Review by Edward Kellett
The second series of The Bill opens with the title sequence that became the hallmark of the show in the 90s: the police car screeching to a halt at the side of the road, sirens flashing, and the theme music kicking in. But the original theme doesn’t fit the new visuals as well as it did the striding feet in the first series. Perhaps this is because I associate the flashing lights so much with the revamped, up-tempo version that came later, which will always be definitive. Here the music sounds a little subdued, buried beneath the chatter of radio traffic. Unusually, in the episode ‘Lost’ it plays out beyond the title caption after the last ad break, accompanying scenes of police divers and helicopters searching the river – it was a long time before incidental music appeared again in the show. The innovation that did last, though, is the split-second montage of episode clips. The ones seen here are all drawn from the opening episode of Series 1, except for a couple of Roach and Dashwood from ‘Long Odds’ and the final shot of a disappointed Galloway from the end of ‘Burning the Books’. Spotting the title clips when they appear in the programme itself is a fun game if you are short on other hobbies like me, but results are not guaranteed. I’m certain that two of the most common ones from the 90s, Dave getting angry at Reg and Jim and Tosh being bumped around in a car, were staged for the titles because I couldn’t see them at any point during the normal course of the show. There were earlier ones too, such as Jim hunting anxiously through some paperwork, that didn’t appear anywhere else, although I am trying to identify as many as I can.
Despite the new credits, the show returns to the same claustrophobic Sun Hill of the first series, and Geoff McQueen’s name is on the opening episode. But it’s apparent that time has passed when we learn that Galloway’s divorce is imminent, and he is making life hell for everyone around him as a result. His personal life was briefly depicted in the first series, during a scene in ‘It’s Not Such a Bad Job After All’ where he is on the phone to his wife trying to persuade her that their daughter will be all right even though, “She’s going out where?” This tiniest of threads is picked up here, as he calls that same daughter and ends up having a final argument with his wife instead. When he hangs up the phone we see him in genuine torment for a few seconds – only for Cryer to arrive with a case to discuss, and he is back on safer ground, to his obvious relief. I suspect that Galloway as originally conceived was a lot older than John Salthouse or the original model, Robert Pugh, both of whom were in their early thirties – and this showed in the writing, even after Salthouse had played the role for a year. Cryer talks about how hard it will be for Galloway to give up on “fifteen years of marriage after three months” and it’s obvious that his daughter isn’t much younger than that. Later, in ‘Whose Side Are You On?’, Galloway plans to take her to the zoo because “I love looking at things behind bars” but she asks to go shopping instead. By the same token, Roach was probably envisaged as being younger than he appears. Tony Scannell wasn’t yet forty when the series began, yet looks as though he is in his mid-forties. This is highlighted in that same episode, when a local dignitary is introduced to them both and greets him as the inspector.
The stormy relationship between the two men bookends this series. In the opening episode, ‘Snouts and Red Herrings’, Roach is becoming steadily frustrated at Galloway’s mood swings and secretive methods. In another intriguing echo from the future, he warns Cryer, “I tell you, one of these days I’m going to smack him one, right in the face…” He finally tells Galloway some home truths at the end, after his secretive methods have led to disaster on a surveillance job. The similarities between Galloway and Boulton become more and more obvious: like the Scouse terror, Galloway can never bring himself to say sorry when he’s in the wrong, only to calm down and make an awkward promise to involve Roach more in future. (Both men also voice their dislike for football, which is clearly meant to highlight them as An Odd Sort.) But come the end of the series it’s Roach causing all the trouble, getting hammered at a leaving do and driving his car through someone’s fence. Via a ridiculous number of lucky breaks, Galloway rescues the situation and Roach’s career – but at the very end he asks to come out with them for a drink, demonstrating that he hasn’t learnt anything and will continue on the same self-destructive streak. Roach and Dashwood are given a larger role in this series, less tied to Galloway and allowed to operate on their own. In ‘Lost’ they are paired up throughout the story, spending most of their time in the back of a van waiting for a hoax phone caller to use the box down the road, which gives the viewer an insight into the mind-numbing boredom of surveillance. Roach, busy cramming as much food and drink as he can, offers Dashwood a variety of crisp that he can’t be sure of due to the darkness. “Can’t you tell by the taste?” “…Nope.”
