite aged in comparison to those later leading men.  He is depicted as being an ultra-decent suburban family man living in Bromley, with a young son who wants to follow in his footsteps and help to crack the cases.  I get the feeling that this would have been classed as too boring for telly 20 years on. His wife puts up with the late nights and ruined suppers in a stoic way that a newly liberated woman might not do.  If a TV copper had been married in the 1980s, you can bet that there would have been massive domestic rows to add to the drama.

What was really interesting was the fact that Supt. Halliday was not once seen behind the wheel of a car (only being carried on the bonnet of one, like any brave hero would).  Where the latter day policemen sped around in fast cars that became extensions of their characters, Halliday went by steam train.  One that had a ten minute stopover in Birmingham, so that people could get out and use a telephone box to make contact with the outside world.  It is the criminals who are driving the cars in ‘The Long Arm’.  To own a flashy car back then was a sign of a shady character – even the posh lady driver turns out to be in on the plot.  When a murder takes place, it is the car that is the murder weapon.  They are shown as a means of breaking the law rather than enforcing it, showing this to be a time before a job as a policeman was attractive in that you got to routinely break the speed limit.

Hawkins by @aitchteee
So in the immediate post war period it was the train travelling  family man that was the one to be hero worshipped.  Then the 1960s came and with it the new idols of fast living and fast cars.  The film ‘Crooks in Cloisters’ (1964) is not shy about revealing its inspiration.   As the opening credits roll, a carbon copy of the Great Train Robbery plays out in the background.  This is a caper about a gang of crooks who, after bodging the above crime, escape to an island monastery.  It’s pretty bog standard fare for the time, with several familiar faces and predictable laughs.  But yet, it can also serve as a window on the social attitudes towards some crimes in the early 1960s.

‘Crooks in Cloisters’ is the natural follow up to ‘The Long Arm’ in a crime chronology. Something seemed to happen to the British public around the time of the Great Train Robbery in 1963.  Whether the robbery was the catalyst or a symptom of the change I’m not sure. But whatever the case, the outcome was that Ronnie Biggs et al were given hero status.  Their crime seemed to be viewed as victimless because nobody was murdered and the money stolen wasn’t exactly personal property.  That the train driver received serious head injuries was glossed over. The crime gained a “great” prefix – this says much about public opinion.  There seems to have been a desire among many sections of the public for the gang to get away with it.  ‘Crooks in Cloisters’ can elaborate on this curious phenomenon.  The film gang are portrayed as loveable rogues despite being hardened criminals.  Those portraying the thieves include Bernard Cribbins, Barbara Windsor and Melvyn Hayes – people that we are clearly meant to smile at and sympathise with. We are given no option but to like these people. The film uses soft words such as pilfering rather than stealing. We never see any victims of their work – did they also cosh the train driver during their own train robbery? Did anyone get hurt in the diamond robbery?  It’s feasible, but we are not to worry ourselves about that.

Meanwhile, the policeman chasing after them is portrayed as arrogant and personally unlikeable.  He might have had a few successes but he is destined to never pick up our gang.  What a change from Hawkins as hero just eight years earlier.  This is the time when we had left austerity behind.  We were learning how to stick two fingers up at authority; irreverence and youth began to be worshipped.  1963 was the era of ‘That Was the Week That Was’ and The Beatles. Consumerist culture was on the rise.  All of this seems to contribute to this phenomenon. The British had decided that they’d had enough of doing what they were told all the time – they always ended up losing out somehow. This translated into the championing of those who had the audacity to stop Royal Mail trains and pinch the contents.  This attitude carried on for some years, I think.  In the 1980s, a film was made about one of the gang (Buster) which turned his life into a romantic bit of fluff.  Meanwhile the tabloids followed Biggs’ exploits like he was a pop star. The Krays too, those ‘60s mobsters, also got some of his treatment. Those programmes that I remember from my childhood depicted policeman that had perhaps a bad streak, something exciting about them was needed to hold the public attention.

To most of us now, all this was indeed a strange phenomena that we finally seem to be getting over.  Several police shows now have settled back down to gentile respectability such as Midsomer Murders. There was some backlash over the coverage of Biggs’ death and people did question why he was given any obituary.  But we must acknowledge that this odd moment in our history existed, with ‘Crooks in Cloisters’ as the evidence that will forever shine a light on it.

Sarah Miller Walters books can be purchased as Amazon Kindle downloads.

Howard Taylor's artwork can be purchased from his Etsy shop TayloredArtPrints


  1. Great piece, Sarah. We've definitely switched back the other way now as a society, with a much more conservative attitude prevailing; and a general antipathy towards anyone "not paying their way" or getting something for nothing (with the obvious exception of the Windsors - not Barbara!). What a capricious bunch we are!

  2. Yes, well said. I wonder how people/tabloids would react to the train robbery today...probably a great deal of bluster about tax payers money going west and searching for some civil servant to blame for lax security.

  3. That'd be about the size of it!