Review By Edward Kellett
If the early 00s was a constant rollercoaster ride, then returning to the mid-80s means getting used to a gentler pace. Woodentop, the pilot episode that started it all, was one of a series of standalone plays produced by Thames under the umbrella title Storyboard, and by no means the only one to spawn a successful programme. Each episode immerses the viewer in a different world, and the story takes its time to make that world seem real. We get a montage of shots of Jimmy Carver’s flat, his uniform hanging neatly on the door ready to be worn for the first time, while the birds tweet outside. The episode takes place at the height of summer and there is a real effort to bring across the sense of stifling heat, with officers fanning themselves in the station. The impact of the heat is especially obvious in that brief but gruesome moment where the dead body is found in the bath: a blackened arm hanging out of brown water, no doubt well-ripened over the past few weeks. The overall production is theatrical in some ways but forward-looking in others. The interiors of Sun Hill are clearly studio sets, surrounded by painted backcloths – yet at the same time, the dynamic hand-held camerawork that typified the show is already there, as is the naturalism of the dialogue. Foreground and background actors overlap their lines and you realise quickly that you’re not meant to hear every word, rather to absorb the feel of these people’s day to day conversations.
The location filming is more sparing than it was on the series proper, but is notable for two very long tracking shots of Carver on the beat, accompanied first by June Ackland and then by Dave Litton. The first in particular runs to a good ninety seconds, which is odd to look back on now in a time when many scenes don’t even reach the sixty second mark. These scenes are given space for a reason, however; they contrast Carver’s optimism with the jaded attitudes of his colleagues, and hint at what he has let himself in for. Ackland and Litton may have no time for each other, but you see their equal resentment at being on puppy walking duties and how they have become hardened by the job. Litton, especially, sees the community policing that Carver values so much as “a mug’s game” and is desperate to join CID, something that becomes amplified in the first season, where he turns into an excitable child whenever Galloway shows up. Carver himself is an interesting mixture, in that in some ways he is a traditionalist, believing in old-fashioned policing methods, but in others he is an open-minded liberal. He believes in giving people a chance and trying to reach out to the community, while also giving kids a clip round the ear like in the old days. He becomes the gateway into the wider world of the show, the plots being driven by his naivety and inexperience. Twice he tries to do the right thing and lays himself open to disciplinary charges, and in between his first ever collar is sprung from jail because, in the words of Cryer, “Sometimes we need to play silly buggers.”
Despite the recasting and renaming that occurred in the transition to The Bill, the core line-up when Series 1 begins is basically the same as in Woodentop. At the heart is the triangle of Carver and the two heavyweights, Wilding/Cryer and Galloway, both fighting their corner for uniform and CID respectively. Then you have the other PCs, Ackland, Litton and Morgan/Edwards, all playing important supporting roles, while everyone else is on the periphery. The woodentop/superstar rivalry is played up so much that it comes across as a tribal war, and it would be interesting to know how much of this came from Geoff McQueen’s research into the real force. At times it feels like Cryer and Galloway are battling for Carver’s soul, like Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger as the angel and the devil on Charlie Sheen’s shoulders in Platoon – only with less drug-taking and fragging and more quiet chats in the briefing room. Interesting to note, however, that in the long term Galloway wins, because having said at the outset that he wanted to remain in uniform, Carver joins CID and departs completely from his ideals of trying to prevent crime, rather than solve it. My impression of Carver from watching episodes on TV in the mid-90s was how hard and cynical he was – a world away from the wide-eyed innocent we see here. As in Woodentop, his idealism is contrasted with the varying rates of cynicism among his colleagues, who find his earnest demeanour either amusing or irritating. Edwards is a joker who takes nothing seriously, while Litton can’t hide his disdain for Carver’s social work approach. There’s a telling moment when he gets his posting to CID and is bemused that Carver wants to congratulate him, even though they are hardly on good terms.