But ironically, at the same time that the rest of CID is being fleshed out, the show starts to rely less on the superstars to carry the workload. Unlike the previous year, there isn’t a rush to place Galloway at the heart of the action: often he is away or in court, only surfacing near the end to deliver a minor rant about his day. Instead there is greater focus on the trials and tribulations of the uniform branch, and with it comes the ensemble feeling that we always knew the show for. The PCs who had the briefest of walk-on roles in the first series are back, now given more screen time and opportunity to develop their personas. However, some of them are still a little distant from the figures they became. This is where we see the emergence of Reginald Hollis the whinging nightmare, his distinctive nasal tones present and correct. We even get what I think is the first Reg putdown when Nick Shaw says, “I’ve always said you should be put away for life, Reg.” Yet he’s not the idiot savant of later years, whose fondness for arcane knowledge hides a shrewd policeman’s brain. He’s simply a thick, malingering waste of space, who needs Yorkie to explain to him what the word ‘ingenuous’ means. Rarely does he venture from the station and he is always on the lookout for the cushy desk job that will take him out of the front line for good. When he laments his aches and pains after going on a training course, he’s hoping for sympathy but instead gets the brilliant retort from Martella, “He who dares ricks his back.” The 1991 book by Tony Lynch on The Bill includes an encounter with a real-life policeman who told the author, with some embarrassment, that there was someone at his station just like Hollis, and Jeff Stewart recalls meeting a genuine copper who had a dig at him. It was obviously this version of Reg they were referring to, not the trivia buff and secret genius of later years. But some of his qualities here are consistent with his future self, e.g. his capacity for stirring up trouble – at the end of the series he is the one who rats to Brownlow about Ted Roach’s drink driving.
Viv’s defining quality, meanwhile, is her hilariously one-track mind. After Robin Frank is shot she observes, much to June’s disgust, “Any lower and it would have been right in his John Thomas!” In ‘Whose Side Are You On?’ she is drafted into the five a side football team and turns down Yorkie’s offer to accompany her to the female changing rooms. “I won’t look.” “I might, and I might be disappointed.” She then blatantly checks out Lyttelton’s equipment before she goes. Having fought off the attentions of both the desperate Reg and the worryingly smooth Sgt. Penny at the chief super’s party, and been gently let down by Dashwood, she is last seen heading off arm in arm with Burnside – that one-night stand was forgotten by all concerned, given that he returns as CID boss and she ends up working for him. He must view her as the easy option, given that he’s already tried it on with June and she rebuffed him. June isn’t so emphatic in rejecting Galloway, however – there is a moment of palpable chemistry at the bar where they are both tempted, but she observes coyly that she has a reputation to maintain. This is the same Galloway whom she called a “bastard” and a “pig” at different times in the past, so June is obviously a forgiving woman. Perhaps those secret liaisons of the early noughties weren’t so out of character after all. Her other complaints from Series 1 about always getting the dirty jobs certainly are borne out in this series. She has to carry out a strip search of a female prisoner who asks her, “Do you enjoy demeaning your fellow woman?”, and is annoyed, but not surprised, when she is nominated to take the statement from a rape victim. The moment where she snaps at Galloway for interrupting her when she is trying to do a sensitive job is a great early sign of the righteous anger that I always think of as her trademark quality.
The best of the expanded characters is Sgt. Penny, wandering around clutching his pipe as though he were in a gentleman’s club. His standout moment comes in the opening episode when Penny and Yorkie call on a pub owner who has been driving while banned. They see him take off in his car and Yorkie jumps behind the wheel in hot pursuit, only for Penny to get in beside him, switch off the ignition and deliver The Bill’s mission statement: “This is not the movies son, and we are not Starsky and Hutch… Pound to a penny he’ll get three miles down the road and realise he’s acting like a wally.” He later gives the man’s wife more time for him to come in of his own accord rather than being hunted down, using Cryer’s softly-softly approach. Penny and Yorkie make a good team – in the next episode, ‘Suspects’, they crack the case after Penny is given the job of collating and cross-referencing employee records. It’s a sign of the show’s increased confidence that other sergeants besides Cryer are now being given a decent chunk of the plot, although Alec Peters still doesn’t come into his own until the next series. It was only when Oliver commented on it in a recent reaction video that I realised the similarities between Penny and Boyden later on – both are usually found in the station as custody sergeant, facing each new calamity with long-suffering looks and wry humour. Penny is given a lot of the comedic sub-plots: in one episode he sets up an anti-smoking fine box and rushes around looking for anyone lighting up. In another, he swipes a lawnmower that was being offered to Roach as a gift for recovering a stolen consignment, tries to smuggle it out in his car and then acts the innocent when confronted by Roach, which is such a quintessential Boyden storyline that you could imagine Tony O’Callaghan playing it without any problem.
