Review By Edward Kellett
Series 3 of The Bill marks the show’s first major overhaul since it began, and arguably a bigger one than the change to the half-hour format a year later. Much of the feel of the programme from its 90s heyday begins here. The most obvious change is the new station: a long-running strike by print unions near the Artichoke Hill site made it untenable for filming to continue, so Sun Hill was relocated from inner-city Wapping to suburban Kensington. There’s no attempt to explain the facelift in story terms, unlike the subsequent move to Merton in 1990 which was smoothed over by a combination of building work and bomb damage. The show tries hard to reaffirm that the building is in the same place as before. When discussing the theft of construction equipment Roach mentions that a digger has gone missing from a site in Wapping, where he and Carver were just on stakeout. Tower Bridge is once more used as a background landmark, though not as blatantly as in Series 2 when a lost motorist was parked right next to it to show it off to the camera. A mugging sequence is staged at the Tower of London, and we see a council lorry with ‘Tower Hamlets’ marked on the side. But a lot of the action now takes place in leafy suburban streets rather than the heart of the East End, and it’s much closer to the overall look of the show in its next two decades. The new station itself brings more storytelling possibilities. With the regulars no longer confined to the gloomy prison block of Series 1 and 2, the camera is free to rove round the building in those signature long takes that encompass nearly the whole cast. The enforced eighteen-month break does have its upside, in that the show can draw a line under the old setting and it’s easier for the viewer to accept change. The most notable addition is the CAD room, the future source of both tense drama and knockabout comedy, looking much the same here as it did for the next twenty years. But in general every room is more spacious and better decorated – CID looks like a proper suite of offices instead of a stage set, and the dull grey concrete is livened up by wood panelling here and there. Even the most overlooked regular of the early days, Sadie the pub landlady, gets swanky new premises that are more upmarket than the gloomy boozer she was running in the first two series.
With the expanded premises comes an expanded chain of command too. Up till now Cryer has been the relief’s de facto boss, forever desk-bound, and when he ventured onto the streets to cover for the injured Carver it was presented as a big event. At the start of this series he is still desk-bound because he’s been lumbered with the role of CAD sergeant, but he’s itching to get back out there and it’s obvious that he is one of a team being rotated through different posts. The man in charge, or at least he believes so, is Inspector Kite – a pompous, starchy Hendon graduate who becomes the butt of the humour throughout the series. It’s established that he is a recent arrival and has put noses out of joint because he has taken over from the esteemed Cryer. When the latter runs over an old woman while in pursuit, Kite puts the maximum pressure on him over his conduct. Once he has been cleared of wrongdoing, Brownlow suggests that he should apply for promotion and become an inspector. Cryer sees at once that this is a political game, trying to get rid of him so he’s no longer in competition with Kite for leadership of the troops, and declines, preferring to stay where he is trusted and respected. Telling Kite that he knows he was trying to force him out, he snarls, “If it’s any consolation, you very nearly succeeded.” There’s a parallel with the end of Cryer’s time, where Chandler tries to get rid of him by insinuating that he’s too old for the job and setting him up to fail. It goes to show that despite lasting seventeen years, Cryer was a veteran from the beginning: the old-fashioned copper who the new brooms want to get rid of, but who knows his own value and is ready to fight for his place. “Bob was around when the Crippen case was solved,” quips Penny, but deep down everyone knows they can’t do without him – which is precisely what irritates Kite.
The tension comes to a head in ‘Skipper’, when Kite pulls up Cryer over not checking daily correspondence. “I’ve been a copper now for eighteen years and twelve of them a sergeant, I’m getting a bit old to be taught how to suck eggs,” he replies, trying to keep a lid on his anger. Then it transpires that Kite has stooped to following him around and monitoring his tea breaks, to back up his general charge of sloppiness on the relief. In disbelief that he’s been spied on, Cryer observes over the radio that he’s, “Counting to ten and thinking of my pension.” Kite is now so unpopular that he becomes the victim of a combined prank by Penny, Peters, Galloway and the constables. He’s sent on a top-secret mission by the Yard to recover vital samples of chemical spillage from the banks of the Thames, scrambling around in wellies while he’s snapped by a photographer. When he phones the senior officer whose name he’s been given as a contact, expecting plaudits, he’s dismayed by the scathing reaction. But crucially, the one senior figure who’s not in on the joke is Cryer, because “we knew you’d be po-faced about it”, according to Peters. Unimpressed, Cryer agrees, “The man’s a prat – but unlike you and me, he is young enough and clever enough to change.” Despite intense provocation, Cryer’s integrity shines through. He still respects the chain of command and doesn’t like the idea of sergeants undermining senior officers. In the same episode he encounters two difficult situations out on the beat and handles them both with sensitivity, making sure that tensions are not inflamed. He is perhaps the only major character who sees the importance of connecting with the public – at one point he voices his concern that the new CAD technology means they are losing touch with people on the streets (“Like being stuck in a bloody wheelchair…” he mutters prophetically at one point). This reflects his general view of policing as being about maintaining order, first and foremost. He may dislike Kite’s petty rules and regulations, but equally he doesn’t believe in chasing obsessively after results like the glamour boys of CID. We see him coming into work following a raid that has gone out of control in ‘Some You Win, Some You Lose’. Noting the hive of activity, he quips to June, “Better than the real job though, eh?”