June, meanwhile, is a more conflicted character. She clearly has her doubts over the job, which come to the fore halfway through the series, but she also admires Jim’s positive outlook and agrees to help him reopen a youth club for kids on an estate. There’s a scene in which they walk down a street, laughing at Litton’s description of her “eating probationers for breakfast”, where the two characters already have such good chemistry that it could easily come from the 90s or 00s. It was always said that the personal lives of the characters were off limits, but at this early stage, it seems to me that the programme makers aren’t ruling out the possibility of a romance, nor are they trying to angle the story in that direction either. It’s simply left open as another option if they chose to explore it. This could also explain why, having established early on how much June hates Dave – “If being a bigot and a racist are good qualifications for a detective, he should do fine” – the series does a complete about-turn towards the end, having them plan a date only for him to stand her up. Perhaps they always had something and were going through a bad patch at the start of the show, but June doesn’t strike me as the kind of woman who would bitch about someone at work because of a relationship going sour. Even in the first episode, she has such a reassuring presence – when she asks a couple who have been victims of mugging to come with her to try and spot the perpetrators, you think, that’s the sort of police officer you would like dealing with your crime.
We may think of The Bill as an ensemble piece, but if you showed these episodes to a new viewer they would say it might as well be called Galloway. One of the oft-repeated facts about the early years is that Sgt Cryer was always credited first at the end, but in fact Galloway gets the honour more often, and it’s not hard to see why. John Salthouse could have found it difficult taking over a part originated by Robert Pugh, but he inhabits it completely from the first time we see him, lounging at the back of the briefing room while Cryer addresses the relief. Galloway is at the heart of every episode, always driving the police response to a crime, and getting things done by sheer force of will. He is one of those characters that every show needs, a presence so compelling that you always want him back when he’s off screen, much like Sun Hill’s future red-headed Robocop, John Boulton. Watching his performance makes you regret that Salthouse didn’t continue when the format changed – however, at the same time it means these episodes have their own separate identity because of his presence (and we also got five years of Burnside in the DI’s chair, which is not a bad trade-off).
We should also be grateful for the time in which he appeared, because a cynical part of me doubts whether the short, freckled Salthouse would fit TV’s image of a leading man nowadays. From what Peter Cregeen said on the podcast about location filming being held up by teenage girls wanting to get closer to Galloway, he certainly appealed to the audience at the time!
Another accusation often levelled at TV is its ageism, favouring youth over experience, but it’s his youth that makes Galloway so interesting (Salthouse being only 33 at the time). Had he been the other side of 40 we would have had the old, grizzled, cynical inspector from so many cop shows – instead we get the young, grizzled, cynical inspector. It’s that much more intriguing to think of the years he has put into the job already and the awful things he has witnessed at a young age, which give him the clout to order around teams of men much older than him. In this series you get a hint of his domestic life in one episode, and there are plenty of villains whom he has encountered before, but otherwise his background remains an enigma. There’s an intriguing moment in the final episode, after he has questioned a house-breaking pensioner couple, when he sits in his car musing to June, “I don’t like nicking old people. It brings back too many bad memories.” But most of the time he is an attack dog with a constant, burning drive to catch criminals. Witness the opening of ‘The Drugs Raid’ in which a residents’ committee is badgering Brownlow about the failure to tackle drugs on their estate – a scene repeated many times down the years – only for Galloway to stand up and tell them that they know who the criminals are, often times their children are pushing drugs themselves, and it’s time they stopped protecting them.