The likeness doesn’t end there, however. We also get to see Penny’s dark side, only in a way that was never done again with other regulars. By this point The Bill had established itself as a show about police officers at work, and sometimes at play, but only as far as their local. Off-duty events crop up in conversation and vanish as the next job takes over. But suddenly, in ‘Public and Confidential’, Penny’s wife turns up asking to see Cryer, and to his disbelief she reveals that her husband is losing his temper at home and beating her regularly. I can’t think of another time where this approach is taken: instead of going into the officer’s home life, the most important part of their home life comes into work and reveals something nasty about them, and what the job is doing to them. The conversation that slowly unfolds between her and Cryer, during which he is endlessly called away to deal with other problems, says a lot about the ineffective police response to domestic violence, especially when it’s one of their own. Cryer emphasises the danger to Penny’s career if she tried to press charges, and that ultimately it’s a private matter between them and not a police one as it doesn’t seem to be affecting his work. The master stroke is that there is no debate or confrontation involving Penny; he doesn’t appear until the very end when he takes over from Cryer, his usual relaxed and affable self, impossible to connect with the picture that has been painted of him. They pass in the corridor, then Cryer turns to look at him and is about to say something – but he decides against it, and the credits roll. The programme was always good at this kind of approach to a tough subject, especially in the half-hour era: hinting at something rather than showing it, leading the viewer down a path until they realise the full, dark implications, and then suddenly shying away again. It has an eerie resonance that is much more impactful than scenes of a domestic slanging match would be.
The uniformed officer who makes the biggest impact, though, is Pete Muswell – new to us but not to Sun Hill, having been there for some time when the series begins. In part he is there to fill the vacancy left by Litton, but more importantly, he marks the first in a series of overtly bigoted, non-PC PCs whose main function is to play devil’s advocate and bring out conflict in the relief over social issues, especially to do with race. You can trace the lineage from Muswell, to Pete Ramsey, to Steve Loxton right through to Smithy in the late 90s/early 00s. Each of them is also given a black officer to spar with, to bring their racism to the surface. For most of the 90s it was Gary McCann, before that Malcolm Haynes, and here it’s Abe Lyttelton, introduced to his future colleagues and instantly given a warm welcome by Muswell, who sniffs, belches and gets up without saying anything to him. It’s a mark of the times in which this was made that he feels he can defend his actions later on to June as being “his own opinion”, and while she says that it should remain private, there’s still a sense of it being an acceptable view, just a slightly embarrassing one. Brownlow tells Cryer at the beginning that this is Lyttelton’s third posting in three and a half years, and we see how used he has become to Muswell’s brand of hostility when the others apologise for it and he comments, “One out of six of you ain’t bad.” That said, when you read about Nazi symbols being daubed in a police station, it would be complacent to talk of a massive sea-change in attitudes since then; Lyttelton’s one in six ratio may be recognisable to a lot of minority officers nowadays.
The problem with this set-up, bigoted white versus put-upon black, is that often the former gets all the good lines and interesting moral quandaries while the latter has to be the noble, stoic victim. Ralph Brown observed on the podcast that a lot of black actors in this period had to play ‘black’ as opposed to playing a role. There are attempts, however, to give Lyttelton some interesting quirks. He jokes back against Muswell whenever he can, trying to make light of the situation – a necessary defence mechanism for someone in that position, but not a complete act either. In ‘Public and Confidential’, he deals with a builder throwing tiles off an Asian shopkeeper’s roof because he hasn’t been paid in full for the work. When the owner complains about cowboy builders, Lyttelton pulls a ‘cowboys and Indians’ gag and is accused of making fun of the man, to which he replies, “You’ve got to maintain a sense of humour, sir. That’s our saving grace in this country.” Moreover, despite having a trailblazing role as a minority officer forced upon him, he’s obviously not some young radical – quite the reverse. He’s an old-fashioned stickler believing in firmness and discipline, rather like McCann later on, so he has very little time for Carver’s “community relations bit.” He doesn’t want to be put into a category and has a separate worldview of his own. But as a black officer in a mainly white force, he is fighting a battle on all sides. During an immigration raid he is spat on by a black youth who asks him if he’s proud of himself. Moments later Muswell cheerfully announces “another blow against the black economy”, and having tried to laugh off the jibes, this time it visibly gets to him.
It’s notable that in later eras, the resident ‘PC Nasty’ became a more sympathetic and relatable figure. This is partly due to the increased emphasis on their personal lives. We learn about Smithy’s army background, we see him outside of work, and it’s clear that what others perceive as bigotry is to him straight talking and being honest. When Tom Chandler puts him under pressure, we are encouraged to side with him – particularly when he’s championed by Cryer, who remains the yardstick of decency against which all others are measured. By contrast, there is little softening round the edges with Muswell. The only insight into his worldview comes in ‘Home Beat’, the first episode to tackle the subject of race and community, when he gets into an argument with Carver about immigration. He complains that his sister and her family can’t get a council flat despite waiting for years whereas foreigners are bumped straight up the list. The staunchly liberal Carver replies that maybe he’s in the wrong job, and they are about to square up before Cryer intervenes. But if the show pinpoints Muswell as the problem with the police, it also suggests that Carver is far from the solution. In that same scene there is a painful moment when, in front of a black canteen lady, he challenges Muswell, “If your sister was raped by a West Indian, does that mean all West Indians are rapists?” Suddenly realising that she is there and not just part of the facilities, he gives her an embarrassed smile. Later on, in ‘With Friends Like That…?’, they have another blarney and this time fists are deployed, after Muswell observes of a rape victim, “Clean her up and I’d give it one meself.” Carver gets into such an anguished state that when he tries to reassure the girl’s mother that the case will be handled sensitively, she is the one who ends up comforting him instead, which Galloway notes disparagingly when he enters the room. While he has good intentions he’s not mature enough to put them into practice, and is often left floundering when faced with cruel realities.
