For reasons yet to be reported I was in Paddington last week and, with time to kill, wandered to a point on the Grand Union Canal next to Saint Mary Magdalene Church. There, local history signage provided by Westminster City Council, told me that the church had been a location for a film called The Blue Lamp, almost all of which had been shot in the area.
Released in 1950, The Blue Lamp remains one of the most influential movies about London and London policing ever made. Although an Ealing Studios production, it was not one of their famous comedies. Rather, it documented the Met’s grappling with the capital’s post-war criminal subculture and reflected public disquiet about it. One of its heroes, PC George Dixon, played by Jack Warner, is gunned down by a young robber.
Five years later, Dixon was brought back to life for the weekly BBC policing drama Dixon of Dock Green, which ran for an extraordinary 21 years, until 1976. Set in the East End rather than the west of the city (though the fictitious Dock Green police station was in Ealing), it was a staple of British TV drama and Warner’s character formed a bedrock of the benign view of British policing – the honest, common sense, bobby on the beat who knew everyone in his home neighbourhood.
Each episode would start with Dixon breaking “the fourth wall” by speaking directly to the viewer to set the scene and end with moral sign off. His “Evening all” greeting became a popular catchphrase. Critics regarded the portrayal of policing in Dixon of Dock Green as idealised and sentimental, and by the 1970s the show was looking elderly next to grittier and faster-moving cop shows like Z Cars (set on Merseyside) and The Sweeney, about the Met’s flying squad. Meanwhile, parts of the real life Met of that time were rife with corruption, as BBC2’s astonishing Bent Coppers series shows.
Only 32 episodes of Dixon of Dock Green survive, and few of those available on YouTube capture the sense of place that helped form my sense of what London was like as a child growing up in a very different part of England. Wasteland, from 1970, filmed among ruined docks, is the best one I can find online. But The Blue Lamp is available as a DVD. It’s an essential piece of London film history.
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