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Reflection of Social and Cultural Values in Police and Crime Dramas

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 3046 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Examine the ways in which police and crime drama can be seen to ‘bear the imprint of their times’ (Sparks, 1992:99)

The police and crime genre’s popular international appeal is largely attributable to its ability to encapsulate and reflect back to its audiences contemporary social concerns, bearing the hallmark or ‘imprint of their times’. Viewers today are compelled to witness not only murder, but also confront their darkest fears and paranoias, such as child sex crimes (Broadchurch (2013- ), Marcella (2016-)) or terrorism (The Bodyguard 2018-), mirroring moral panics and anxiety arising out of paedophilic crimes (the Soham murders, Jimmy Saville) and terrorist attacks such as 9/11 and 7/7 London bombings. This essay will seek to demonstrate how and to what extent social, political and cultural values and historical events are commonly reflected, examined and challenged in the genre’s diverse array of texts, with particular reference to perceptions of rising crime rates, policing methods, feminism and scientific developments.

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“A state of the nation genre” (Brunsdon, cited in McElroy, 2017, p 28) and ‘a genre especially responsive to changing socio-cultural conditions” (McElroy, p15) are some of the ways in which the ubiquitous police and crime format has been aptly depicted, articulating and investigating social concerns, moving away from the classic ‘whodunit’ format to increasingly more complex forms and sub-genres. This is manifestly shown in the transformation of the genre’s representation of the police procedural over the past seven decades. The 1950’s quintessential beat ‘bobby’ personified by PC George Dixon (Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76) was said to reflect viewers’ ‘post-war desire for a more stable culture’ (BBC ‘Call the Cops’, 2008), but by the 1960’s the benign local bobby was a worn-out cliché, failing to reflect modern policing or rising crime rates, and was swiftly replaced by the motif of ‘cops’ chasing criminals in fast cars.  This was exemplified by Z Cars (1962-78) and the Bill (1983-2010), in turn influenced by American series such as Starsky & Hutch (1976-8) and Hill Street Blues (1981-7). According to Turnbull (2014,p 45) a new ‘gritty socio-realist approach’ was emerging, Z Cars deploying new production and observational techniques such as fast-cutting style and montage devices with twelve-second takes, hand-held cameras, filming though the windscreen to create a sense of immediacy .The Bill became renowned for its realism; initially intended to be a quasi-documentary, its producers went to great lengths to achieve authenticity both in the crimes depicted and police procedure, attention to detail even extending to the furniture in the control rooms. The Bill ‘s plot lines became increasingly radical, in particular calling into question the police’s impeccable moral virtue, a theme which continues to be a popular trope of the police procedural today, reflecting increasing public disillusionment in the police’s ability to control crime. Although senior police hierarchy were said to be outraged by The Bill’s audacious criticism, a sneaking regard for its realistic approach was evidenced by the Met asked for crime prevention initiatives such as “Operation Bumblebee” to be featured (BBC Call the Cops, 2008). Police officers were said to be avid viewers of the series, eager to anticipate what changes were coming next! The Bill over its 26 years’ airtimereinvented itself, incorporating more sensational story lines such as the bombing of Sun Hill police station, changing not just its subject matter (more gritty realism), but also its tone and style which became immediate and action-packed.

No doubt capitalising on this public dissatisfaction, subversion and rebellious flouting of chains of command were the order of the day in The Sweeney (1975-78), a fictional representation of the London Metropolitan ‘Flying Squad’, tackling armed and dangerous criminals in the criminal underworld of the capital. Its lead protagonists Carter and Reagan blurred the distinction between hero and villain, with their ruthless use of excessive violence, disregarding protocol and their superior’s orders. The message was very clear: the need to beat crime by whatever means. In addition, Police corruption was known to be rife in the Flying Squad at the time; DSI Kenneth Drury was sentenced to eight years in 1977, a fact utilised in the plot line of the film Sweeney 2. It is also significant that this was a time of public unrest and rioting in the UK such as Notting Hill (1976), Southall (1979), culminating in the notorious Brixton Riots of 1981. The public’s moral panic on reading of such events in their daily newspapers would have inevitably made them far more receptive to The Sweeney’s new style of aggressive urban policing, with more emphasis on action, and a loose interpretation of legal ‘reasonable force’. Rather comically, the reflective nature of police drama is demonstrated by the suggestion that ‘Carter’ personas began to ‘pop up’ in the CID, a case of ‘art imitating life and vice versa’ (BBC Call the Cops). Not all critics welcomed The Sweeney’s brand of ‘rough justice’ some condemning its representation of excessive violence and denigration of the police (Screen Education, 1976; Clarke, 1986). However, the plot lines of police corruption in The Sweeney would have been recognised as echoing investigations of police malpractice at the time such as that of the West Midlands Serious crime squad and the Met’s drug and vice squad.

