Vice (The): The Complete Second Series AKA The Vice: Season Two (TV)
R1 - America - MPI Home Video
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (20th July 2008).
The Show


Produced by Carlton Television for broadcast on ITV, The Vice ran for five series, from 1999 to 2003. It focuses on the work of a team within London’s Vice Squad: street slang for the Vice Squad is ‘the vice’, and this is where the show’s title comes from. However, the title also has other meanings: the phrase ‘the vice’ refers to the specific vices (or sins) that its lead characters somewhat hypocritically both denounce and possess, and it also suggests pressure and containment—the ‘vice-like grip’ that the police try to exert upon the criminals but which the Vice Squad frequently find themselves trapped within, either due to the failure of their own moral compass, the displeasures of bureaucracy or the power of the villains they are chasing.

This second series of The Vice begins after one of the members of Detective Inspector Pat Chappel’s (Ken Stott) team, the young Dougie Raymond (Marc Warren), has been suspended pending investigation into his alleged sexual liaison with a known prostitute. Chappel blames himself for the situation that Dougie finds himself in: Chappel put Dougie into a position where he could be tempted. To make matters worse, some of Chappel’s colleagues see Chappel as responsible for Dougie’s predicament too. Dougie’s attempts to readjust and rebuild his life are intercut with the team’s investigations.


In an interview for The Register in November 2007 (titled ‘The TV Elite Has Lost the Plot’), respected documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis criticised modern British television for becoming homogenised and obsessed with soap opera-style storylines that shift the balance away from intellectual content onto emotional content. Curtis said that ‘TV now tells you what to feel. It doesn't tell you what to think anymore. From EastEnders to reality format shows, you're on the emotional journey of people’ (Orlowski, 2007: np). According to Curtis, modern British television dramas ‘gently suggests to you what is the agreed form of feeling [….] if you analyse television now it's a system of guidance - it tells you who is having the Bad Feelings and who is having the Good Feelings. And the person who is having the Bad Feelings is redeemed through a hugs and kisses moment at the end. It really is a system not of moral guidance, but of emotional guidance. Morality has been replaced by feeling’ (ibid.).

As an example, since 2002 the popular British crime series The Bill (ITV, 1984- ) has shifted its focus away from being a naturalistic police procedural which focuses on the business of solving and fighting crime (the first few series of The Bill could be compared to a US-produced show such as Hill Street Blues) and has developed into what is now referred to as an ‘occupational soap’. This change within The Bill began in 2002, when former Brookside (Channel 4, 1982-2002) producer Paul Marquess took control of the show and gradually replaced the writers and crew with veterans of the Channel 4 soap opera on which Marquess cut his producing teeth (see Newsome, 2007: np). Marquess also overhauled the production methodology, turning the show into ‘a a frantic soap production line’: writing for The Age in 2007, Brad Newsome asserted that ‘[w]here once there was solid, sensible police work that invariably resulted in the timely nicking of villains there was now a sordid world of sex, scandal and increasingly outrageous storylines’ (ibid.). In a radio documentary about the changes within the series, one of the actors on the show, Simon Rouse, commented on the growth of relationship-focused storylines within The Bill, joking that ‘It did get a bit frantic at one stage - even the coffee machines were looking at each other’ (quoted in ibid.).


I mention The Bill principally because one of the leading cast members of The Vice, Caroline Catz, made her name on that long-running series: between 1998 and 2000, she appeared as WPC Rosie Fox (her character was later promoted to Detective Sergeant). I have to admit that as a fan of The Bill during the 1990s, I tuned into The Vice largely because of the presence of Catz. The Vice doesn’t escape what Curtis outlines as the ‘trap’ of modern British television: as with much British television drama of this decade, there is an emphasis towards relationship-oriented storylines in which the viewer’s emotions are guided by the makers of the programme. For example, in the opening story, ‘Home is the Place’, it is quickly established that Chappel has romantic feelings towards his colleague Cheryl (Caroline Catz); this ongoing narrative developed throughout the next three series of the show, reaching a climax in series five. However, this is complicated when, during his trip to Sheffield, Chappel has a one-night stand with a woman who is later revealed to be part of the team assigned to Chappel in order to aid his investigation into the activities within the children’s home. Meanwhile, in ‘Betrayed’ DS Joe Robinson’s (David Harewood) developing relationship with an Eastern European prostitute precipitates the gradual breakdown of Robinson’s marriage.