Having mentioned Galloway’s successor above, it’s fascinating to see Burnside’s first appearance in ‘Funny Ol’ Business – Cops and Robbers.’ It was a happy accident that he ended up inheriting the DI role, because the man we see here was never meant to be in any position of leadership. The character had to be renamed Frank after a real Tommy Burnside was found to be working in the Met, and is it any wonder that they were worried? Cryer makes reference to a genuine anti-corruption drive of the mid-70s, sighing “How that bastard ever got past Countryman is beyond me”, and Burnside is depicted not just as corrupt but as a figure of ridicule, especially in his return visits before the half-hour era. He tries to charm Galloway, who sees through his facade instantly and chews him out, and then has to resort to begging to get his snout released. The Burnside we subsequently saw may have been a maverick and bender of the rules, but not on the take, as is implied here. The one thing this version does have in common with his later self is the gift of quotation. After his informer Lennie thanks him for getting him sprung, he unleashes a massive diatribe, including these choice words: “If it ever gets out that you got your collar felt by a bleedin’ woodentop, you are going to be as much use to me as a one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest… Faces will avoid you like an old scrubber wiv’ a dose!” The best one-liner, though, comes from his adversary Cryer: “Hey Bob, remind me to get the name of your tailor, so I can go and kick his windows in.” “Yeah, I know just where to go if ever I need a fitting, Tommy.”
On the downside, the earlier scene in that episode between Burnside and Lennie, when he shouts at him in the interrogation room, does seem a little forced and overplayed. Some of the acting in minor roles is not up to scratch, and the attempts to give a Cockney feel to the dialogue don’t always convince. No-one is able to get through a conversation without calling someone “my old son”, and Cryer slips into rhyming slang when he tells Carver, “You don’t half pen and ink!”, not something you can imagine the straight-laced Uncle Bob of the 90s ever doing. But given the strong comedic element of the show, it’s not surprising that it is reminiscent of the lighter output from the 1980s – the market sellers and dodgy car dealers could come straight out of Minder or Only Fools and Horses. Galloway in Woodentop seems to be regarded by uniform with the same disdain as the bent copper Roy Slater, and has the same taste in loud 80s suits, which were luckily dropped for the main series. I wonder, though, whether any sitcom would have produced a stereotype quite so broad as the Jewish con artist Cohen in ‘Burning the Books’ – his dialogue is filled with “Oy”s and “schmo”s, to the point where he becomes a caricature.
The question of which police series most influenced the show is harder to answer, because there were plenty in the mix. The most obvious precursor was Z Cars, with its large cast and procedural feel, but Thames were also trying to replicate the fast filming style and sense of energy from their own earlier hit, The Sweeney. One largely forgotten cop show of the 70s/80s that I am a big fan of is Strangers, starring Don Henderson, in which every other line has a weird quirky humour to it but the plots are still hard-hitting and deal with strong subjects like terrorism and armed robbery. One episode, ‘Soldiers of Misfortune’, is a CID prequel featuring both Tony Scannell and Christopher Ellison as mercenaries who have been victims of knee-capping. These sorts of combinations must have been floating around and retained in directors’ memories when they came to cast The Bill.
Over a decade ago there was an ITV documentary bizarrely titled The Bill Made Me Famous, which instead of concentrating on the regular cast, featured actors whose profile was completely unaffected by their role on the show. Unless, that is, you remember Michelle Collins and Keira Knightley being catapulted to stardom by their turns as harassed single mum and 10-year old child respectively; or suddenly finding out who Andrew Sachs and Hugh Laurie were, having been unaware of their previous work. The Bill was famous, though, for giving young actors their first break, and you can see some well-known names crop up in minor roles here, like Meera Syal shouting, “I think there’s a bomb!” while running past Jim, or Sean Bean clouting Dashwood with a hammer. Just as interesting to me, however, is the sight of well-established character actors before they got the defining role that made them a household name. June Brown appears only months before the start of EastEnders, in a role that is virtually a dry run for Dot Cotton, and Leonard Fenton aka Dr Legg has a tiny part where he shows June and Jim into an observation spot filled with mannequins. Liz Smith plays an infuriatingly dotty old woman about a decade before her appearances in The Vicar of Dibley and The Royle Family. There’s an early sighting of Jim Carter, not exactly established but not a complete beginner either, chatting to Galloway at a boxing match. To all these people the show must have been nothing more than another cop series, keeping them in temporary employment – very temporary indeed, given the pace at which it was made. No-one could have envisaged then that it would become such a long-standing and reliable breeding ground for actors.