Muswell is used as a lightning conductor for every kind of bigotry, adding homophobia to racism and misogyny when he wades into anti-fur demonstrators, yelling at June, “You get the dykes, we’ll take the queers!” It’s little wonder that Ralph Brown wanted the scar applied so he could distinguish himself quite clearly from the character. He has so many unpleasant traits heaped on top of him that it appears the show is reinforcing the ‘rotten apple’ view of there being one in each nick. But Muswell isn’t an isolated voice and his beliefs don’t exist in a vacuum, as bleakly demonstrated in ‘Home Beat’. When Carver joins Yorkie as beat officers on a council estate, they hear a litany of complaints from the residents about the Bengali family that has just moved in and been targeted with racist graffiti. In every case, including the black residents, they blame the victims for attracting trouble rather than the perpetrators. The police criticised the show in its early days for depicting “a force virtually at war with society”, but this episode must have discomforted them by taking the opposite view: that when it comes to prejudice the police are entirely in step with society. Carver reasons that the Bengalis haven’t reported their treatment because “where they come from, policemen are bullies with big sticks”, showing a faith in himself and the force as something different. But when he has to hold off a raging skinhead mob outside the flat, hatred screamed in his face, it’s Muswell who rides to the rescue in the van. He quips that they’re “on Paki patrol” and scatters the fleeing skinheads like naughty kids. When Taff suggests running down a few of them he replies that they’re not worth the trouble. The story ends with the family being firebombed out of their flat and left with nothing, and no leads for the police to go on. I said when talking about the first series that it was hard to reconcile the young and hopeful Carver with the cynical CID man of the 90s – but at the end of this episode, you can see the join emerge. As Muswell chats to the others in the canteen, Carver gets up quietly and leaves, looking at him in disgust. It’s an interesting parallel to what Muswell does when he first meets Lyttelton: when faced with something unpalatable, they would rather avoid it than confront it. It’s also the first sign of Carver losing heart, realising that if Muswell represents the man on the street then he might as well not bother, and that perhaps he’s the one in the wrong job.
This episode showcases a distinctive quality of the hour-long era: it is explicitly political, in a way that later eras weren’t. The residents’ meeting where Brownlow is giving a talk is infiltrated by a group of firebrand activists, who declare that the police are being used by the government to target black people. The skinhead leader, played by everyone’s favourite terrifying East End thug Alan Ford, hits back instantly, saying that if he had his way, “You lefties would be the first to get weeded out!” The show is smart enough not to nail its own colours to the mast, but it does acknowledge the deeply divisive nature of the Thatcher government and the disdain that its critics held for the police, viewing them as part of the same oppressive state. Of all the negative things we learn about Muswell, the most telling – and surely the most infuriating for the real life police – are the references to his special payments for being bussed up north to crack a few skulls on the picket lines during the miner’s strike. Yorkie quips that he’s “spent more time in Yorkshire than I have”, and Muswell replies, “Scargill gave in too soon, didn’t he? I hadn’t paid for me American holiday yet.” This becomes the subject of an episode in its own right at the start of Series 3, only by that time Ralph Brown had moved on and Muswell is being discussed in absentia. And yet for all his unlikeable qualities, the show doesn’t completely condemn him: he has a plan to moonlight as a security guard for Arab visitors, and thus pay for his next holiday, but it goes out of the window when the shift rotas are suddenly changed. There is a degree of sympathy shown, however small, for his hopes being dashed when he is trying to get a break from a relentlessly pressured and low-paid job. Brown observed that this view of a young man trying to get on in life was a more accurate reflection of the police he knew than the ‘golden boys’ they had been portrayed as in previous cop shows.
