A Point of View: The face of the law

(left to right); Jack Warner in the TV series Dixon of Dock Green; railway pickets and police at Euston Station in London during the railway strike; cartoon featuring a line of policemen in beards striking terror into the hearts of the local children, entitled, 'The Police wear Beards and Moustaches - Panic Among The Street Boys'; Police attempt to hold the picket line at the Grunwick photo-processing Laboratory in Willesden, London, in 1977
Image caption The fictional PC Dixon and a line-up of real police officers throughout the years (photos: BBC/Getty)

What sort of personality - and what sort of shape - do we want our policemen ideally to have? Historian David Cannadine looks at the popular perception of the British bobby over the years.

There's been some recent discussion about the high levels of obesity allegedly existing among the police, and according to some statistics, over half of those employed in London, for example, are significantly overweight, and nearly a quarter are seriously overweight. It's also emerged that while those joining the police must pass an initial fitness test, no such examinations are undertaken at any later stage in their careers.

For those who believe it's the job of policemen to be ready, willing and able to run after criminals, or to pursue them up drainpipes and across rooftops and to demonstrate above average reserves of stamina and endurance, the revelations of such widespread obesity are disturbing.

Too many of our police, this survey suggests, are simply not up to unrelenting physical demands of the job.

It may be true and regrettable that many of our police are overweight, but it's worth asking why and how this state of affairs has come about: perhaps it's because they work long hours, which means they don't have the time to get any serious exercise, or to eat regular, healthy meals, but have to make do with junk food instead.

It might also be argued that in a country where there are constant calls for the police to be more typical of the population as a whole, and where a growing percentage of Britons are deemed to be unacceptably obese, a constabulary which boasts a high proportion of overweight employees should be celebrated for being representative rather than deplored for being fat.

And our force isn't unique in employing a high proportion of obese officers. The same criticisms have been made in recent years about their colleagues in Los Angeles and New York.

There's also a broader issue: namely, what sort of personality - and what sort of shape - do we want our policemen ideally to have? There was a time when many people regarded their local bobbies as reliable, trustworthy, avuncular and friendly, and unlike today, they didn't complain if, in addition, the men on the beat were also a bit overweight.

Such, at least, was the view put forward in a music hall song called The Laughing Policeman, written by Mabel Penrose and first recorded by her husband Charles in 1922.

It opens with these lines:

I know a fat old policeman

He's always on our street.

A fat and jolly red-faced man

He really is a treat.

As such, the laughing policeman embodied the widespread opinion, dating from the 18th Century, equating thinness with hunger and meanness, but linking mirth with girth, as in the adage, laugh and grow fat.

In fact, there's a venerable tradition of regarding the British policeman as a friendly figure, smiling and chuckling, who was decent, helpful and incorruptible - and while he was not over bright, he was often (and much more reassuringly) overweight.

Many of those characteristics were caught in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, which sent up the conventions of Victorian melodrama by pitching West country pirates against the local police force.

The chorus of pirates consisted of tenors, who were energetic and vigorous. By contrast, the policemen sang in a much lower register, and Sullivan first introduced them with a ponderous double bass passage as slow, lumbering plodders, who were neither svelte of figure nor fleet of foot; and they were commanded by a sergeant with a deep bass voice, who in many productions boasted an ample waistline to match.

But the uniformed police hadn't always been regarded in so affectionate a light. The origins of the modern British constabulary date back to 1829, when the London Metropolitan Police was created by the Home Secretary Robert Peel which explains why the men in blue were initially known as Peelers, and why to this day they are often called bobbies.

During the 1830s and 1840s, police forces were established across the country, under the control of the local authorities rather than the Home Office. Yet in these early decades, policemen were widely disliked, by middle class radicals who deplored them as the sinister embodiment of an alien and continental authoritarianism, and by members of the working class, who regarded the police as spies and snoopers, interfering in the private lives and traditional recreations of ordinary people.

From this perspective, the police were widely derided as blue devils, or blue bottles or blue locusts.

Yet from the beginning there was also an alternative and more appreciative view of the constabulary, as the impartial enforcers of the law, as the guardians of public order, and as the acceptable face of authority.

By the last quarter of the 19th Century, this had become the prevailing opinion, which Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance may have helped reinforce.

During the inter-war years, this attitude became even more marked. Crime rates were lower than in the mid-19th Century, and the British police were widely regarded as being the best and the most decent in the world.

Image caption Jack Warner, promoted to Sergeant Dixon, in the long-running TV series Dixon of Dock Green

They were unarmed, they were apolitical, and they were not the agents of central government, which meant they were very different from, and were greatly to be preferred to, their brutal, gun-carrying counterparts in Nazi Germany or in Communist Russia, or even their colleagues in France or the United States.

The most enduring celebration of that affectionate view of the British police force came after World War II, in the form of the long-running television series Dixon of Dock Green, starring Jack Warner, which ran for more than four hundred episodes between 1955 and 1976. Developed from an earlier crime film entitled The Blue Lamp, the programmes were set in east London, where the widowed PC George Dixon was a pillar of his local community, and where he was widely liked, admired and respected.

The crimes he dealt with were generally petty and non-violent, his local police station was a sort of extended family, and the series was pervaded by a benevolent tone of kindliness, decency and goodness, well caught in the opening sequence, when PC Dixon saluted the viewers spoke directly to camera and uttered his familiar catch-phrase "Evening all", which he rounded off at the end of each programme by saying "Goodnight all".

Unlike The Laughing Policeman, George Dixon was far from being overweight, but by the early 1970s, he was certainly over age and increasingly slow on his feet. By then, he'd long since outlived his time and his ethos, and the growing demand for more gritty, relevant, realistic and up to date police dramas, had already been met with a very different series, Z Cars, which had first premiered in 1962.

It dealt with more violent and aggressive crimes as well as with contemporary social problems and issues. It took for granted that many policemen were unattractive characters and that some of them seemed little better the criminals they pursued. It also recognised that in the very changed climate of the 1960s, it was no longer convincing to depict policeman as benevolent, paternal, avuncular, incorruptible or with a loud laugh and a strong sense of humour.

As such, Z Cars was the forerunner of many realistic police series, ranging from The Sweeney to The Bill, which explored a darker side of life that did not exist - or hadn't been addressed - in the days of Dixon of Dock Green.

It's difficult to know whether this tougher and more controversial image of the police that's been conveyed on television in recent decades reflects public opinion, or moulds it. The figures suggest that crime levels in this country have been going down over the last 30 years and that may help explain why popular attitudes towards the police have apparently become more favourable. But there's been no going back to the cosy world of Dixon of Dock Green or the Pirates of Penzance.

At the end of the 1990s, in the British film The Full Monty, set in depressed and de-industrialising Sheffield, a group of redundant steelworkers, who resolved to earn some money as male strippers, began their routine wearing police uniforms, in a suggestive parody of Gilbert and Sullivan's plodding constabulary. And by the time they had taken off all their clothes, it emerged, as if in inadvertent anticipation of recent statistics, that at least one of their number was seriously overweight.