Outside of the core cast, the other regulars are introduced gradually, in large part because they weren’t designed to be regular. Viv, for instance, appears in just the opening episode and became a substantial presence in the next series because John Salthouse insisted that Nula Conwell should get some lines second time round. From episode two onwards we are introduced to the other ranks in CID, Roach and Dashwood, and then other PCs begin to drift in like Yorkie and Frank, getting only a handful of lines. Episode six, ‘The Drugs Raid’, is notable for the first ever appearance of one Anthony John Stamp, making up the numbers in the background as Galloway briefs the team. He doesn’t appear again in the first series, but one of the great strengths of the format is that a character can vanish for a long time and then suddenly be given a larger role and a personality, as Stamp was in the half-hour episodes, without it being unrealistic. It’s clear in each episode that we are only getting a flavour of life in the station, and that there are plenty of characters just off the screen who the regulars know but we don’t. This sparing approach is also deployed further up the ranks. Larry Dann is credited on the opener as ‘Duty Sgt’ and doesn’t turn up again until episode ten, while Roger Leach’s part as Sgt. Penny is also fairly small. Most of the time he is the long-suffering custody sergeant, a kind of prototype Boyden with the same laconic wit. His stand-out moment is when a tough guy calls at the front desk and sees Penny adjusting Galloway’s bowtie for the inspector’s big night out.
Speaking of inspectors, it’s odd that after introducing one in Woodentop, the series proper does without a higher-ranking uniform officer for the first couple of years. Instead, while the final authority lies with Brownlow, in day to day terms it’s Cryer who rules the roost. As well as giving out the daily briefings to the relief, he is the go-to man whenever one of the PCs has a problem or a case has blown up into something big. It’s clear that Cryer is meant to be the same sergeant figure from Woodentop, as Galloway makes a reference to having got Carver out of trouble once already. The only reason he’s not, according to what Peter Dean implied on this podcast, is that the real police didn’t want someone with his shady past taking on the role of a trusted sergeant. If that’s true it gives an intriguing insight into how much the production team valued the police’s co-operation. The series is, after all, meant to show the realities of daily life in the Met, not just the dramatic highlights.
If the producers wanted police goodwill, however, they weren’t beholden to it. What we see on screen is hardly a PR exercise for the force. In The Bill – The First Ten Years by Hilary Kingsley, a police commissioner is quoted as accusing the initial series of “projecting attitudes and actions which are thoroughly unprofessional and not even true to life.” Whatever did he mean? Perhaps the times when our heroes try to put the squeeze on prisoners by warning them about their future cellmates? In ‘Long Odds’, for example, Galloway questions the young black robber they have caught and observes that the man’s good looks will get him noticed – “Might not have those when you get out.” Just in case the point isn’t clear, a few episodes later June sits beside a youth reading the Beano and comments, “You’ll get plenty of them inside – Desperate Dans… You know they’re all raving poofs, don’t you?” We see Galloway nursing a hangover after he’s hit the ouzo in the course of interviewing a restaurateur, and Litton sneaking into the gents for some quality time with a dirty mag he has swiped from the back of a van. Combine this with the numerous moments when suspects are caught and the boot is put in – one for the victim, you could say – and you’re not dealing with a bunch of saints. But it is a fair reflection of the times the show was made in, when miscarriages of justice were coming to light and respect for the law was increasingly on the wane. This is the same year in which Doctor Who, having once been condemned for showing plastic killer policemen on TV, could show a couple of phony bobbies machine-gunning a fleeing horde without any comeback.
