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Documenting the police

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03 December 2010

Raw Cut's Steve Warr on how he got the police to open up on camera for BBC access series Neighbourhood Blues

Napoleon said he preferred lucky generals to clever ones and for us at Raw Cut that certainly holds true for documentary access. It's not that we use generals – it's the luck that's important.

You can plot and plan ways to get access down to the finest of details, but without a degree of luck it often seems that this can just be work to fill the time. One phone call, one conversation, one e-mail - and a bad day can instantly be changed into a good one.

And the luck can be as much down to timing as it is to who you're actually speaking to. In our core area of blue light observational programming, it's amazing how people who don't want to speak to you month after month are then happy to give you the time of day - and more - when they realise they have something they're keen to promote or suddenly decide they'd like a national stage for their prized policies.

Dealing with the police is never easy. And just because they're not giving you a ticket on the side of the road or taking down particulars of a stolen phone or laptop doesn't make it any more cosy.

Not surprisingly, Britain's police service has its own agenda, its own set of values and, perhaps most importantly, its own unique view of the world.

This is further compounded by the fact that each police force differs from one another – and that each has strident views on one area in particular - The Media.

And as with many hierarchical organisations it's not the truth of the matter that's the prime focus - it's the perception.

It's one reason we're particularly pleased with our new series Neighbourhood Blues, due to air on BBC in Spring 2011.

Based on following the Neighbourhood Policing teams in Kent, it's an access series that took us more than two years to put in place. And recent events haven't exactly made it easy to keep the access on a level course.

Three factors in particular seemed to conspire against us – worth listing as they hold true for all access docs, from the AA to BP and beyond:

- Change of personnel at the very top of the organisation. Our access had been provisionally granted by the previous Chief Constable, who was champion of many of the innovations in his force's neighbourhood teams. Would his successor have the same enthusiasm - or would he want any media interest in his force to focus on another area?

- Change in external conditions. The recent Government cuts have caused much soul-searching in the public sector and many changes in the police service. There was a real danger the units we hoped to film with could have disappeared - they didn't.

- Change of perception caused by another show. We all know every production company is different and each channel has its own sensibilities, aims and ambitions which are reflected in the shows they champion. To the rest of the world, though, we're all the same. If an organisation feels let down by one show, in their minds all shows are out to stitch them up.

Luckily, we managed to weather all the problems thrown our way. And we've done this as a result of a combination of brilliant contacts, a great track record of similar access, and an awareness that just because you've worked hard getting the access, it doesn't mean that you shouldn't have to work any less hard keeping it.

All of which means, I suppose, is that in regards to getting access for shows, I'm less in sync with a defeated French Emperor and more in tune with the greatest American President, Thomas Jefferson, who said: "I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have."

Steve Warr, executive producer, Raw Cut (www.rawcut.tv)

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