The dramatic development in the conventions of the police procedural was amplified by the hugely acclaimed Life on Mars (2006-7), and its sequel Ashes to Ashes (2008), hailed by theorists not just for its originality and superior plot-lines, but as a innovative text comparing the traditional and outmoded policing methods of the 1970’s with contemporary methods (Chapman, 2006). Chapman convincingly theorises that the series was playing to a receptive audience by its implicit criticism of modern policing methods, influenced by the ‘Scarman Report’ which was highly critical of police brutality following the 1981 riots (Chapman, p17). Life on Mars recalls a by-gone era in policing methods, a throw-back to the days of The Sweeney, with Philip Glenister’s Gene Hunt played ‘as homage to Thaw’s Jack Regan’ (Chapman, p13), even down to replicating Regan’s Ford Granada car. The contrast between the 1970’s style of gung-ho policing based on intuition and beating up reluctant witnesses, in preference to the psychological profiling and precise evidence gathering of modern policing, is both striking and often humorously presented:

‘Sam: I think we need to explore whether this attempted murder was a hate crime.

Gene: What, as opposed to one of those I really, really like you murders?’

Reflecting the public mood of dissatisfaction with rising crime rates and police failure to capture criminals, Life on Mars called upon viewers to play “detective on the couch” (McElroy, p7) and reach their own judgement upon how effective modern politically correct policing methods are, and which methods achieved the best results, the old or the new bureaucratic form-filling variety? The retro-setting and time-traveller elements of the text provided an intriguing dimension, transporting audiences back to ‘a different planet’ to experience 1970’s policing through the eyes of DCI Sam Tyler. The message of the ‘old ways’ being best is a powerful one and appears to have been consistent with contemporary public thinking. Labour’s mantra on coming into power in 1997, to be ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’, eschewed more liberal and tolerant agendas prevalent at the time, and reflected a shift of focus away from the criminal to his victims, ‘To hell with the criminal, what about the poor bloody victim?’ (Schlesinger and Tumber, 1993).

Turning to the genre’s response to post-feminism, one can see a significant change in its representation of the female police officer. In Prime Suspect (1991-2006), DCI Jane Tennison’s character was inspired by the real-life experiences of misogyny and discrimination by DCI Jackie Malton, showing her breaking though the ‘glass ceiling’ of male patriarchy (Jermyn, (2009) p  ). Juliet Bravo (1980-85) and The Gentle Touch (1980-84) paved the way for this new representation of policewomen holding down senior positions of command. Cagney & Lacey (1982-88) in the US was a ground-breaking influence, the two women leads portrayed as equally capable of tackling criminals as their male colleagues. Scott & Bailey (2011-) has clear parallels with the female ‘cop’ partnership of Cagney & Lacey, with its regular insights into the leads’ personal emotions and familial responsibilities. Scott & Bailey brought the ‘feminine’ touch to policing methods, with plenty of face-to-face close-ups, the female leads sitting closer to the interviewee at the corner of the police interview desk. McElroy persuasively suggests that this brand of feminised policing is symptomatic of feminine skills in the workplace being more highly valued, such as communication, empathy and intuition. The police drama has extensively featured strong female leads in recent texts such as Catherine Carwood in Happy Valley (2014- ), Olivia Colman in Broadchurch (2013- ) Line of Duty (2012-) Keeley Hawes and Vicky McClure. This could be seen as a reflection of the genre’s mostly female viewers or the ‘value of woman viewers to broadcasters’ (McElroy, p65), the feminisation of TV from the mid 1990’s (McElroy,p88) or more likely a mix of both.

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The increasing dominance of women in the genre has been reinforced by a parallel increase in female anti-heroines roles, subverting gender stereotypes and challenging male power in line with post-feminism in society. The most recent striking example of the anti-heroine can be found in Killing Eve (2018-) where the female protagonist, Villanelle, plays the part of a sadistic villainess who takes pleasure in dispatching her victims in cruel and gruesomely inventive ways. In one scene she murders an unsuspecting Italian mafia grandfather, viciously stabbing him in the eye with a poison-laden hairpin in front of his terrified young grandson. Whilst perfecting the murder Villanelle casually asks for the name of his designer bed throw which she has been admiring; murder for her is a pleasurable pastime in which guilt plays no part. Killing Eve has certainly broken the mould in new ways, moving one step further on from the ‘strong female character’, challenging society’s expectations of women as good mothers and nurturers in a society where ‘criminal women are perceived to represent the antithesis to femininity in western patriarchal culture’ (Buonanno, 2007 pp xi/177). We admire Villanelle’s fashionable elegance, style and the hint of a damaged past means the audience feels an affinity for her. It is her choice to be an assassin, she controls her destiny even to the point of murdering two of her ‘bosses’, therefore the text is firmly in the post-feminist mould of third wave feminism.  Brunsdon (2013) praised Prime Suspect as a ‘canonical text’ in which Jane Tennison has become an iconic representation of a successful women in a male-dominated world; however she also convincingly argues that post -feminist women policewomen representations have ‘peaked’ or had their day, replaced by the “girly cops” who inhabit a ‘rather narcissistic feminine world’ such as in Murder in Suburbia (2004-), a reflection the rise of “girl-culture’ in our society.