The miner’s strike also returns in this same series in ‘Loan Shark’, featuring a marauding gang of fly-tippers from the valleys who have been forced out of work by the pit closures. Other contemporary issues are explored in ‘This Little Pig’, which plays on the view of the police as tools of the system. Much to his fury, Cryer has to provide uniformed muscle for the Home Office when they raid a clothes factory and detain illegal immigrants. It’s obvious that he doesn’t view this as real police work and sympathises with the people who have been caught. The episode concludes with a heated argument between Brownlow, Cryer and Galloway about the ban on overtime for all but the most serious of crimes. Brownlow’s empty rhetoric about running a cost-effective service and being accountable for decisions is depressingly familiar in our current times. Afterwards in the pub, Cryer and Galloway come close to an open political debate, without any veiling of the real parties; Galloway says, “Change your vote next time, that’s what,” to which Cryer responds that he has been in the job fifteen years and seen prime ministers from both sides screw it up. In ‘Public and Confidential’, Lyttelton delivers some formal jargon and is asked by June whether he’s joined the Tories, to which he replies drily, “They’re too left-wing for me.” It’s all very upfront, and a long way from the vague social commentary in 90s episodes about people no longer knowing their neighbours. I think both the later timeslot and the format of the show, as a limited run of individual plays rather than an ongoing weekly soap, gave the writers the freedom to offer this level of political comment.
But TV as a whole was more upfront then, and less afraid of causing offence (in both good ways and bad, as any episode of It Was Alright in the 70s will tell you). One of Julia Smith’s edicts about EastEnders was that it shouldn’t tackle the subject of politics, yet in an early episode Pete Beale quips that, “Community spirit went out wiv’ the Tories!” I would also recommend a YouTube clip from the 80s series Mitch, in which John Thaw is challenged about a newspaper article on mugging by none other than Eric Richard. The firm upstanding demeanour of Sgt Cryer is applied in a very different context, condemning the police’s racial approach to categorising crime and, like those protesters in ‘Home Beat’, suggesting it is an excuse to nick more black people. This kind of debate in other TV programmes of the time inevitably filtered into the show itself. It was only while watching this series that I realised how much the largely absent Litten, with his square jaw and pained expression, resembles Griff Rhys-Jones’s Constable Savage in Not the Nine O’Clock News, hauled over the carpet by Rowan Atkinson’s inspector for detaining a suspect found in “possession of curly black hair and thick lips.” Witness the moment on parade when Muswell asks Cryer for a description of the team of muggers working in the area. “He means, ‘Are they black?’” sighs Viv.
It’s no coincidence that the show tackles such themes as it begins to draw on a larger pool of writers, in contrast to the first series which was virtually all shouldered by Barry Appleton. The most notable is Christopher Russell, author of both ‘Home Beat’ and ‘This Little Pig’. The latter episode starts the move towards ‘day in the life’ storylines where a number of relatively minor crimes are being juggled at once by the whole cast. It also signals an increasing shift towards comedy: a shrewd idea not only because it reflects the absurdity of everyday situations encountered by the real police, but also because it gives everyone a moment to shine, even it’s just a one-liner here and there. The story skilfully wheels through different situations, such as a genuine runaway pig, an animal rights demo and the aforementioned factory raid, leaving most of them hanging rather than providing a neat resolution. This continues in later episodes in Series 2, including Roach investigating the murder of a down and out, which he only pursues when compelled by Galloway and finds a motive for but not a suspect by the end of the episode. This is typical of the way that the stories are working hard to avoid clichéd situations and responses. When June pulls in a criminal for non-appearance at court, moments after he has got married, his entire family descend on the nick to hold an impromptu reception, treating it as a fun day out rather than spitting fire at the police. Particularly hilarious is the moment where they are filing into the station and one guest says to another, “Last time I was in here was when we got done for that lead, do you remember?”, to which the latter quickly shakes his head.
These moments of farce are arguably a more important ingredient in the show’s success than the weightier plotlines, because they are what distinguish it from other crime dramas. There are so many in this series: Muswell being charged by a cannabis-addled goat, Galloway getting bitten by a dog, Viv unmasking a cigarette smuggling factory girl who’s been pregnant for 14 months, and Yorkie going round trying to work out what a syrup is. There’s a priceless moment where Cryer reads out a letter addressed to Galloway from a woman who wants him to lose his temper and shout at her, an idea which I am sure was drawn straight from John Salthouse’s fan mail. At its best, the drama and comedy dovetail perfectly. In ‘Hostage’ there is a sub-plot involving a stolen ashes urn which Penny is meant to look after, only for it to end up smashed all over the station floor. When Cryer is sent in to try and negotiate with the hostage-taker, unarmed and alone, he shares a final black joke with Galloway: “Don’t give my ashes to Tom Penny!” In ‘Home Beat’ we see the ugly face of British racism in the slogans scrawled on the Bengalis’ front door – then moments later, injury is added to insult when Carver joins in a kids’ football game and totals the front window, leading to chants of ‘Hooligan!’ as he slinks back into the canteen. Even funnier, and subtler, is the moment where Brownlow is introduced at the residents’ meeting and Carver is a little too enthusiastic with his applause, leading to a reproving look from the chief super.