By contrast, Kite’s utter lack of rapport with the public is shown when he delivers a lecture to two thieving kids about how such behaviour will “attract the opprobrium of their neighbours… Do I make myself clear?” [long pause] “No.” In ‘Not Without Cause’, he meets a builder who needs to move a car blocking a driveway and agrees that he can do so, using “no more force than is necessary.” He walks away, hears an enormous crash and returns to discover that the man’s idea of reasonable force is lobbing a brick through the side window: “I haven’t got a key, have I?” The outraged owners arrive and the street descends into chaos, with Kite being blamed for starting it all. His inexperience is what distinguishes him from Monroe later on, but in other respects he is the blueprint: both are highly pedantic and strict in their observance of the rules, which gets people’s backs up as a result. In one episode Kite drags Sgt. Penny into Brownlow’s office and questions the excessive detention times of the prisoners they are holding, only for Brownlow to dismiss Penny and then reprimand Kite for trying to interfere with the custody sergeant’s role. It was often the case that Brownlow found Monroe too didactic and obsessive about procedure even for him, and that same dynamic is here. “Don’t feel you need to tell me, Brian,” he says at one point. “Just send it straight to heaven like you usually do.” In ‘Brownie Points’ he is visibly put out when the DAC visits and Kite takes it upon himself to lead him round the station, acting as though he is in command. Subsequently he begins drafting amendments for Brownlow’s speeches, just to improve them here and there!
I haven’t talked much about Brownlow up till now in these reviews, perhaps because he’s the character from the early days who is most instantly recognisable as his later self. I got the (probably mistaken) impression from his podcast that Peter Ellis didn’t rate his own performance much or what he achieved with the role, but he made one of the biggest and longest-running contributions to the show, bettered by only a handful of other cast members. In the 1991 book on The Bill he is interviewed and notes that the original description of Brownlow called him a ‘limited, unimaginative man’, but that the time he had spent with real superintendents as part of his research gave him a very different impression – they were the reformers, trying to bring about change. Ellis’ portrayal reflects these qualities and highlights the awkward position Brownlow is in, having to pass on unpopular messages to those below while delivering results to those above. Right from the start he is concerned about image and anxious to generate good publicity – he is firmly behind Galloway’s drugs raid in ‘Some You Win, Some You Lose’ because the police are being seen to tackle a tough estate – but Ellis imbues him with a gentle quality that makes him more than just a bureaucrat. You can’t help but feel for Brownlow when he’s trying desperately to promote harmony and mavericks like Galloway tear it down with a few choice words. While he represents the voice of authority, he has sympathy for the lower ranks: he tells Kite that they are drowning in enough legislation as it is without him making it worse. When Galloway’s rough treatment of a prisoner is dragged up on the grounds of a possible appeal, Brownlow leans both ways. He defends him to the superintendent investigating the matter, saying that his career shouldn’t be affected by this, but he also warns Galloway that he needs to handle things by the book if he’s to progress further.
‘The book’ is right at the heart of Series 3, which focuses on the police’s relationship with itself: internal politicking, rivalry between departments, and the way in which accusations of wrongdoing are handled. Galloway is furious when his past conduct is scrutinised, saying that his clear-up rate should speak for itself. Brownlow impresses on him that how the job is done is now just as important as the results. In 1984 the notable debut in the real world of policing was PACE, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. In the same way that it took a couple of years for the repercussions of the miners’ strike to be examined in the programme, so the impact of PACE begins to filter into the stories here after three years. When Kite tells Sgt. Peters how important it is for senior ranks to have an exchange of views with the grassroots, Peters is happy to contribute: “PACE is a pain in the neck. The only thing I don’t have to write down now is how often a prisoner farts.” For the first time there are references to custody reviews and gathering evidence in time to beat the deadline, which became such a staple part of the show and the main flashpoint in the ongoing CID-uniform wars. In ‘What Are Little Boys Made Of?’, Roach is desperate to keep a suspect locked up until he can get back from court to question him, but returns to find Penny has let him go as per the letter of the law and nearly thumps him, in scenes reminiscent of the Beech-Boyden spats a decade later. Dashwood too gets into trouble when he tries to coerce a suspect into admitting past crimes – which is duly reported by Sgt. Peters because he, like everyone else, needs to cover his own back in this world of increased regulations and scrutiny. The sanctity of the custody sergeant is established in ‘Blind Alleys, Clogged Roads’: Shaw is cut with a knife while separating two brawlers, but Penny tells him there’s no point in pressing charges as the pair are now backing each other’s stories. Shaw goes over his head to Inspector Kite, who tries to pressure Penny into changing his mind, but the furious Penny responds that he can go over Kite’s head too if needed. Shaw is left to contemplate the fact that he can be knifed on duty and still have no means of taking it further.