Perhaps one of the most notable ways in which the police and crime drama has embodied our changing times is in the arena of forensic crime investigation. Huge advancements such as DNA profiling and blood-splattering analysis have been reflected in forensic based crime drama such as Silent Witness (1996- ) and Dexter (2006-2013), inspiring the emergence of the popular sub-genre of ‘cold-case’ crime dramas such as Waking the Dead (2000-11) and New Tricks (2003-2015). Waking the Dead explored such diverse societal concerns as child labour and abuse, torture, homophobia and racism, and featured the wars in Iraq and Bosnia and City banking frauds being publically revealed at the time. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-)became a global television franchise with CSI: Miami becoming the world’s most successful TV show. It has been suggested (Allen, 2007, pp8-10) that CSI was a prime example of the genre being “a marker of the crime-ridden age”, and reflecting a “national agenda of fear and paranoia”.  Allen posits that in America in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks left Americans reeling and craving reassurance and comfort, which the meticulous investigative work of the CSI forensic scientists provided. Allen’s view is certainly very plausible, however equally convincingly Turnbull questions the sub-genre’s ability to reflect societal concerns fully due to its focus on the trope of the corpse which “removes [its] murderous stories from their cultural contexts” (Allen, p 83), thereby detracting from any exploration of socio-economic conditions behind the crime itself. In any event, such was the impact of CSI that a new phenomenon amongst jurors was identified, ‘The CSI effect’, placing an increased burden upon prosecuting counsel to produce reams of forensic evidence, an example of the genre influencing society’s expectations of the justice system and perhaps hindering the achievement of justice for victims. However, one could also argue that if true, the CSI effect is a welcome development to ensure the accused’s right to a just and fair hearing. 

Reality crime TV as a sub-genre has been criticised for causing public fear and anxiety. Crimewatch with its crime appeals and reconstructions certainly frequently became a public talking point the day after screening. It could be said that ‘real-crime TV’ draws audiences into the genre as participants rather than mere observers, or as one scholar has aptly put it, ‘The TV citizen becomes a member of the police, the restorer of law-and-order’’ (Jermyn, 2007 p29). Jermyn also highlights concerns that crime drama has lead to an increase in public fear and anxiety (2007, p51). Scholars have been divided on this issue, Sparks in his insightful study, Television and the Drama of Crime argues that rather than causing public anxiety, and whilst producers may use public fears as a ‘hook’ in narratives, crime drama does not influence viewers’ perceptions of risk and danger as has often been suggested, but instead provides reassurance of threats being overcome and justice being upheld (p156), and this is certainly a valid point.

In conclusion, the development of the genre extends far beyond social commentary as it has evolved to meet the increasingly complex demands and expectations of its audiences for diversity and originality, to assuage their fears, and above all to engage and entertain. It has been suggested that the genre can never fully reflect society or its concerns in a neutral way due to the influence of the commercial need to attract audiences (Carlson, 1985 quoted in Sparks, 1992, p101), producers often having to strike a fine balance between social comment and providing entertainment. However, the genre’s narratives and characterisations frequently reflect the ‘imprint of their times’ successfully mutating to reflect diverse changes in society’s values and perceptions. In essence the success of the genre is largely attributable to the unique, entertaining and often unexpected ways it mirrors society and challenges social mores and prejudices.


  • Allen, M. (2007) Reading CSI: Crime TV Under the Microscope. London: I.B Tauris & Co Limited.
  • Brunsdon, C. (2013) “Television crime series, women police, and fuddy-duddy feminism’. Feminist Media Studies 13:3, 375-394, doi:10.1080/14680777.2011.652143.
  • Buonanno, M. (2017) ‘Television anti-heroines. Women behaving badly in Crime and Prison Dramas’ Bristol: Intellect.
  • Chapman, J. (2006). ‘Not ‘another bloody cop show’: Life on Mars and British Television drama. Film International issue 38 pp6-19
  • Clarke, A. (1986) ‘This is not the Boy Scouts’: Television Police Series and the Definitions of Law and Order. Popular Culture and Social Relations, Milton Keynes: Open University
  • Jermyn, D. (2009)‘Prime Suspect’ Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
  • McElroy, R. (2016) Contemporary British Television Crime Drama, London: Routledge.
  • Piper, H. (2015) The TV Detective, London: I.B. Tauris.
  • Schlesinger, P. and Tumber, H. ‘Fighting the war against crime: television, police and audience’. British Journal of Criminology, vol 33, no 1 pp19-32, 22.
  • Screen Education (1976) no 20, special issue on The Sweeney.
  • Sparks, R. (1992) ‘Television and the Drama of Crime: Moral Tales and the place of crime in public life’. Buckingham: Open University Press
  • Turnbull, S. (2014) ‘The TV Crime Drama’. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


  • Call the Cops, 02:30 13/08/2008, BBC4, 60 mins. https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/00AA8306 (Accessed 15 Nov 2018)


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