A few weeks ago at PMQs, Keir Starmer joked that the government needed a Ted Hastings to sort out corruption. Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), is one of the central characters in the BBC police procedural Line of Duty. The show centres around an anti-corruption unit (AC-12) aimed at catching ‘bent coppers’, in particular those with links to organised crime. Police officers have been found to have links to murder, human trafficking, racism, exploiting a man with Down’s Syndrome, and much more.


Why we love Line of Duty

The show is loved by armchair detectives who try to work out what happens ahead of time. There have been all kinds of theories swirling around the internet as to the identity of the elusive ‘H’, who, (to the disappointment of some fans), turned out to be (spoiler!) the bumbling and incompetent Ian Buckells (Nigel Boyle). Some sharp-eyed fans even noticed a post-it note in the background, which suggested that Tommy Hunter (Brian McArdie) was both uncle and father to Joanne Davidson (Kelly MacDonald), before it was officially revealed in episode six. The show’s creator, Jed Mercurio, also likes to use specialist terminology that most of the audience would not immediately be familiar with (I don’t think I’m the only one who had to look up homozygosity!).

But I think we find the series thrilling for another reason. We simply enjoy watching corruption and depravity. Some of the most iconic ‘love to hate’ characters include Ryan (Gregory Piper) and Patricia Carmichael (Anna Maxwell Martin). In real life, the thought of police officers being murderers and gangsters would be terrifying. But since the audience knows (or perhaps hopes) that this does not reflect reality, they can relish the diabolical actions of Ryan and the sociopathic behaviour of Carmichael.

The show does seem to have caught a mood, though. In recent weeks, current and former prime ministers have been hit with allegations of sleaze. There has been much controversy over a Downing Street refurbishment, paid for by a Tory donor. (Although Boris Johnson claims he has paid for it himself). The fact that ‘H’ turned out to be nothing more than a greedy buffoon (sound familiar?) has also been taken as a not-so-subtle swipe at a certain Prime Minister.

It seems that these government scandals may be cutting through. The Conservatives’ lead in the polls has been cut from eleven points to as little as two points. Perhaps this is why Starmer and others have jokingly linked it with Jed Mercurio’s police drama.

Why some didn’t like The Crown

But our love of Line of Duty contrasts with how some reacted to another TV series — The Crown. Peter Morgan’s historical drama was widely watched (and not just in the UK), with its cast having received multiple awards. But some people reacted negatively to it (especially to the latest season). There was a great deal of unease about the way in which Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) was portrayed, particularly regarding his treatment of Princess Diana (Emma Corrin). The Netflix series portrayed the Prince of Wales as cruel and heartless in how he treated Diana. It showed her being left alone for months on end, to the point where she developed an eating disorder (something Diana admitted she suffered from in real life). It has also been reported that Prince Charles was appalled by the series. The Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, went as far as to write to Netflix, asking them to add a fiction warning (a request that Netflix declined).

The Problem

Line of Duty is fictional, whereas The Crown is partly based on reality and concerns people who are alive today. This may partly explain why some have been more uncomfortable about the latter. But I think there is more to it than that. For a start, Line is about police officers. In the last year, anti-police sentiment has (understandably) been strong against a backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests, the killing of Sarah Everard and the subsequent behaviour of the police at her vigil, together with the accusations that cops have overreached during lockdown.

The portrayal of corrupt, selfish and racist police officers in Jed Mercurio’s drama (there was a case in series 6 that seemed to be partly based on Stephen Lawrence) sits very easily with the current public mood — especially since it is fictional. But when the Royal Family (who are real people) are accused of racism and cruelty, whether that’s in The Crown or in the bombshell interview that Harry and Meghan gave to Oprah, we’re suddenly less comfortable. We can accept that ordinary people, especially police officers, might be flawed. But we romanticise the Royal Family and put them on a pedestal. Quite simply, we expect more from them than we do from our elected government.