The demands of PACE illustrate a time of transition within the Met: moving away from being a ‘heavy mob’ towards an accountable public body. The rebranding of the force to the service was still a couple of years away, but there’s a sense that CID as a whole and Galloway in particular are under intense pressure, having to justify their record now that Kite is coming up with new targets and initiatives on the uniform end. Galloway is so disinterested in Kite’s proposals for inter-departmental co-operation that he just walks away when they’re mentioned, but this means that the resulting report “has been compiled without the input of CID…” and he is clearly uncomfortable at this. At one point he gives the team a rundown of crimes in the division over the past few weeks and notes scathingly, “Clear-up rate on all of them is less than ten percent; on some of them, it’s nil… We’re wide open!” On more than one occasion they have to scurry back to the office from court to pick up documents they didn’t think they needed, because suddenly judges are demanding to see everything – and with good reason. There are plenty of hints dropped about the shady techniques that CID have used to get by up till now. Galloway warns Dashwood that if he opens himself up to a complaint the authorities could go over the books for the past three years, “and that I don’t need.” When Galloway receives a stack of case papers that have been thrown out by the CPS, he is dismayed at one particular month’s work that has gone down the drain. Roach replies cheerfully, “You see in the good old days you could take care of an evil bastard like that by planting a shotgun in the boot of his car.” But the creeping tide of bureaucracy, in the form of Kite, Brownlow and others, is beginning to gather speed and senior officers are now in the business of crime management, with all the associated jargon. “What is the word of the day, Bob?” ponders Penny ahead of the DAC’s visit. “Helicopterisation? Bicyclisation?” Galloway agrees with Cryer: “Bullshit.”
Barry Appleton’s ‘Double Trouble’ marks the first appearance of CIB, swooping down because of a complaint that turns out to stem from two bogus officers conning motorists. Galloway cheerfully greets the lead CIB man Fairfax but is obviously wary of him, later telling Cryer that he was recruited by the Yard to sniff out bent coppers precisely because he was one himself. During the interrogations that follow, Yorkie, Taff, Nick and June are all put under intense pressure, accused of being liars, goaded into losing their tempers and encouraged to implicate each other. Taff is humiliated when he has to turn out his pockets and they find an appointment for an STD clinic: “Dipped your wick in a wrong ’un, eh lad?” On the surface we are meant to sympathise with the regulars, showing how hard a police officer’s lot is when even their own side look down on and distrust them. But underneath, a more subversive point is being made – the police are seeing life on the other side of the fence as their own interview tactics are reflected back at them. At the start of the episode Galloway is hoping that Cryer can round up faces for an ID parade, to try and crack a suspect who’s holding out. “Time was when people coughed their guts out to you and that was the end of it.” “That was before they brought in tape recorders.” Nick Shaw, who has neglected to write down June’s name as a passenger in his car and therefore has something to hide, is given the full hot and cold treatment. The other CIB man Sgt Bolton (without a u…) tries to put him at ease with a few introductory quips: “Nick – good name for a copper… If he’d been born Rick, he might have been running around Hong Kong pulling one of those pram things!” But when his mistake comes to light it’s used as leverage against him, Fairfax suggesting that he can “overlook a few misdemeanours” if he tells them all he knows… These manoeuvres are straight out of the playbook used against suspects all the time. When the truth comes out, the whole matter is suddenly dropped and Fairfax leaves cheerfully, disappointed that he couldn’t force some dirt out of one of the PCs but commending them for their backbone. It’s all just part of the game, even with someone’s whole career and future on the line.
In terms of the regular cast, the biggest change is not the shuffling of the higher ranks but Jimmy Carver’s move into CID. It’s established in the very opening scene, and reinforces the idea that there has been a lot of water under the bridge since the last series. We don’t see the moment where Carver decides on the move, nor are we privy as to his reasons why, given that he was so proud of the uniform when he began. But we do see that he has already begun to lose that fresh-faced look he had as a rookie constable and is showing signs of wear and tear. Having spent all night on a fruitless surveillance job with Roach, which ends in them having the digger they’re supposed to guard stolen under their noses, he is exhausted and about to book off. But the fiery Roach tells him he’s no longer in a nine to five job and he’d better get used to it if he wants to make it in CID, so they hit the road again in search of leads. Carver has quickly taken on the mindset of ‘the other side’, sitting apart from his former colleagues and complaining about post-mortems being a uniform job. He wants something different from the routine and humdrum, but already we’re invited to consider what he’s taking on: the implication being that to succeed in plain clothes he has to become a dysfunctional workaholic like Roach or Galloway. He’s also slow to realise the limitations of his new role. Later, he’s put out when he has started to recover a haul of electricity stamps from a canal and has to turn the investigation over to the Yard, while he deals with a burglary instead. “Petty theft, vandals, muggers and perverts, that’s our job Jim,” Dashwood informs him. “Those are the things the Great British Public care about. They don’t give a toss about forgery!”
The venom with which he delivers that statement perhaps explain Dashwood’s eventual move to the Arts and Antiques squad – he’s after something more interesting too, something that appeals to him precisely because it’s not valued by the hoi-polloi. It could be said that until now Dashwood was making up the numbers a little, but he gets a much bigger role in this series, and his efforts to make a name for himself illustrate the dog eat dog nature of CID. The pecking order is clear: Jim on the bottom rung, mentored by an impatient Dashwood who is trying to climb higher, while further up Roach is being ordered around by Galloway. The extent of Mike’s ambition becomes clear in ‘Some You Win, Some You Lose’, where he runs a snout who is himself a major drug pusher without informing anyone else, so that he can get the glory after they raid a factory. He stops just short of agreeing to pass him some of the gear once it’s recovered, but when it all comes out Galloway tears into him for trying to go it alone. He never returns to the governor’s good books either. When he comments on the mismatched clothing of a body taken from the river – “Who’d wear plaid with a Harris tweed?” – Galloway notes that they don’t all share Mike’s sense of fashion: “Poser.” On their way to court, they hit a taxi and the full wrath of the cabbies’ union descends on Galloway, accusing him of causing the crash. Leaving him to deal with it, Mike asks one of the drivers to take him the rest of the way and is later accused by the DI of undermining him in front of the public. The incident blows up into one of the funniest set-pieces of the series, as the taxis stage a running protest around Sun Hill itself. “We can’t move, a couple of cabs have broken down in Mint Street,” one of the drivers tells June. “Not yet – not due to break down till 2.30,” his colleague corrects him.
