Screened twice and then banned for fifteen years, Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill‘s Juvenile Liaison (1976, 97 mins.) embeds itself into the work of the Lancashire Constabulary’s juvenile liaison scheme. Adopted in 1968 this three person department worked with schools, social services, and parents with the purpose of keeping young offenders out of court. In the year prior to the film’s release, the police had recorded shy of a thousand cases. With delinquency at such levels the need for such a scheme is obvious, although the execution demonstrated is dubious.
Over the course we meet a succession of children whose crimes range from truanting and petty theft (felt pens and apples) to physical abuse. When a first time offence occurs all relevant bodies are informed and the police give the kids a good old talking to. Doing the talking are Sergeant Ray and Policewoman Mrs Brooks, both thrown into a role that they appear ill-equipped to manage. Ray drags one lad from bed when he refuses to come downstairs; Brooks equates a young girl’s swearing with sluttery. Poor questioning finds more tears than admissions of guilt. Yet enquiries continue, repetitive and directionless.
Ray’s methods in particular are excessive; he brings an excessive counter-productive bluster to the role that suggests Philip Glenister‘s turn as DCI Gene Hunt in Life On Mars may be a stingingly accurate portrayal of a 70s cop. Yet it seems acceptable at that time as others stand aside, complicit. The most horrible scene is one where his hulking figure looms over an increasingly terrified seven year old boy, interrogating him as if he’s some master criminal. The crime? A stolen cowboy suit.
At times it can be difficult to understand what’s being said. In some cases it’s the Northern brogue; in others it’s the murmuring through sobs; and sometimes the diagetic sounds overpowering. The microphone captures everything and there are no helpful subtitles to punctuate the less comprehensible moments. But there also comes of this an immediacy, a sense of being in the moment. There are a few nods to the directors’ presence — an aside here; a cigarette proffered there — but otherwise we are strictly observers.
With all the ineffective questions being asked of the kids’ misdemeanours, the one unspoken is why they are inclined to their crimes. The juvenile liaison scheme, as well-intentioned as it is, puts its emphasis on preventing court appearances in lieu of exploring the underlying problems. The police sound more like angry parents when speaking with the children, which is perhaps what they need; some parental interest. Although it sometimes feels that attention now is just too little too late.
Viewed now, Juvenile Liaison is a fascinating social document capturing an aspect of its time. Then, the scheme was adopted as a public relations exercise which, in part because of this documentary, turned into a disaster. However, the potential public debate that the film could have sparked about the scheme’s efficacy never happened. As it closes there is no mention of what happened next. That would come later, in 1990.