‘This Little Pig’ is another example of humour being blended expertly with a more serious vein throughout the episode. When Edwards encounters the rogue pig within the first few seconds it seems as though the title is a double bluff, but then a passing wag says, “Working in pairs this morning, are you?”, and it becomes apparent that this is Taff’s story. Speaking of people losing heart, this is the moment where Edwards starts to give up. It’s been observed that this was a bad use of a regular character and something more positive could have been done with him, but personally I find it fascinating. In a genre that is always burdening characters with high drama, giving them tangled love lives or addictions or mental demons, to show someone for whom the job offers too little instead of too much is an intriguing change. When, at the start of Series 1, he took Jim out on the beat and led him to his favourite cafe for a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich, it was presented as a gesture of kindness to a new boy. Now, however, the implication is that he likes to spend as much time in cafes as he can: he drops into a different one this time and the owner calls out, “Full breakfast for Taff”, showing that he’s a regular customer. It’s also clear that he knows and is paranoid about his perception as a weak link in the team, furious that Muswell has dropped him in it with Cryer, who says, “I’m not blind and I’m not stupid – you do disappear from time to time.”
This isn’t the same kind of skiving we saw from later characters like Des Taviner, however: people who are out and out chancers, constantly bending the rules. Taff is only starting to drift a little, and the story asks convincingly, what does he have to be satisfied about? Having had his lower half splattered in pig shit, the top half follows near the end when an animal rights protester chucks dinner all over him in the cells and he storms off mouthing obscenities. The utterly un-photogenic filming really comes out here – everything is so dark and dirty, you can see what a horribly grotty task he has cleaning up. The PCs use humour all the time to get through the job, but Taff’s wry comments and offhand manner are now shown to be what they are: cover for a lack of fulfilment underneath. In ‘The Chief Super’s Party’, he and Carver are forced to attend the leaving do for Brownlow’s clerk and just sit in the corner necking beer cans, realising that no one wants to speak to them yet their absence will be noted. Having become aware of the problem, Brownlow offers him a role as a coroner’s clerk to get him out of the relief – but he turns it down, seemingly so he can prove his commitment to Cryer. It’s a doomed effort though, as the latter has written him off already, and things only get worse from here. [Also note the scene where the farm owner asks Taff if he’s a vegetarian and he replies, “Oh no I’m Welsh, I eat anything” – somebody retained that line for future reference when we reach ‘The Coop’ in the half-hour era…]
In tandem with the new writers, there are more traditional scripts by Barry Appleton that give the same focus to Galloway and CID that we saw in the first season. But they maintain the high standard of plotting and the ability to flesh out a wider world beyond that which we see on screen. ‘Hostage’ begins with Cryer, Roach and others about to set off on the annual fishing trip to Margate, a la the Jolly Boys Outing in Only Fools and Horses, while Yorkie and Dashwood are dealing with another case of non-appearance. The plot swiftly escalates, taking in the shooting of a police officer which would normally be a central story all on its own, until a flat is under siege and Cryer has a shotgun pointed in his face. Besides the drinking, the smoking, the overt racism and the baton whipping, the other startling police practice that we see in this episode is the use of firearms by regular officers: this continued in the half-hour episodes into the early 90s, with PCs like Stamp being seen wielding revolvers, until it was confined to specialist firearms units, in line with real life. Here it’s all a bit free and easy. As far as I can tell, the disastrous climax is caused by Galloway suddenly going in without an order from Brownlow, yet he never faces any consequences (he was hardly the last one – how many times did Meadows screw up an operation and get lumbered with bodies at the end?). But perhaps this is an accurate reflection of how such situations were handled, or not handled, in real life during the 80s: the force being less image-conscious and tending to improvise, often with bad results. We are reminded, too, that these guardians of the law are only human. I doubt many other cop dramas would have included the moment where Roach drops some bullets on the floor in front of a member of the public and is chastised by Brownlow, who can smell alcohol on his breath from his session in the pub earlier that day – another nail in his future coffin.
The same multi-faceted approach can be seen in the next Appleton script, ‘Ringer’, which features probably the most Sweeney-esque action scene in the whole series. Having tracked a car ringing firm down to a wrecker’s yard, the police go in – not to the sound of screeching tyres and blues and twos, but crawling up to the gates in first gear, another sign of Appleton’s knowledge of procedure. We get the first of Burnside’s return visits, still coming over as thoroughly bent even when he manages to prove to Galloway that he is undercover. Having been told to remain at the scene, he quickly does a vanishing act, but not before pocketing the takings from the card game he was playing. We follow Galloway and Cryer right up to the front door, where they call on the villains and a huge action sequence erupts, the cops chasing the fleeing gang over some incredibly dangerous terrain. Like I said about the first series, the risk assessment seems to be very much, ‘Put the camera there and do it’, and the results are superb – a combination of high-angled shots and ground views as the police scramble over rubble and heaps of tyres. Carver follows the gang leader up through a pit so festooned with rubbish that it looks lethal to the touch, and suspects get slammed against walls and gut-punched in fine Regan style (the villain is even operating under that very cover name in tribute). Best of all is the climax, in which Shaw halts Regan’s escaping car by using the accepted procedure of the day: a) step into the direction of travel, b) firmly raise your arm, and c) lob a trolley through the windscreen so that the vehicle overturns in a heap. Having already crippled his leg, the unfortunate bad guy is hauled out of the car and softened up some more by Roach to pay him back for the bloodbath he has caused.