Meanwhile, the continuing antics of Edward Roach are practically a show within a show. Roach is a compelling figure because he’s an alpha male who has to work hard at it. He takes great care with his appearance and tries to project an image of smoothness, particularly with the ladies, but there’s an angry out of control streak bubbling away all the time. This comes to the fore in ‘Missing, Presumed Dead’, when he’s making routine enquiries and is set upon by a gang in a pub. What happens thereafter, unseen, is an early form of the male rape storyline given to Mickey Webb sixteen years later, only it would never have been expressed in such terms back then. Roach staggers into A&E and collapses, and later limps into work claiming to be suffering from piles. He admits the truth to Galloway at the end, but not before he’s tracked down the culprits and laid into them with a crowbar. He’s only stopped by Jim, who nearly gets the same treatment himself – and we realise how close he has come to throwing away his career in a fit of rage, several years before he does exactly that. The incident clearly teaches him to carry protection: in ‘Overnight Stay’ a bomb disposal expert is called out to check a suspicious package in a hotel corridor. He needs to cut it open and Roach suddenly produces a flick knife, claiming, “I found it in the street.” The look of disbelief that Galloway gives Cryer – this man is one of ours? – is probably the funniest moment in the whole series. In the same episode we are shown Roach’s real priority, when he takes a shine to an attractive member of the jury they are supposed to be guarding and slips into her room for a good time. When Viv finds out she is so furious that she tries to report him to Galloway, and thus a happy future relationship between CID colleagues is born. One of Roach’s abiding qualities is his willingness to drop a teammate in it for the chance of a bunk-up. In the final episode he brings in two girls who are supposed to be giving witness statements about a flasher and launches his best charm offensive. He then arranges to meet them for a lunchtime drink, reassuring a worried Dashwood that no-one will ever find out. Already we get the sense that he is living on borrowed time.
Roach’s most outspoken moment comes in ‘Brownie Points’, where he and Yorkie attend a multi-agency case conference about a battered child. He spends most of his time on an insulting doodle of the social worker instead of contributing anything to the meeting. Once he’s heard the considered opinions of the experts about developing therapeutic work within the family structure, he delivers this magnificent rant: “What family structure? The mother’s got the morals of a polecat. The boyfriend’s a Rasta, so he won’t be around for long.” Tellingly he doesn’t even bother to vote at the end, saying that the decision is unimportant, and then decides to take a Place of Safety Order anyway so that the child is removed. As someone who began their career with an apprenticeship in children’s services, it’s interesting to see the way in which inter-agency co-operation, or lack of it, was depicted at this time – to be precise, twenty-five years before my time, if you’re interested. The relationship between the different branches of officialdom is shown to be not only dysfunctional but toxic, with each person looking at the situation through their own specialism and being unable to see the wider picture. It reflects the febrile political atmosphere of the 1980s, but in a more general sense it shows a universal truth about front-line services. Ultimately the committee’s ineffectual response is dictated by the sheer volume of work: an education welfare adviser states that they are getting referrals from teachers that they would never have got fifteen years ago, believing that the injuries have been exaggerated, and Yorkie points out to an unsympathetic Roach that social workers have caseloads of 80 or 90. The system keeps functioning, just, but only by setting the bar for intervention so high that a lot of cases simply fall through the cracks due to lack of resources.
The mutual loathing between Roach and the social worker Ms Blake highlights an issue that writer Christopher Russell began to explore in Series 2: the ideological gulf between the Met and the local government bodies it’s supposed to be working in partnership with, all of them ferociously anti-Thatcher. The paradox of central government ruling from a city that didn’t elect it and doesn’t want it is recognisable today. Roach delivers a rant about “wet-arsed kids” who are full of theory and need to have children of their own before they are allowed to be social workers, and is silenced when Yorkie asks him how many he’s got. At the conference itself, he points out that a black neighbour has raised concerns about the child. Ms Blake replies scathingly, “She’s what’s known as a coconut – black on the outside and white in the middle”, showing how deeply the battle lines have been drawn. The same language of collaboration and treachery occurs in the next Russell episode, ‘What Are Little Boys Made Of?’, where Taff visits a headteacher who is determined to keep the police out of his school. Tellingly, the head himself appears to be indifferent on the issue, but being anti-police is such an article of faith among his staff that he has to do likewise to keep his post: “If making ritual faces at Bogey Bill means I can get on with the job, consider yourself spat upon.” He even voices concerns from the teachers about officers brainwashing and spying on pupils if he lets them give classroom talks. Taff leaves his office with the cutting remark, “See some of your lads at the next riot, no doubt.” In ‘Domestics’, Sgt. Cryer deals with a local councillor who wants the police to provide more support to a newly opened women’s refuge, but says afterwards to Kite, “She’s anti-police like the rest of them.” This stormy relationship extends to CID operations too: when Galloway raids former council offices in search of a drug factory, the council are furious because they think it might be seen as a covert move to get squatters out and allow them to redevelop the land.
