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'Public Enemies': probation and risk management

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Anna Friel & Daniel Mays in 'Public Enemies'Tony Marchant is one of Britain’s greatest TV scriptwriters (need convincing? - watch Holding On, BBC 1997) and the National Association of Probation Officers’s Harry Fletcher is one of the most media savvy probation professionals around, so what the hell went wrong with Public Enemies? It got off to a pretty good start in episode one and then threw it all away – fast-bowled it, in fact - for a formulaic and unconvincing "falling in love across class (and in this case professional) boundaries" storyline. Okay, so it didn’t get to a sexual relationship, but there were hard-to-miss tropes of Connie and Mellors and Cathy and Heathcliffe here. The English probation service has not been all that well served in movies and TV dramas – Hard Cases (ITV 1988) more or less nailed its “tough love” ethos, but crammed too much “action” into the lives of its officers - but it could absolutely have done without Public Enemies, given the turn it took.

True, the series did show what the modern managerialised service looks like – totally focussed on public protection, its staff little more than bureaucratic minions carrying out instructions, all a far cry from the commitment to helping and caring shown in Ealing Studio’s (1951) I Believe in You, in which a kindly ex-colonial officer turned probation officer advises, assists and befriends young delinquents in south London. And yes, the new series did make a lot of good points about the crazy and counter-productive aspects of contemporary risk management policies – Harry Fletcher, who acted as a consultant to the programme ensured that Paula (the probation officer) had some pertinent and poignant lines.

Most viewers, I think, would be at one with Paula when she recognises that by ramping up control and accountability with Eddie, an initially medium-risk offender released from prison who she is supervising, she was making his reintegration and resettlement in society harder than it should have been: “I’ve not solved a problem”, she self-recriminates when he kicks over the traces at a probation hostel, “I’ve created one”.

Internationally, over the years, the released ex-con has been a bit of a movie archetype, and in Public Enemies Eddie was in fact up there with the best, superbly drawn by Marchant and very well portrayed by Daniel Mays. As a vehicle for dramatising the stark professional tensions between risk management (always seeing the worst in someone) and being helpful (trying to foster the best in someone), Eddie’s actual innocence of the girlfriend murder he’d served ten years for wasn't a bad device either, because Marchant used it not just to throw up a personal and professional dilemma for the probation officer, but also to show up the iniquities of a legal system whose defence lawyers don’t care one way or the other whether their clients are guilty, so long as they get the legal aid rate for the job.

The series really didn’t have to take the ridiculous turn it did. A drama about a conscience-stricken probation officer who simply feels she has to do the right thing by a vulnerable and wronged client in the midst of insane and counter-productive "procedures" would have been an appealing way of depicting the travails of the contemporary probation service, enabling Paula to make all the sharp criticisms she made of risk management, and say all the good things she said about what the service used to be like - but coming to believe in Eddie’s innocence did not mean she had to fall for him too.

"Person of conscience vs the system" is as much an established dramatic format as "love across class boundaries" (more commonplace, in fact) and if Public Enemies could have built itself round this, even if the result had still been a tad clichéd, it would have done far greater service to the front line staff of today’s probation service than its actual storyline did.

The audience actually got the worst of all depictions here – a probation officer who too easily and trustingly abandoned risk management procedures that are sometimes necessary, but who at the same time couldn't uphold authentic professional concern for a client without getting too personally involved. “I’ve seen the way you look at me, Paula”, the lugubrious Eddie says to her, dolefully. What the lovely Anna Friel – for it was her, playing Paula – should have said at that point was “Dream on, kid” and gone home to her partner, but, as it was, her heart was all a-flutter, and the last we see of this odd couple, after she has been sacked for unprofessionalism, is in a prison visiting room, cooing over their prospects together now that his conviction has been quashed.

Given this twist in the story, the otherwise spot-on casting now seemed awry: Daniel Mays, otherwise impressive as a man tentatively tasting freedom after ten years without it, just didn’t look plausible as an incipient love interest – one could see why Paula would genuinely pity Eddie, but not why she'd fancy him - and so she seemed a very diminished character at the end, a fool not because she was principled enough to lose her job, but because she was stupid enough to throw in her lot with a hapless loser.

The perfectly fine (but latent) premise of the series, that people of integrity and humanity might have some difficulty surviving in the modern probation service, should have been rammed home at the end but in fact got dissolved in sub-Mills and Boon mush. Who, by the end, would have been reflecting on what Paula had said about probation’s fall from its glory days, or thinking about the subtle, sinister implications of the series’ title, the hint that it may not just be the offenders under supervision who are the “public enemies” – if they are at all - but the new risk-driven probation service which so callously makes them worse?

Mike Nellis, Emeritus Professor of Criminal and Community Justice, Law School, University of Strathclyde.

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