The most notable example of conduct unbecoming is in the fourth episode, ‘Long Odds’, where CIB question Roach’s neighbour following a complaint she has made about his rude behaviour, and he is exposed as having used police time to do a spot of sunbathing. Think again about that principle of not going home with the officers: we’re not quite in Roach’s flat itself, but we’re in his apartment block listening to his neighbour telling us all about his bad habits. There’s even a priceless moment when she complains about his antisocial urinating technique, and the CIB men have to stifle their laughter. When Brownlow lays into Roach for his dishonesty we are given an early warning sign of the renegade qualities that will eventually cause his exit; not only is Brownlow’s disdain for Roach obvious, but straight afterwards Roach makes it equally plain to Galloway that he doesn’t give a stuff. (This episode is also noteworthy for the sight of Tony Scannell reacting to his own performance, his Irishness dialled up a notch, as Roach listens to a chatty DJ on the radio while on surveillance.)
Trudie Goodwin observed on the podcast that the other major character in the show is London itself. The montage of lock-ups, alleys and bridges in the title sequence lets the viewer know that they are about to explore the capital’s seedy corners, not its tourist spots. There is a real effort made to try and ground the series in the East End rather than a generic ‘London’; Sun Hill is specifically located within Tower Hamlets, that is until its council raised an objection and the fictional borough of Canley was invented instead. The filming in council estates and high-rise blocks has an authentic feel of the streets about it – the caretakers sweeping up rubbish on the steps, the crowded, chaotic markets and the kids riding past on bikes being a nuisance. Trudie said that one of the major reasons the show was a hit in Australia was that it gave expats an opportunity to see parts of London they used to know. To me there’s the more specific appeal, shared with 70s cop shows like The Sweeney and The Professionals, of seeing action sequences in ruined, derelict locations that, if they existed nowadays, would be risk-assessed into the ground before they ever let a camera crew near it, let alone actors. You get the sense that the risk assessing in those days consisted of, “Start here, run over there, and don’t hit the camera.” A good example is in ‘Long Odds’, where Taff Edwards is in pursuit of a mugger and goes straight through a rotten floorboard, which they make the most of by segueing into slow motion. Having given him his moment of glory, they must have decided that that was enough, as Edwards is never remotely that active again; indeed, inaction becomes his defining quality. But even when there’s no stunt work as such, the danger is visible on screen. In ‘The Sweet Smell of Failure’, Galloway, Carver and Ackland snoop round a hidden perfume factory in some crumbling dockyards, walking through rooms so crammed with debris that every step seems like a major risk.
The other character of note besides the wider world of London is the police station itself, aka Sun Hill Mk I. Plenty of TV shows have featured grim and oppressive cop shops, full of blank concrete walls and harsh lighting, but rarely have they been so small. The series opens with a POV shot of Cryer pulling into the car park, which has all the welcoming feel of a prison yard, and you instantly get a sense of the walls and ceiling closing in around you. Every time characters pass each other they have to squeeze by, not just in the corridors but in the briefing rooms and offices, and it’s obvious that the cameraman is having to make the same effort to keep up with the action. Brownlow’s office, which doubled as executive producer Michael Chapman’s real office when the cameras were gone, is situated right next to the CID rooms. The prototype CAD is a single desk with a phone switchboard right in the middle of the main office, through which people are constantly filing, and the front desk is literally round the corner. This claustrophobic atmosphere has a dual effect: you see how monotonous and soul-destroying the job can be, but you also understand the feeling of solidarity that’s generated among the officers, thrown together in a close environment under pressures that only they really understand. There’s a great closing scene at the end of ‘Rough in the Afternoon’, probably the weakest episode of the first series, in which Cryer is seen giving instructions while June takes a new call from the public, and the child they have just rescued plays with his mother, all at the same time; it’s a picture of organised chaos, the message being, ‘business as usual.’
“It was also decided right from the start that every scene in The Bill would be experienced through the eyes of the police, their emotions and feelings; everything [original italics] would be seen from a police viewpoint. For instance, viewers will never see a gang of villains planning a robbery; nor a traffic accident as it happens (unless a police officer is present), they will only see the effects that the robbery or the accident have on the police officers sent to deal with it.”