The negativity of the town hall is taken as a given, but Russell suggests that the general public’s view of the police is not much better. When Cryer visits a young man who is planning to join the force, evidently under parental pressure, his dad observes that they are one of the few pro-police families left in London. He chides his son for applying to Essex when the work that needs doing is in the Met. “There’s more to being a policeman than hitting blacks on the head, Dad,” the youth protests. “Yes, we like to think so,” adds a droll Cryer. In the same episode, once Kite has given his verbose warning to the young robbers, their father storms in and instead of berating them he lays into the police for treating them harshly (with brilliant timing, the smaller boy suddenly turns on the waterworks). Another parent arrives at the front desk with his son who has stolen a bike, and wants a senior officer to give him a “good rollicking” – only to see the first man rush out with his kids, screaming at the hapless Kite, “If you so much as look at them again, I’ll have you, you wanker!” Jimmy Carver may have landed himself in hot water for giving a youth a clip round the ear in ‘Woodentop’, but it’s obvious that the days when any officer would even consider such a move are receding fast. Earlier, one of the gang deliberately leads Yorkie on a merry dance, down a slide and back up some steps to tire him out, so he can taunt at him and run off. In the next episode a boy is detained at the station for spraying graffiti on a car, and receives that clip round the ear from his dad because he’s got the spelling wrong. There is the sense that as well as crime itself, the police are fighting an ongoing battle against people’s expectations of what constitutes good conduct, which are getting lower and lower.
The subject of racism also returns, but is not handled quite as bluntly as it was the previous year. We see a black suspect becoming the victim of stop and search and then being pressured afterwards by Dashwood, although some of the dialogue and performances are a little wooden (“See? You discriminate!”, etc etc…). There’s a lot more focus on the Asian community – a man complaining about racial harassment is joined by his wife, who annoys Kite when he is taking their statement by being more pedantic and knowledgeable about the legal definition of harassment than he is. Then in ‘Sun Hill Karma’, Galloway investigates a series of attacks on Asian properties that he believes are not racially motivated, despite being urged to treat them as such. In another example of harmonious relations with the local authority, he gets into a spat with a councillor who says she can’t guarantee the co-operation of her community – “I don’t think it’s yours to guarantee, Mrs Shah” – and then makes this candid comment: “Some policemen nowadays are so scared stiff of being accused of being racist, they bend over backwards to prove they’re not. They let blacks get away with things that no white ever would, so you’re doing all right, OK?” The attacks themselves turn out to be from within the community, a product of the Hindu caste system. A disgruntled businessman has seen others further down the social ladder succeed where he has not, ranting, “All around me the scum of India rise and prosper while I sink.” He has even desecrated one family’s shrine because he believes that the gods have abandoned him in his moment of need.
The idea of a seemingly racist crime actually being caused by internal rivalry occurred in other cop shows. The infamous episode of The Professionals that was pulled from broadcast, ‘Klansmen’, features a gang of white thugs led by Tony Booth, terrorising black families out of their houses, who turn out to be the unwitting employees of a black businessman wanting to clear commercial obstacles. Booth’s character is horrified to find out that he has been working for the enemy all along. I imagine, though, that real community leaders and minority politicians took a dim view of these kinds of stories – thinking that they reinforced perceptions of minorities as divided and crime-ridden. The Asian community became a very common subject matter during the half-hour episodes. Every few months there was a storyline about forced marriage, or domestic abuse, or disputes over family businesses, to say nothing of the line in harassed shopkeepers called Mr Khan or Mr Patel who have to deal with kids causing trouble. Whether these plots helped to break down boundaries or merely reinforced clichés is a difficult question to answer, although some at least were the work of actual Asian writers, unlike here. On one hand we get a detailed breakdown of the different Hindu castes, but on the other, Sonesh Sira revealed on the podcast that his character Dinesh Patel had to be renamed as such after he pointed out that the intended Dinesh Halal was a mixture of Hindu and Muslim names. Arguably the real-life event of 2001 that had the biggest influence on the show was not September 11th but the Bradford riots in July, when white and Asian youths clashed and numerous police officers were injured in the crossfire. This helped pave the way for the restructuring of the show under Paul Marquess – it’s no coincidence that six months after these riots, the show depicts an escalating white-Asian race war that results in the Sun Hill Fire.
What’s really extraordinary about ‘Sun Hill Karma’ is the scene between Galloway and Carver, after they have visited the Asian family, where Jim admits that he doesn’t like Asians – said with a certain degree of embarrassment but not outright shame. “I’ve tried, when I was on the beat I forced myself to go into their shops… It’s weird, I can get on with proper blacks, I like them, but Asians?” When Galloway says that it’s because he can’t patronise them like he does with blacks, he denies it and the DI retorts, “You’re straight out of a textbook – this is PC Carver showing ethnic awareness.” After Carver has made a pun about a suspect’s name, Galloway chucks him out of the car and tells him to grow up. However, he still invites him for a drink at the end of the episode, showing forgiveness. The admission comes out of nowhere but one can’t say it’s random or an example of poor continuity between writers, given that Christopher Russell also wrote Series 2’s ‘Home Beat’ in which Carver was disgusted by Muswell’s racism. He may be a perpetual foot-in-mouth berk, but he’s not an outright bigot sounding off about ethnics. Perhaps it’s an observation that prejudice comes in different forms and degrees. Perhaps too, in the intervening period we haven’t seen, the bleak outlook of the job has taken over: pushing Jim closer to Muswell’s point of view than he would realise or confess. He’s apologetic and asks if he should be taken off the case, recognising that he’s failed to live up to his own image as a fair-minded community copper. The idea that you could have a nominally sympathetic character expressing such views nowadays is unthinkable, and needless to say this is a facet of Jim that didn’t go any further once the half-hour episodes began. Even if the writers wanted to pursue it, the demands of the shorter format would have made it harder to expand on characters’ beliefs in this way. His prejudice evidently doesn’t extend to his colleagues, given his later (unreciprocated) pursuit of Norika.