But by invoking this Sweeney-type world of blaggings and hooky motors, the episode demonstrates what made The Bill so unique and so special, because we don’t just see the detective work and the exciting takedown of the baddies at the end. We also witness the full chain of events that has led up to it, starting with the gory aftermath of the pile-up and the awful job of the PCs, delivering half a dozen death notices to relatives. Muswell advises Martella that the best thing to do is hit them with it straight away, not tiptoe around it, and is then completely unable to practise what he preaches when it’s his turn. This is designed not to paint him as a hypocrite in addition to all his other vices, but to show how hard this task is for the actual police. The scenes in the classroom turned makeshift mortuary, where the family members have to identify the bodies, reminded me of the interviews people gave about doing this after Hillsborough: led round tables in a gym where the victims had been laid out, and being asked bluntly, “Is this him?” before they were covered up again. There is a thread left hanging after one victim’s wife turns out to be his mistress instead, but once the arrests have been made and we have forgotten all about it, the actual wife turns up at the front desk wanting to know what has happened. The episode ends with Cryer sitting her down and telling her that her husband is dead while everyone celebrates loudly next door. Rather than acting as an ironic contrast, or showing the police as insensitive, I think a deeper point is being made: that this kind of hard-drinking machismo is a necessary release after something good has been achieved, because so much else about the job, like what Cryer has to do at that same moment, is so terrible.
It’s a fitting message for this series in particular, because this is the point where The Bill becomes a show about the police, as opposed to just a show about crime. ‘Snouts and Red Herrings’ is the first outing for a plot device that would appear again and again down the years – uniform blundering into a CID op and ruining it because they weren’t informed by CID in the first place. More importantly though, it’s from here onwards that the show firmly applies the ‘golden rule’ of seeing events entirely from the police’s viewpoint. It’s intriguing to consider whether this was decided and locked in between series, or if it drifted into place because of the nature of the stories in this second run. As the title suggests, the bank robbery that is supposedly being planned turns out to be a bum steer by Galloway’s snout while the real thing takes place elsewhere, so there would be no scope for showing the villains at work. Likewise the second episode ‘Suspects’, another engaging script from Barry Appleton, is a mystery story that is less concerned with the details of the wages snatch that has taken place, than with finding out the reasons for the odd behaviour of the clerk who handed over the money and is in the frame as the inside man. By the time the robbers are uncovered near the end, the original crime has become almost academic – and it’s too late to save the innocent man, whose heart gives out on him under the strain of questioning. Now we are assembling the jigsaw with the police, as opposed to working ahead of them, which was often the case in Series 1.
Some of the interviewees on the podcast observed of the half-hour era that it was really a show for the guest actors, who got a lot of the screen time and the strongest dialogue. I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, as there was still plenty of good material for the regulars in that time. But looking at this original hour-long run, the amount of time spent with the main cast and within the station itself does have something in common with the later hourly episodes, even the soapy heights (or lows) of the Marquess era. In both cases it’s a show about the lives of the officers, with the crimes playing a secondary role: the difference being that here it’s about their working lives, not their romances. They treat each day as a job of work, not a crusade for justice as seen in most cop shows. When a little girl goes missing in ‘Lost’, much of the time is spent with the officers in the canteen, grumbling about their ruined plans now that leave has been cancelled. Conversely, Muswell later voices his hopes for a murder to come along so that he can grab a chunk of overtime. These hardened viewpoints are what one would expect from people who deal with the worst of humanity on a daily basis. But that doesn’t mean they are completely indifferent; often we see the good intentions of officers falling short because of the nature of the system. I noted about Series 1 that there were few of the interview room scenes that became a staple later on. However, ‘With Friends Like That…?’, set almost entirely in the nick, is a forerunner of the half-hour era, featuring a group of people’s stories being probed and gradually unravelled. What is really being explored is the way the police deal with rape, a hot topic in the wake of the infamous Roger Graef documentary where officers were filmed encouraging a woman to drop her complaint because she probably led the man on. Galloway and June are treading on eggshells the whole time, trying to handle things tactfully, but still determined to get a result. The constant questioning and the thought of having to go to court are too much for the woman in question. When she decides not to press charges at the end, a frustrated Galloway says she doesn’t know how much this hurts him, to which she hits back, “You’re not the one who’s been hurt, are you?”