The above quote is from the 1991 book The Bill: The Inside Story of British Television’s Most Successful Police Series by Tony Lynch. From what I have read, which isn’t everything, this is the best behind-the scenes book about the show and also the oldest, therefore the closest to the events that it is describing. But it demonstrates the problems of trying to write about such a vast body of work, even after only seven years: the author has to rely on accepted wisdom, not on the actual episodes, which back then would not have been easily viewable. You soon realise from watching the first series that if the police-only perspective was really decided at the start, then someone undecided it very quickly. It starts with a short scene in ‘Funny Ol’ Business – Cops and Robbers’ of a woman returning home to find she has been burgled, after which she alerts the two PCs who happen to be walking by. It’s tempting to see this, as I did on viewing it, as a minor infraction of ‘the rules’; but it’s quickly apparent that there are no such rules. The second episode, ‘A Friend in Need’, concerns a series of hoax bomb calls to restaurants. A large chunk of the story features the two plotters (one played by a young Perry Fenwick, of future EastEnders fame) persuading their dimwit friend to make another hoax call so that they can dine out in the restaurant and escape without paying. And these scenes grow and grow in subsequent episodes, many of which open with a prologue that is the equivalent of the pre-title teasers in the ITC shows of the 60s, where a crime is either committed or being planned. As the story unfolds there are interludes with suspects, victims and even bystanders, discussing and furthering the plot. In some cases the audience is being clued in on information which the police don’t know of even at the end, e.g. the child abuser in ‘Clutching at Straws’ bringing up his own mother’s abuse when he is about to hit her.
In part, this must be due to the demands of the hour-long format. While the episodes are certainly well-structured and developed, the plots are more straightforward than you would get when the show returned to the hourly format later. This isn’t a drawback, because it ties in with the observational ‘documentary’ feel at this stage, but it means that they cannot sustain their length purely on scenes of the police investigating. In ‘A Dangerous Breed’, when the naive Litton gets hoodwinked by a snout who is after reward money, there’s a large chunk of time devoted to this shady character’s movements, including a long sequence where he collects the bait, plants it in a flat and tricks a couple of bikers into acting as fall guys. This kind of plot device, i.e. the police being led up the garden path by a snout, became such a staple of The Bill that it probably featured in a good third of the episodes ever made. In the half-hour era the show developed a shorthand language for these stories; in the space of two minutes you could have a scene with Meadows questioning one of the CID team about snouts and obbos and targets on the plot, and the writers knew the audience could be trusted to pick up the rules straight away. Early on, there’s still a sense that they need their hands holding, like the long scene in the first episode where Galloway points out to a door manufacturer that his fitters could easily get their keys copied and use them to carry out the spate of burglaries he is investigating.
In regard to the above quote about never seeing a robbery being planned, ‘Death of a Cracksman’ devotes almost half its screen time to a group of burglars who need the services of the eponymous safe cracker. In this case the audience are a step ahead of the villains as well as the police. While the gang try to think of ways to open the safe they have found in a factory office, the camera looks down from a shelf with a tin on it containing a key helpfully marked ‘Safe’. However, this turns out not to be a gag about missing the obvious, but instead reveals another layer of irony: the factory manager tells Edwards that the robbers have nicked a defunct safe with old papers in rather than the newest model where all the valuables are kept, so the end is just as pointless as the means. This episode is a good demonstration of how the plotting works the opposite way round from later eras. Whereas we got used to assembling a jigsaw piece by piece with the officers, here we are given the jigsaw fully formed and invited to see how quickly they can catch up. It’s an approach that works well too. There is a trail of crime left by the gang of robbers, including the aforementioned death, which the police gradually connect and it leads them to their hideout. There have been plenty of raids already by this point, but this is the first time we get the end of episode stakeout that became so familiar, where the police gather in force, watch the villains arrive and go in after them. Perhaps because we have seen the criminals at work already, the one familiar device we don’t get much in these early days is the interview room scene. In the half-hour era they became the standard focus for dramatic revelations near the end of the episode, but at this point they are few and far between.