The discussions about race are less confrontational because the two antagonists who expressed that divide, Muswell and Lyttelton, are both gone. The chopping and changing of PCs was a regular occurrence in this era, before the uniform line-up stabilised into a long-running core in the 1990s. Much of this, as Oliver observed on the podcast, was probably down to contracts expiring and in fairness I don’t think it harms the show in continuity terms. Ken Melvin suddenly makes his debut in this series in the middle of a riot, but there’s no need to give him an introduction because we can easily fill in the blanks from the time the show has been off. His role, like many others, is gradually built up through new plotlines, not via an existing back story. On the other hand, it means there are characters like Dinesh Patel who never really get going because the show is balancing such a large cast. Had he continued into the half-hour era he might have had a bigger role, but it’s understandable that Sonesh Sira left when he thought he was getting a better offer from Hollywood, only to turn out not to because of production delays. I initially thought that the first episode, ‘The New Order of Things’, was intended to have Muswell at the heart of proceedings and then had to be rewritten to take into account his departure – but from what Ralph Brown said on the podcast, Muswell was supposed to be written out by getting injured in a fall and becoming wheelchair-bound, leaving the door open for a later return if he recovered. As Brown couldn’t come to financial terms with the producers, this story must have been created from scratch.
Sgts Penny and Peters arrest a man loitering outside the station with an iron bar in his pocket, who turns out to be the brother of a miner who received a battering from Muswell on the picket lines in 1984. He recently died from his head injuries at the age of just 26, and his brother is now out for vengeance. Muswell’s involvement in the miners’ strike was mentioned briefly in Series 2, but the long-term human cost of those events was something that, inevitably, the show wasn’t in a position to tackle straight away. The brother talks of police squads being brought in to give out beatings, not enforce order, describing them as “Thatcher’s brownshirts” – another blunt political comment that wouldn’t have got through in later times. In the last series Lyttelton got spat on by another black man because he was working for the enemy. This time it’s Nick Shaw who gets the ‘coconut’ role, using his background as a fellow Yorkshireman to get the man to open up, but then having to defend the police to someone who views him as a traitor: “I could show you things that were used against us that would make your hair stand on end… There are some lads that went from here that came back crying, mate.” These scenes featuring morally compromised officers who have a conflict between their job and their community always make for fascinating viewing, showing that the issues in question aren’t straightforward and people from similar backgrounds take different sides. The absence of Muswell makes for a much better story than it would have done if he was still there, as it illustrates the emptiness of revenge: Shaw takes the man back to the station and urges him to look after his dead brother’s family, but he leaves still determined to “get the bastard” one day.
The other hot-button issue of the time that gets an airing is the AIDS crisis, which in one way or another is referred to in the first three episodes. It’s hard to visualise the atmosphere of prejudice that surrounded the topic back then – but now that I sit here writing this in the middle of a pandemic, in which people are constantly afraid of transmission and damaging myths and rumours float around on social media, perhaps it isn’t so distant after all. This was the era where the tabloids coined the infamous phrase ‘gay plague’ to describe the virus. One of the odd facets of school life in the 1990s, at least in the school I went to, was the presence of a deep and abiding homophobia that ran through almost every discussion. I didn’t know what the word ‘gay’ meant until I asked my dad at the age of 10, after it had been slung round the playground for years. When I found out, it only made it more bizarre to me that children were so obsessed by something that had no possible bearing on any of us. Only recently did it occur to me that the outright fear of, let alone hostility to, gay people, was formed by the media coverage of AIDS in the 1980s. Like many other forms of virus, it was hereditary: absorbed into the bloodstream by the parents of my generation while their children were still babies, then transmitted to the kids themselves as they grew older.
When the show handles it here, it’s not overtly judgemental but it does acknowledge that it’s a social as much as a medical issue. A woman is threatening to jump from a high-rise balcony because, her doctor reveals, she’s just been diagnosed HIV positive. Cryer immediately informs the fire brigade that she has AIDS as if this is the same thing (it isn’t), and gives them the opportunity to back out if they want to, but none of them do. After Viv has tackled the woman to safety, she is commended by the doctor for her “understanding” and is all smiles, until Taff comments, “Rather you than me, love. That whole AIDS thing makes me cringe in my boots.” Viv later gets tested and needs reassuring that the virus can’t exist outside the body for long. More telling, however, is her silence when the woman in question later asks her to hold her hand. She observes, “I’m unclean… no-one’s ever going to hold me again”, and moments after Viv has left, she leaves her hospital bed and jumps to her death. The issue returns in the next two episodes, but in condensed form. Viv and June are told that a drug addict they have arrested has got AIDS, and instead of waiting for a doctor to allay their fears they hit the showers straight away. Then in ‘Brownie Points’ it’s reduced to a single line, when an aggrieved prostitute being arrested by June snipes, “If I had AIDS I’d spit in your face.” It’s notable that the theme is given to the female officers, quietly worrying but not making a big deal of it, rather than the more overt disgust you would get from their male counterparts in the same position. The most interesting way to explore the subject would, of course, have been through a gay officer, but the show was a long way from being that inclusive – nearly a decade and a half, in fact.
