As long as there’s been civilization, there have been morality plays, the many extrapolations and treatises exploring the rights and wrongs of how we live our lives. While the police procedural has taken many shapes throughout the years (the latest variation of which heavily relies on crime scene forensics), the very best always keep real and decent people at the heart of them. Why? Well, in my opinion it’s because real people make mistakes, and decent people strive to make sure everyone learns something from these errors. Such is the case with WPC 56, a kinda/sorta coming-of-age drama for the mid-50’s which happens to use the narrative gimmick of ‘the first woman constable’ with which to unravel several yarns.
And it does so quite winningly.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of person who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “Set in England’s West Midlands in 1956, WPC 56 follows determined Gina Dawson (Jennie Jacques), the first woman police constable to serve in her hometown, as she struggles to gain acceptance in the male-dominated world of policing. Allocated a broom closet for her office without a phone in case she chats on it all day and ordered to make endless cups of tea ‘so the men can get on with the real job of policing,’ Gina’s resolve is tested to the limits. Sometimes dismayed by the patronizing sexism, bullying, corruption and racial prejudice that she encounters every day, Gina remains undaunted and sets out to prove her worth, make a difference and earn some respect.”
Surely – based on that description alone – you’ll probably have a solid idea as to whether or not WPC 56’s period piece storylines appeal to you or not, but I’ll try to give you what I believe are the two single best reasons to give these discs a spin.
First, Jennie Jacques is a revelation. She brings a kind of sure-eyed realism to the role, as if her character knows full well what she’s getting into and is fully prepared for the emotional ups-and-downs of it all. Despite the obstacles littering her every turn, she rises to whatever occasion presents itself again and again – be it the obvious sexism of the men around her or the tedious criticisms of society at-large – and she presents Dawson not so much as a woman in pursuit of shattering glass ceilings so much as she is a hardworking soul who only wants to make an impact in doing what’s right, a position that may not always involve following the letter of the law, procedure, or even moral of the time.
Second – and serving as a pretty pitch perfect counterpoint to Jacques’ Dawson – Charles De’Ath stars as Sgt. Sidney Fenton, a somewhat chauvinistic beast common to the era who can be as lewd and crude as he needs to be to (also) get the job done. More often than not, Fenton bends protocols as far as needed – he browbeats subjects into confession and strong-arms his way through circumstances which would today require much greater restraint – and even when he’s shown to the audience to be crossing a line viewers eventually learn it may not be so terrible as they’re initially lead to believe. Yes, breaking a law is breaking a law, but Fenton occasionally shows there’s a heart beating under that gruff exterior, and that was a welcome find to a role otherwise presented as entirely stereotypical.
Unfortunately, Series One is only a slim five episodes long; and given the writers’ penchant for exploring some of the more soapish elements of the various plotlines, both Dawson and Fenton aren’t given as much characterization as I would’ve liked to have seen. They’re given just enough to rise above the assorted clichés of the material – even though Fenton inevitably consents to the merits of having a female constable on-the-job, he never quite accepts Dawson in that role, nor stops trying to make work difficult for her. As much as I ended up enjoying these 229 minutes for what they were, I would’ve loved to have seen much, much more. Still, it’s a grand starting point, even though the series’ main premise ends up being a bit convoluted and theatrical by its big finish.
WPC 56: SERIES ONE (2013) is produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by BFS Entertainment. As for the technical specifications? This is one smartly assembled period drama brought to life with exacting detail … and it looks terrific from start-to-finish. Sadly, there is no English-subtitles track for those of us who occasionally experience difficulty with the multitude of accents, but it is what it is. Also – even more sadly – there are no special features to speak of, a definite miss for such a charming property.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. There are some small moments in WPC 56 when the humor and musical score choice seem a bit out-of-place (i.e. light, comic tune tracking a relatively serious subject matter); while it doesn’t happen often, it does happen with some consistency, enough that would make me question whoever was put in charge of that task. However, the lovely Jennie Jacques delivers a terrific leading performance as the woman up to the task of being the first female police constable, so much so you’ll find yourself rooting for her even when she’s making a less-than-perfect decision. Very family friendly.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at BFS Entertainment & Multimedia Ltd. Provided me with a DVD copy of WPC 56 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.