Nevertheless, unlike many contemporary British drama series The Vice manages to strike a good balance between these relationship-focused narratives and the issue of the Vice Squad’s work. The way in which the series deals with the detectives’ relationship with the crimes they are investigating largely takes place within a moral grey area. In ‘Home is the Place’, a suspected child molester cuts too close to home for Chappel’s liking when he suggests that Chappel has such a puritanistic attitude because he’s afraid of his own deep-rooted sexual drives: ‘That’s frightening, isn’t it, what really turns you on’. To compound matters, the opening story begins with a very ambiguous sequence, showing someone picking up a prostitute and asking her age (she’s fifteen years old) before driving off with her in their car; the car pulls into an isolated location and the ‘punter’ obliquely threatens the young prostitute, telling her that because no-one saw her get in the car he could do anything with her. The tension builds until it is revealed that the driver is in fact DI Chappel; his apparent motive is to frighten the girl away from the world of prostitution, but the way in which he does this casts a grey shadow over the character, leading us to question his motives from the opening minutes of this second series onwards. In addition, the second story, ‘Walking on Water’, opens with Chappel sitting wide-eyed in front of a poledancer, and (as noted above) in ‘Betrayed’ DS Robinson becomes romantically involved with a prostitute who has been smuggled into the country from Eastern Europe. As the 19th Century satirist Reverend Sydney Smith once wrote about censors, ‘Men whose trade is ratcatching love to catch rats … and the suppressor is gratified by his vice’. This dilemma—the tension between the Vice Squad and the vice-related crimes that they investigate—runs throughout the series and makes the show a rich viewing experience.

Since the early 2000s, the Scottish actor Ken Stott seems to have been perpetually performing in British crime-based dramas, from Messiah (BBC, 2001- ) to Rebus (ITV, 2000- ). His brooding coppers suggest an attempt to channel the unreconstructed masculinity of the character of Jack Regan (John Thaw) in the classic modern crime show The Sweeney (ITV, 1975-1979): Stott’s coppers are men who aren’t afraid to drown their sorrows in whisky and don’t take counsel from the women in their lives. (After a key plot-point in ‘Walking on Water’, Chappel gets characteristically bladdered after drinking copious amounts of Scotch, and when Cheryl offers to engage in dialogue with him about his feelings Chappel instinctively pushes her away.) Stott is a powerhouse throughout much of this series, and according to one interview he gave in 2001 the appeal of the character lies in the fact that Chappel is ‘a weird policeman’ who is deeply flawed: ‘Showing a weakness can be attractive. Smokers haven't got the guts to give it up. And drinkers are weak because they can't do without it’ (Stott, quoted in Morin, 2001: en).


However, these characters can be something of a cliché nowadays, and The Vice sometimes relies heavily on the clichés of the genre: the haunted and conflicted senior detective who is hard-living, hard-working and especially hard-drinking; the copper who is alienated by his job, his private life a mess; the female detective who is trying to prove her mettle in a man’s world; the undercover policeman who begins to lose his grip on reality; the hooker with the heart of gold. These stereotypes are familiar, but The Vice mostly manages to use them in interesting ways. In The Independent, Robert Hanks commented that The Vice ‘doesn't transcend its stereotypes, or even enliven them much. But it does give them a plausibly grim and sordid gloss, permitting a sense that they represent the sorts of harm caused when sex is treated as a commercial good [….] It doesn't break new ground, but it covers the old ground with flair’ (Hanks, 2001: en).

The series is a street-level expose of the underbelly of London: its massage parlours, strip clubs, gambling dens and the culture of drugs and prostitution. In an article for The Sunday Herald in 2001, the journalist Carole Morin once said of The Vice ‘The series looks like soft porn with the sound down, and with the sound up it has the compelling quality of a home snuff movie’ (Morin, 2001: en). All of this calls to mind another quote from Sydney Smith, ‘What a pity it is that we have no amusements in England but vice and religion!’ Little has changed since the early-19th Century, it seems.


The Vice is frequently sensationalistic: it could perhaps best be described as a ‘tabloid drama’. The show also tips its hat to the ways in which modern British television drama has become infiltrated by the conventions of the soap opera, as evidenced through The Vice’s relatively heavy interest in the personal lives of its protagonists. However, this is kept in check by the way in which the show maintains a clear focus on the work of the titular Vice Squad, mostly refusing to get bogged down in the mire of its character’s personal relationships. In doing this, the show is also very compelling, thanks to its visual style and a driven lead performance from Ken Stott. Like Cracker (ITV, 1993-1996), The Vice is really a vehicle for its lead actor: Stott towers over The Vice in the same way that Robbie Coltrane towered over Cracker. As far as British television’s crime dramas of the 2000s go, I’d have to say The Vice is not quite at the top of the pile: the Ray Winstone vehicle Vincent (ITV, 2005-2006) is more satisfying, and in terms of the crime dramas that Stott has appeared in I would have to say that Rebus is my favourite. However, The Vice is very good, and it’s much better than most modern British television drama. It’s also perhaps worth noting that after series two, the two-part stories developed into single 90-minute dramas.