The wider world outside the station feels lived-in too. During the noughties, so much of the screen time was devoted to officers arguing in station corridors that the crimes happening outside seemed like padding. The villains at this early stage often appear only when they are caught, but they still come across as powerful and dangerous, like the car firm in ‘Ringer’ or the fly-tippers in ‘Loan Shark’. We have already seen their victims and heard reports of the damage they have done, so when they are finally apprehended it’s not surprising that they put up a vicious fight. In ‘Lost’ the police are afraid that the missing girl has been abducted by one of the local paedophiles, but there are hints that the real trouble lies closer to home. After June retrieves the girl from the affectionate care of a widowed woman and returns her to her mother, who immediately smacks her and drags her inside as an argument starts up, we feel as stupid as she does for not recognising what the real issue was all along. Overall the violence in this series is a little more sparing than the previous year, but still vivid, and again enhanced by the realistic filming style. When Roach and Galloway burst in and shoot the gunman at the end of ‘Hostage’, there is no editing to disguise the act: the tiny room and its occupants completely fill the 4:3 screen, so when he is shot at point-blank range and slammed into the wall, the gore is right there in one continuous take. Either by accident or design one of the squibs hits the camera lens, leaving a speck of the picture smeared in blood as Cryer screams at Galloway afterwards. More often in this series it’s June who gets the worst of it: in ‘Ringer’ she has to assure a shocked car crash victim that the man next to her is all right, even though we can see his lifeless eyes staring over the wheel, and in ‘Loan Shark’ she discovers another suicide that isn’t quite as gruesome as that in Series 1 but is still well beyond the limits of what the show could do later on.
The move into more comedic territory is bolstered by the excellent supporting cast. The chirpy tailor Nat Pizer, called in to interpret for a defecting Polish sailor even though he “hasn’t spoken the language for over fifty years”, handing round sweets and measuring June Ackland’s waist, feels like a more believable character from the East End than the Jewish mogul Cohen in the previous series. I also liked Brian Croucher’s dodgy car dealer Bernie, with his mullet and giant glasses – when he and a couple of Galloway’s other contacts turn up at the leaving do, Brownlow comments that they look like the local mafia. The bit part players too are given a chance to shine in the scenes where police work is treated as a spectator sport: in ‘This Little Pig’, people stand and laugh as the PCs try to round up the hostile beast, while in ‘Public and Confidential’ the crowd encourage the builder on the roof to chuck more tiles off. This leads to perhaps the most adorable moment of the series when a girl shouts, “Go on, mister!” and June snarls in her face to scare her off. The number of tiny walk-on roles needed for each episode means that they are all given functional names like ‘Woman in Street’ or ‘Angry Motorist’. My favourite billing from this series is future Brittas Empire receptionist Carole, aka Harriet Thorpe, as ‘Tarty Woman’, but close behind is Arthur Smith as the superbly named snout Conga. Two years before Red Dwarf, Norman Lovett appears as one of the paedophiles being investigated by Roach and Dashwood. Most of the familiar faces, or would-be familiar faces, are now best known for their roles in comedy, not drama, which is interesting. There are also a couple of sightings of future regulars, which would have made a much better subject for an ITV documentary than the one about famous names: there’s Nick Stringer, aka PC Ron Smollett, on the other side of the fence as a villainous, erm, fence, and Steve Morley providing the aggro in custody as one of the fur protesters rather than having to deal with it as Sgt. Lamont.
If it seems like I’ve been a bit repetitive in my praise for what The Bill does well in this era, perhaps it would be best to focus on one particular sequence: the five a side football game in ‘Whose Side Are You On?’ This time the police get to be spectators as well as participants. Carver spends the whole time barracking Taff from the sidelines like it was a Cup final, Muswell makes more dodgy comments about ‘Nelson Mandela’ being let through to score, and Galloway desperately wants to clear off so he can get more time with his daughter. It’s a great example of how the show doesn’t try to make artificial drama about everyday situations: sometimes things are smaller, not larger than life. In another programme we would see the whole game as a narrative, the police going behind and struggling but eventually turning it around and emerging as heroic victors. Here we simply cut to them leaving at the end, having been drubbed 5-2. Some of the men use Viv as a scapegoat for the loss, but when she comes out she clearly doesn’t care: she isn’t trying to strike a blow for equality, just having a laugh. She does a little dance, accompanied by the men humming the Match of the Day theme tune right into the end credits. If anything sums up the ‘documentary’ feel of the early episodes it is this moment: we see the officers off duty, relaxed, and the chant has a tribal quality to it. It’s their own version of ‘No one likes us, we don’t care.’ Luckily, several million viewers did like them, because they would have to wait longer than usual for the next series…