On the uniform side, one supporting character in particular takes off. The ascent of Reg Hollis begins in the first episode, when he finally returns to street duties after having been off with his injured back. June slowly reintroduces him to the concept of walking – “That’s it, one foot in front of the other” – and he complains about “bleeding gypos” and says how he always wanted to work with animals. But then out of nowhere, a hostage situation develops in a DHSS office and he is the one who goes in and disarms the gunman. This sudden show of bravery is so out of character that others comment on it afterwards, but it’s only the beginning. His next step, into the world of politics, occurs two episodes later in ‘Brownie Points’, where he assumes the role of Fed Rep because he was the only one who applied. The look of horror on Penny’s face when Brownlow confirms that the ludicrous rumour is true is priceless. As Brownlow points out, if no-one else in the relief can be bothered to express an interest they can hardly complain about the result – it’s a neat commentary on how people get the leadership they deserve. This is the beginning of Reg the intellectual, boasting that he has plenty of ideas to put to the governors about developing the service. Viv and June take the opportunity to play a wind-up on him, insisting that he needs to provide crèche facilities for them should they have children, but he’s not to be deterred from his calling. He even gets his first sermon on the evils of stress when he mentions it to the visiting DAC in front of an irate Brownlow, the start of a teeth-grindingly painful relationship that produced some of the funniest moments in the show’s history. Given that they represent union and management respectively, their clashes have a serious edge too. At one point they disagree over the policy of civilianisation, Reg arguing (quite rightly) that the public want to see a police presence on the front desk when they come in to report a crime. The cutbacks to policing have made this a hot topic right now, with members of the public being paid to guard crime scenes, and it will surely become even more contentious.
The Fed Rep storyline is used to examine other characters and how they fit into the station. Peters sees it as an opportunity for someone to get their leg over at the annual conference, like the previous incumbent did, but as Shaw points out, it’s hardly worth it for only one week of the year. Then Peters suggests that June apply for it, and she is less than delighted at the prospect. Having weathered her first crisis back in Series 1, over the horrors of the job, something more fundamental is bothering her: she’s sick of being viewed as the safe, dependable backbone for everyone else. Mistaken from behind for a working girl by a kerb-crawler, who then clears off in a hurry, she laughs about it to the bored Taff. Hardly listening, he comments, “Expect it’s the uniform.” The way she’s treated as a non-person because of that uniform is starting to get to her. When she and Viv sit down in the canteen, Shaw comments that there’s no such thing as a woman in the police, “They’re all men in drag”, which visibly wounds her. It’s made more pointed by the fact that Viv is regarded as the glamour girl in contrast, and can seemingly take all the sexist jibes in her stride. When she agrees that the Fed Rep post would do June good, the latter unleashes one of her brilliant tirades: “Just because I’m not husband-hunting or shag happy, doesn’t mean I need an interest! I’m an ordinary woman, I enjoy my job, I go home and I mind my own business.”
The difference between June and Viv is magnified during the series. When they have to book in the drug addict, Viv comments scathingly, “She’s only gone and wet herself again… We must be the highest paid lavatory attendants in the world.” June is more sympathetic to the girl’s plight, showing an attachment to the job that isn’t quite there with Viv. This comes out in ‘Sun Hill Karma’, when the latter is planning to apply for a post in Bermuda. Having been encouraged by June to pursue what she wants, Viv trails around excitedly after her, talking about the beaches and the travel opportunities. By contrast, June’s next holiday will be down to Hastings as always, because her invalid father likes it. But then Viv gets two punches to the gut in quick succession – the first one literal, when she and Yorkie try to break up a pub brawl. Then someone points to a woman on top of a high-rise car park about to jump. Viv rushes up and tries to grab her, but with the words, “I’m sorry,” she lets go and is gone – and for the second time in this series, someone has fallen to their death right in front of her. The abrupt way this is shot makes it all the more effective: unlike other series, there are no multiple angles, no slow-motion replays and no dramatic music. She is simply there one moment and gone the next, the way that traumatic events happen in an instant in real life. When a distraught Viv is comforted by June back at the station, her insecurities over whether she is up to the job come tumbling out. She observes that unlike the male PCs she didn’t have the strength to save the woman, or to be any use in the fight, yet she’s still getting paid the same. “You’d rather go back to the good old days, would you?” demands June. “Lost kids, women shoplifters, bit of traffic duty – everyone’s favourite aunt?” “Wouldn’t you? I’m not helping anyone anymore,” Viv says plaintively, and collapses in June’s arms.