Episode Breakdown:
Disc One:

‘Home is the Place’: Part One (49:21)
‘Home is the Place’: Part Two (49:08)
Writer: Barry Simner, Director: Roger Gartland
Chappel’s team discover a child working as a prostitute in London. Chappel discovers that the girl is from a children’s home in Sheffield; and along with DS Joe Robinson, Chappel travels there to discover what led the girl to working as a prostitute in the capital city. In Sheffield, Chappel and Robinson discover a web of child abuse that affects not only the home’s current residents but also its former inhabitants.

‘Walking on Water’: Part One (49:44)
‘Walking on Water’: Part Two (50:00)
Writer: J. G. Wilshire, Director: Matthew Evans
The team investigate an illegal gambling den that is being run out of a pub. Working undercover, DS Robinson and DI Chappel try different methods of infiltrating the gang who are running the gambling den; their scam begins to pull together when they realise that their former colleague Dougie is already working for the gang, and they decide to use Dougie’s connections as a way in.

Disc Two:
‘Betrayed’: Part One (49:14)
‘Betrayed’: Part Two (49:05)
Chappel’s team raid a brothel that is run by a powerful man named John Harrison. The brothel specialises in providing its clients with the services of young women who have been smuggled into the country from refugee camps in Eastern Europe. However, the prosecution of Harrison doesn’t go to plan, thanks to Chappel’s leniency with the brothel’s madam (with whom Chappel has a past) and Robinson’s increasing attraction to one of the Eastern European ‘working girls’.

Disc Three:
‘Lovesick’: Part One (49:15)
‘Lovesick’: Part Two (49:48)
When a pimp is murdered, suspicion falls on DS Joe Robinson. Robinson has had a run-in with the pimp before, and Robinson’s increasing tendency for violence and aggression seem to make him the prime suspect. Chappel sets out to clear the name of his friend.

Video


The series is presented fullframe (4:3). If my memory serves me correctly, when the episodes were originally aired on British television they were shown in 4:3 on the analogue ITV channel and were broadcast in 16:9 on the digital ITV channel. Certainly, the repeats on ITV3 (a digital channel in the UK) are presented in 16:9. Nevertheless, the framing on this DVD release looks fine: there’s no evidence of cropping. From this, I would infer that the series was shot with the intention of being screened at 4:3 but with the option of ‘opening up’ the frame for 16:9 broadcast on the then-new digital channels.

Like many modern British drama series, The Vice was shot on DV. The DV aesthetic really adds to the ‘verite’ feel of some of the scenes and, especially, the location shooting: the brighter whites really pull out the contrast between the street lights/car headlights and the dark shadows of the London streets. There are no problems whatsoever with this DVD transfer, at least not to my eyes.

Audio

English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. Loud and effective, this track displays good use of ambient noise, especially in the scenes set on the street.

All of the episodes contain optional English subtitles.

Extras

There are no extra features.

Overall

This series of The Vice is a definite improvement over the first series, due to the ways in which the actors (and especially Ken Stott) seem to have grown into their roles. As noted above, the show frequently relies on clichés; but it deploys this clichés with panache, a strong pastiche of the style of the classic films noirs and a powerful central performance from Stott. Revisiting this series has made me appreciate it much more than I did when it was first broadcast, and this DVD release is a good recommendation for fans of crime-themed British television. So join the hard-drinking DI Pat Chappel for a tour through the sleazy underbelly of London.

Now, where’s my bottle of Grant’s….


References
Morin, Carole, 2001: ‘The Vice Man Cometh’ (interview with Ken Stott). The Sunday Herald (14 January): en

Hanks, Robert, 2001: ‘Television Review: The Vice’. The Independent (18 January): en

Brad Newsome, 2007: 'Who Killed the Old Bill?' The Age [Available Online.] link Accessed November 2007

Andrew Orlowski, 2007: 'Adam Curtis: The TV Elite Has Lost the Plot'. The Register [Available Online.] link Accessed November 2007



For more information, please see the website of MPI Home Video.

The Show: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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