The other jarring thing looking back at these early episodes as a regular viewer of the 90s/00s show is that it is a post-watershed series – and although it doesn’t try too hard to be ‘adult’, it certainly lives up to its timeslot. June makes her opinion of DI Galloway clear in the pilot when she labels him “a right bastard”, and the swear words fly around with regularity from then on, albeit only at ‘Category B’. Even Brownlow drops an expletive in the first episode, which is odder still than hearing them from Cryer’s mouth. There are numerous beefy punch-ups that must have taxed the resources of the fight arrangers, and one episode in particular, ‘Clutching at Straws’, opens with a vicious attack in a lift that you would never have seen in the half-hour episodes (in part, of course, because you wouldn’t see a crime being committed out of the police’s sight by that stage). The story concludes with the discovery of a blood-spattered corpse that is all the more shocking because it’s filmed in the matter of fact VT style we associate with soap opera – the camera moves round the corner into the room and there it is displayed to us, rather than being edited around with close-ups as a modern drama would do.
For good measure, in ‘The Drugs Raid’ we see users smoking, snorting and injecting the stuff, tourniquets and all, while we also get a glimpse of the sex industry in the fifth episode, ‘It’s Not Such a Bad Job After All.’ By tackling this subject, however, the episode eventually runs up against the limitations of what can be shown on TV, no matter what the timeslot or the era. Although Galloway ominously describes a teenage suicide as having gotten mixed up in “heavy porn”, when the film makers are raided at the end what you see is a couple of women frolicking in a bathtub for the benefit of a bored Mr Meaker from Rentaghost. The full-frontal nudity is startling, to be sure, but the story isn’t quite as hard-hitting as its initial premise. [Incidentally, I don’t imagine Hollywood screenwriters of the mid-80s were glued to the output of Thames Television, but the story is remarkably similar to the plot hook of the first Lethal Weapon movie, right down to the bubble-bath porn movies. The girl is even called Amanda, for heaven’s sake!] One of the consequences of moving to the 8pm timeslot from 1988 was that this kind of content had to be toned down (which I believe is one reason why John Salthouse declined to continue). However, the same story of a young runaway ending up in the big city and being exploited by dark forces would be done often and very well in the half-hour era. It goes to show that a powerful subject matter can still be handled effectively without being explicit.
Of course, that episode is really about June, and her crisis of conscience as she wonders whether to throw in the towel. Much of the fascination of these early episodes is seeing well-known characters before they settled in and became defined as a certain type. Reg, for instance, is there but comes across as an ordinary, laddish bloke like the other PCs rather than a finicky nuisance. Likewise it’s interesting to see June, later the pillar of strength for others even before she became sergeant, whinging to Cryer, “What kind of person am I going to be in ten years’ time?” as she ponders the toll the job has already taken on her. The Bill came hot on the heels of two female-centred police dramas, The Gentle Touch and Juliet Bravo, and June’s rant brings up more than just sexist attitudes from colleagues: she also demonstrates that it’s a different job for WPCs, who are exposed to all the same horrors as the men but are left out of the big dramatic arrests and expected to play a supportive role, dealing with victims and “all the stuff other people won’t touch with a bargepole.” She spends the whole episode trailing round in Galloway’s wake, keeping going to prove him wrong more than anything else. At the end when everyone is celebrating a good result, there is a remarkable thirty-second shot of her eyes flicking round the room, absorbing the conversation, and clearly thinking to herself, “Perhaps I can live with this”; but it’s also clear that that’s as good as it will get. When the scotch is poured, we see her being handed a mug while the long shot reveals that everyone else has a glass – no need to work hard on that metaphor.
