24 Hours in Police Custody: Channel 4’s latest fixed-rig documentary makes for compelling viewing

by Matt D
DC Martin Hart

DC Martin Hart

Channel 4’s fixed rig documentaries have produced some of their most critically acclaimed programmes and have additionally shone a light on the brilliant work done by Brits in a number of professions. The Educating series has shown how far teachers go to make sure every pupil succeeds, whilst the staff of the NHS have been positively showcased in 24 Hours in A&E.

Last night, 24 Hours in Police Custody shone a light on the staff at Luton Police Station as they work against the clock in order to either charge or release those they’ve arrested.

The programme’s unique quality is the fact that we are regularly reminded of the time throughout each episode as a marker shows us just how long the police can detain the suspect. This particular tactic put me on the edge of my seat as the camera frantically pointed to watches and clocks that were in the vicinity of the interview room. Furthermore, the tense backing music added to this sense of urgency as everybody in the room realised that the time to charge their suspect was running out. It was due to these reasons that at times I felt like I was watching a thriller rather than a documentary about a police station near an airport. In fact, if the time cues had appeared on screen more often I would’ve expected to see Jack Bauer appear and forcefully interrogate the suspect that was in custody at Luton Police Station.

Instead of Bauer, our unlikely hero was DC Martin Hart who had just arrived back to work after an enjoyable holiday in Las Vegas. Hart informs us early on that he used to be a holiday rep in Magaluf and joined the force due to the fact that he’d already dealt with fights and drunkenness in his previous job. The repping experience also seems to have given Martin the gift of the gab as we see him conversing with the suspect about rugby interviews in order to put him at ease. Martin is definitely a down-to-Earth chap and is as home showing photos of his recent trip as he is when he’s coolly questioning a suspect.

Martin’s partner-in-crime in this first episode is DC Gary Hales who, on first impressions, looks like a science teacher rather than a policeman. Neither Hart nor Hales particularly looked like a stereotypical policeman and I don’t think either man would be cast in the next ITV detective drama. But I feel that’s what makes them so endearing with Hales in particular making me giggle when he squeezed a rubber chicken at the end of the episode, claiming it to be ‘The Cock of Justice’.

Custody ep1

This first episode focuses on Mr Baig; a potential conspirator in a case which saw an attempted murder end in a man being shot in the leg and as a result sustaining some life-altering injuries. The shooting itself was highly-publicised at the time which is illustrated by the fact that a Crimewatch reconstruction was produced in order for witnesses to come forward. The programme goes out of its way to document the routine in which every suspect is booked into custody including the questions they’re asked and the breakfast options they are given. One of the things I liked about this episode was the amount of time it spent hearing from Mr Baig’s solicitor Mr Malik…

Throughout the course of the episode, Mr Malik is unwavering in his belief that somebody who’s as respected in the community as his client is would never be involved in such a crime. His philosophy of ‘when in doubt, say nout’ results in Mr Baig flinging a barrage of ‘no comment’ in the direction of Hart’s interrogation. The interview scenes were undoubtedly some of the documentary’s most intense and that was partly due to the brilliant camerawork.

Just like with the rest of these documentaries; 24 Hours in Police Custody uses its many cameras in order to further involve the audience in the action. The programme shows footage of a variety of suspects pacing up and down in their cells as well as the various antics that happen in the custody suite. But what I found to be the most interesting part of the footage was the close-ups on Mr Baig’s face as the interview went on. When he first entered the interview room, the suspect was a calm and collected customer who confidently dealt out his ‘no comments’ to every one of Hart and Hales’ questions.

However, as more evidence came to light the camera closed in on his head movements and later we saw him twitching quite substantially. These camera angles really made me question the validity of the suspect’s statements and whether or not it was an indicator of his guilt. I think that these close-ups gave an interesting insight into the way the body reacts when we’re under suspicion and I felt they added to the overall intensity of the documentary.

Custody Channel 4

I was on the edge of my seat for the majority of Mr Baig’s interrogation and was thoroughly compelled by Hart and Hales’ questioning. Where I felt the episode fell down was in documenting what happened in the months following the events that had gone before. Although I realise that highlights of the court case were a necessary evil, I still thought that the pace lagged once we’d left the confines of the station. That being said it was interesting to see the case go full circle and especially to hear the reactions from all who had been involved up to that point. What I did enjoy was the small segments involving the Custody Sergeant and the other various ne’er-do-wells she had to endure during her shift. These segments split up the programme a little bit and provided some measure of light relief in between the more heavy investigation scenes.

Ultimately 24 Hours in Police Custody definitely felt like it fit in to Channel 4’s already expanding family of fixed-rig documentaries. The majority of the narrative was intense with the time-checks adding a sense of immediacy to proceedings which in turn made the episode incredibly compelling. More importantly it shines a light on the good work that the police do and has showcased some incredibly likeable detectives particularly the effervescent DC Martin Hart. I’m just hoping that Hart appears in every episode and that the rest of the cases in this series are as compelling as the one we saw tonight.

What did you think to 24 Hours in Police Custody? Is it another factual hit for Channel 4?

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