Behind the badge

The Force, a three-part doc series directed by Patrick Forbes for Channel 4, gains incredible access to reveal the behind-the-scenes workings of a British police constabulary. Here, Forbes discusses the challenges of bringing real-life law enforcement to the TV screen.
November 1, 2009

From the classic Prime Suspect and Cracker series, to the recent Life on Mars, police dramas have been a coveted staple of British television. And there have been plenty of factual counterparts – documentaries and reality series which aim to reflect the real life drama of life on the beat. But nevertheless, a feeling persists among law enforcement, filmmakers and the public at large that real life cops bear little resemblance to their dramatic counterparts.

Veteran British director Patrick Forbes, head of docs at London-based Oxford Film & Television, set out some four years ago on a path he hoped would change this imbalance, by making a short access-driven documentary series about one police force. But the initial idea for The Force, intriguingly, didn’t come from Forbes himself. In 2001 he had made a documentary series called The Real Cracker, which in fact highlighted many of the dysfunctions of the police it covered. Some years later Forbes received a call from his main contact in that series, who had subsequently been promoted. Much to Forbes’ surprise, the contact invited him to film the Hampshire Constabulary.

‘When I’d picked myself up off the floor I asked, ‘Why?” recalls Forbes. ‘He said, ‘Well, because you’re not like all the others – you’ll do the reality.’ I said, ‘Fine, I’d love to do the reality [but] I don’t want you to mess me around.’ Because police have a habit of messing documentary makers around.’

In fact, while securing a commission from Simon Dickson at Channel 4 was relatively quick – he was on board within a month – negotiating the access with the Hampshire Constabulary took a year. ‘The police are becoming incredibly fierce on access agreements these days and trying to gain more and more control, and I was determined that it had to be for real,’ maintains Forbes.

After the access agreement was finally signed, with the requisite control that Forbes needed, the next battle was convincing those inside to cooperate – a painstaking process which took another nine months. ‘You just had to spend your entire time going around convincing people it was going to be okay – they weren’t going to be stitched up,’ recalls Forbes. ‘The key to that was first, people inside the force advocating it and second, being very clear what you’re about.’ Forbes says that it helped that rather than saying he wanted to observe ‘everything’ he said he specifically wanted to follow a murder investigation, an arson case and a riot (which was later changed to a rape unit).

The first and most compelling installment of the three-part series is the murder mystery, which follows a resource-intensive investigation launched after an anonymous burnt body was found abandoned in a field. The film begins from inside the tent set up around the body – a deliberate move that symbolized the inside access allowed to the film crew, as opposed to most British news stories that focused on the tent from outside.

Getting ‘inside the tent’ was not a quick process – Forbes had six rotating crews on standby for months waiting for a murder in the sleepy rural region. ‘There had been a bit of a murder drought in Hampshire,’ says Forbes. ‘They’d had one murder of an old lady which happened on a weekend and her family were desperate to avoid publicity. So we left that one, and were waiting around, waiting around. One of the lessons I learned is you can’t predict murderous behavior.’

When the murder investigation did take off, it led to a packed two months of filming which were, according to Forbes, the most intensive of his life. ‘That’s the joy of documentary making, when it suddenly catches fire, and you’re there,’ he says. ‘But it was intensely grueling and intensely unpleasant. And I eventually ended up offering therapy to the crew that filmed the body on the first day.’

A documentary purist in some ways, Forbes kept himself strictly out of the picture, as he has with his award-winning series such as The National Trust and English Heritage. ‘Documentaries in recent years have got a bit messy and fuzzy and more about the filmmakers than their subjects,’ he muses. ‘It’s all [about] the witty aside, or ‘Here’s my clever question’ or ‘Here’s my interesting character study.’ But actually the people are the interesting thing, not the person behind the camera. The British public isn’t turning up to watch Patrick Forbes’ ugly mug; they want to see the reality of the situation.’

Indeed, the reality of the situation as seen in The Force proved in many ways just as compelling as police dramas, while some elements proved almost farcical. As investigators at the final hour sought permission from the Crown Prosecution Service to charge their suspect with murder, the entire investigation was nearly brought down by a computer firewall which blocks messages with the word ‘sex,’ a situation so ludicrous it is hard to imagine it taking place in a drama, but which made for a nail-biting sequence in the film.

While Forbes was determined to show the reality of police work rather than the glamour, his directing in the edit cannot be considered cinema verité. The series is quite stylized, mimicking elements of famous police dramas. ‘You can’t ignore the great lineage of fantastic dramas and films that have been made about the things we were filming so we thought we might as well celebrate it,’ says Forbes. ‘From The Boston Strangler on, everyone has used split screens, and we thought we’d go there. And equally my composer [Justin Nicholls] splits his time between feature films and docs, and he said, ‘Look, we’re in a parallel situation so let’s go for it.’ It might not be to everyone’s taste but at least you’re having a stab at something.’

Forbes is proud of the look and feel of the series, having enjoyed shaping its distinctive style. ‘The odd thing about documentaries in Britain is they’re not very directed,’ he says. ‘Being a director is one of the most fun things you can do on the planet, so you might as well direct something as opposed to let it happen and leave it like radio with the lights on.’

Typical of making films in this day and age in the UK, legal and compliance paperwork took an enormous amount of time. ‘It was absolutely huge,’ says Forbes. ‘You can’t exaggerate the amount of preparation that you should go into. It’s a real error not to do it. I would say almost 50% of the production team’s time was dealing with legal issues.’ Of course, much of the dilemmas stemmed from filming suspects who may be innocent. ‘It looked like at one stage, we spent our entire time filming a guy accused of murder and he was either going to be released or alternatively he was going to get off. I don’t think there’s a bigger libel in the world than accusing someone of a murder that he might not have committed.’ The libel threat was removed in dramatic fashion when the suspect, a spurned lover of the victim who was caught lugging a body-filled suitcase on CCTV, killed himself in jail while awaiting trial.

In the end, Forbes crafted the murder episode into a 90-minute film without commentary, a difficult sell at Channel 4, which Dickson fought for. The second two hour-long films were not nearly as neatly resolved as the opening murder episode. The messiness appeals to Forbes, who leaped at the chance to cover a detective struggling to solve an arson case which had long grown cold. ‘That’s why we wanted to follow it – to see him grappling with the reality of a poisoned chalice, to see something where you might not get a result. Fifty percent of crimes in Britain go unsolved. And again, you’d never get that from watching telly; you’d think everything was solved.’

Another crucial element in the series’ success is the generous timeline allowed by Channel 4 – altogether, The Force was four years in the making. At a session at the Sheffield Doc/Fest, Dickson acknowledged that the wait was difficult. ‘You were very much in control of the point we took delivery of it,’ he told Forbes. ‘It did seem to go on an interminable period of time.’ Still, Forbes is unrepentant. ‘As a documentary maker, you’ve got to hang out for the right moment,’ he offers. ‘And I think not hanging out for the right moment, or racing for a transmission slot means that you end up with something that isn’t the reality of what you set out to do. So you have to tough it out.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.