It’s sometimes the case in hit television shows that the person who creates the series is not the one who goes on to develop and define it. The Bill, as each episode informs you, was devised by Geoff McQueen, but much of the content was the responsibility of Barry Appleton, the technical advisor on the show who wrote 17 of the 35 hour-long episodes, then another 32 half-hours for good measure. [Again, one of the pitfalls of writing about such a huge programme is that the online information is not always reliable, and seemingly based on memory; both IMDB and Wikipedia list Appleton as the author of ‘Clutching at Straws’, when it was actually McQueen). I assume that Appleton came from a police background, hence his role as advisor – there are lots of little details in the show that seem to come from past experience, like Brownlow wanting arrests of anyone found carrying marbles at an NF march, in case they throw them under horses’ hooves. The bomb hoax in ‘A Friend in Need’ is a variation of the heart attack trick used by people to get out of paying in restaurants (and another version of this pops up in an Only Fools episode from the late 80s). The crimes in his stories range across a wide spectrum, from the farcical comedy in ‘Burning the Books’ to the tougher realms of exploitation in ‘It’s Not Such a Bad Job After All’. Another, ‘The Drugs Raid’, is notable for looking at both the social issue of drug pushing and its connection to organised, in fact international crime. This ability to look at both the big picture and the day to day reality, to give the audience escapism and social realism at the same time, was always a huge strength of The Bill.
‘Death of a Cracksman’ by Appleton gives a bigger role to Cryer, who arguably has been a little sidelined up till now, being a wise figure dispensing advice while Galloway takes centre stage. But the plot here gives us an insight into his world view, and the belief that he tries to impress on the PCs, that policing is not just an enforcing role where you come down hard on criminals. He is furious that the legendary safe cracker Alfie Mullins is described by Wormwood Scrubs as a dangerous escapee, when he knows the man is harmless and can’t survive for long on the outside before he has to go back to prison, the only place where he is comfortable. Cryer visits Alfie’s flat and goes through the pantomime of pretending that he’s not there, warning his wife that he must be back at the Scrubs the next day, which again feels like a story idea drawn from genuine experience. Of course, as Galloway points out to Cryer near the end, had he followed his job to the letter and got Alfie out then and there, he would still be alive. This is not the last time that Cryer’s idealism comes up against the harshness of the real world and is found wanting. [A point of trivia: near the end there is a shot of an office sign saying ‘Hussicks and Appletons’. I don’t know how many other writers got these little shout-outs in the course of a story!]
The episode also shows how the script and production work hand in hand with each other. Outdoing the patrol scenes from Woodentop, there is an extraordinary three-minute plus shot of Cryer and Edwards walking down a crowded street discussing the plot, surrounded by ordinary members of the public. However, they are not all ordinary, because in the middle of this info dump there are several moments where traders stop Cryer to have a chat and a laugh with him, showing how liked and respected he is in the community and how he sees these connections as a vital part of police work. The filming style is more than just a gimmick or an attempt to be ultra-real, but a way of grounding the characters in their environment. Even the moment where the two officers leave the station, stepping out of the corridor and into a real street with real passers-by, highlights the artificial distinction between the studio and the outside world that you got from most shows at this time. While TV drama as a whole tried to get away from the film/video hybrid look by shooting everything on film, The Bill went the other way. It was almost unique in trying to get a sense of continuous movement and action using the raw, immediate quality of videotape.
The last thing I wanted to mention is the titles, which are a little different in this series. Instead of the classic approaching sirens that started every episode for the next decade or more, here the feet open as well as close proceedings. They’re presented logically, walking towards us at the beginning and away at the end, reminding us that the police are eternally on the beat. It’s remarkable that something so simple could be so atmospheric. It might be foolhardy to try and compare different eras, but one thing I am sure of: after umpteen times in the 00s episodes where I had to stop or mute the end credits to avoid being spoilered for the next one, it’s a pleasure to see a whole two-minute sequence running, uninterrupted, with each name clearly visible. It recognises that the credits are not just an opportunity to ram next week’s episode down your throat for fear that you won’t tune in, or even a contractual obligation that has to be got through as quickly as possible. They are a vital part of the show itself, easing you gradually out of the world that you have been watching. It’s a fascinating and enticing world that would only get better as the series progressed.