I finally had a chance to watch the PBS program Secrets of Scotland Yard today. The Husband and I had stumbled on the end of the program a few weeks ago and I found it again on Netflix. Since it was raining and I finally had a Saturday home alone, I went ahead and clicked play.
The program details the history of Scotland Yard from its foundation in the early 1800s to the present. Rather than detail dry facts, the documentary uses a series of famous investigations undertaken by the London Metropolitan Police to tell its story.
The Met was founded during a time of social unrest towards the beginning of the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution was ramping up, and the rapid influx of people moving to London from the countryside caused a similarly steep increase in crime. The ruling classes were worried that the accompanying social unrest would boil over into violent revolution similar to the French Revolution just a few years prior. The Met was founded purely to deter crime, so much so that for the first few years of its existence, it was prohibited by law from trying to solve any crime that had already been committed. The Met’s leadership broke the law and trained its first detectives in secret. After a failed attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria, the Met was given investigative powers, and the modern Metropolitan Police force was born.
The cases that the documentary covers in depth reveal how the Met and its detectives adapted to use new investigation techniques in order to apprehend London criminals. I found some of the cases to very surprising, so I almost feel like discussing any one of them in depth here would be spoiling things for you. The common thread that connects the cases is that the Met embraced forensic science and technology almost from its inception. As scientific knowledge advanced, the Met kept up with the times, adding a massive fingerprint division, a fleet of police cars called the Flying Squad, and state-of-the-art communication systems.
The program is not in any way an exposé piece. It leaves out anything that could be considered critical of the Met. For example, I know that there are mixed feelings among the public about the UK’s extensive CCTV network. The network is shown in action here, but the show doesn’t talk about the fact that it is controversial. Covering both sides of issues or dishing dirt on the police is just not the mission of this program. It’s still a good introduction to the history of one of the most famous police forces in the world.
This film is part of the Secrets of Britain series, which includes titles like Secrets of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Secrets of the Tower of London, and Secrets of Underground London. I’ll definitely watch more shows in this series!
If you’re interested in fiction flavored with the history and culture of Met, here are some suggestions from the media I have consumed over the years:
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories
- Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series featuring police constable and apprentice wizard Peter Grant
- Paul Cornell’s James Quill novels, a dark fantasy series about a supernatural detective squad
- The acclaimed crime drama Prime Suspect, starring Helen Mirren
- Several of Terry Pratchett’s novels feature the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, the Discworld’s counterpart of the Met.