It’s the kind of worry that must have passed through many female officers’ minds at some point, whether they voiced it or not, and their exchange says a lot about the mindset of both women and their future paths. It could be argued that Viv’s saucy humour is, in its own way, a defence mechanism like Taff’s wry comments, a means of covering up her doubts – and it’s telling that eventually she follows Carver into CID, away from the front line. June meanwhile is outraged at the notion that she can’t do the job as well as the men and is given plenty of opportunity to prove it. Apart from her righteous streak, one of her defining qualities was that she was always in the thick of the action, in chases, hostage situations, kidnappings, you name it. One notable example is the takedown of a serial rapist a few years later, during which Trudie Goodwin got injured for real, as she observed on the podcast. June is a survivor, and Viv is the first of several female colleagues she’s destined to outlive by a long way [for whatever reason, having a surname starting with M seemed to be a death sentence, even more so if you were female – Melvin is the first to go, but in the mid-90s he’s followed in quick succession by Martella, Morgan, Marshall…]. We have already seen an example of the ‘women’s work’ expected of WPCs in ‘Domestics’, when June sits in on a talk between husband and abused wife. After hearing his pleas, she agrees to come back to him – but even as she does so she thinks of home and realises despairingly that, “There’ll be no food in…” Unable to say anything, June gives her a warning look that speaks volumes. Later in the pub, she is disgusted that the wife could return for more punishment, and her disgust increases when the lads start making jokes about domestic violence.
While recounting her dreary image June reveals she’s thirty, which is consistent with the date of birth she gives ten years later when she is banged up for allegedly taking a bribe – as I noted on the podcast, they often seemed to ‘youthen’ a character slightly compared to the actor’s real age. The show hints that her entire life has become subordinated to a caring role, looking after her sick father, but when he suddenly dies it is hardly a weight off her; she is besieged by relatives who never showed any interest when he was alive. In ‘Overnight Stay’ she is working surveillance at a hotel and ends up getting hammered, while being hit on by a sleazy Spanish barman played very well by the distinctly un-Spanish Tony Slattery. Cryer and Penny rescue her and put her in a sauna to detox, and Cryer accuses her of letting the whole team down. By now he knows that the job is what keeps her going, what she depends on, and she sees the same thing in him. In ‘Missing, Presumed Dead’ she turns up to support Cryer at the hospital after he has knocked down the pensioner. She tries to comfort him when the woman dies, pointing out that she would have quit long ago if it wasn’t for him. These two pillars of strength, June and Bob, are not just married to the job but martyrs to it. The difference is that June is an unwilling martyr, trapped between people’s perceptions of her. She wants to be taken seriously as a professional who can do her job, but equally she doesn’t want to be thought of as a career-focused spinster. There’s the sense that she is always searching for something she can never quite get, which is what makes her such a relatable character.
On the less driven end of the scale, the decline and fall of the ‘Welsh Whinger’ continues. One can’t accuse Taff of lacking initiative; in ‘Brownie Points’ he is studying hard to take his sergeant’s exams, pestering his colleagues to test him with multiple choice questions from a handbook. But when Nick asks him why he’s going for promotion, he admits, “I don’t expect to pass, but if I have a go it’ll keep them off my back.” This, then, is the extent of his ambition – doing enough to make it look as though he is doing something. From his perspective he’s become a scapegoat, and when two unenviable jobs get dumped on him at once he mutters, “What a surprise.” All the time Cryer is challenging him over his slackness and time wasting, until he’s criticised again for letting down his colleagues and tries to make excuses. Cryer finally loses his temper with him and he storms out, declaring, “If you want to get me off this relief, that’s fine by me.” On his stag night, Nick keeps needling him for being a misery and he suddenly explodes, shouting, “There’s piss-taking and there’s piss-taking and I’m not having it!” In the following episode he again demonstrates that he’s getting fed up with the job. Called to a children’s home where a youth is refusing to get on a bus for a detention centre, he wastes an hour there with Yorkie until he’s had enough, grabs the kid and marches him to the bus. When the social worker asks how he is supposed to learn a better way, he snaps, “Someone should have taught him a better way when he was three, it’s too bloody late now!” He then gets cut up by a woman driving erratically, pursues her and insists on a breathalyser test that turns positive. She turns out to be a respected GP who faces losing her job, but Kite ignores Cryer’s plea for clemency and sides with Edwards, deciding to press charges. This, of course, drives a further wedge between the two men, as though things weren’t bad enough already.
The great strength of the writing is that we can understand and sympathise with them both. Taff can never do anything right; he’s criticised for being too slack, but when he applies the law vigorously and correctly Cryer is still angry with him. But from Cryer’s viewpoint this is another example of the finicky nature of modern policing, as opposed to the values of common sense, so we understand his annoyance. There’s no need to paint one as the hero and one the villain, in the same way that Viv isn’t a lesser person because she’s finding it harder to cope with the job than June. We see tough, demanding situations filtered through each character’s personality, and inevitably some will be found wanting. It occurred to me that in another era, Cryer’s treatment of Edwards might have been framed to highlight the ‘issue’ of workplace bullying, with a long-running storyline, but here it’s simply a source of tension bubbling under the surface. It might be harsh for him to label Taff a “dozy pillock”, but dare I say it, the show implies at a base level that Taff is a bit thick – not mean, corrupt or bigoted, just a dull implement in the drawer. Dealing with a complaint at the front desk from an angry Asian man, he asks Viv to take over on the basis of her Italian ancestry, because Italy is a bit closer to the sub-continent, and their peoples have similar hot-blooded temperaments. His fiancée Mary is introduced halfway through the series and we get the sense that they’re well matched, in that they’re both quiet, low-key people living mundane lives that aren’t going to change when they’re hitched. Taff implies that the marriage itself is another thing he’s doing because it’s expected of him, not because he wants it. But let’s be clear, I emphasise this sense of dullness precisely because it’s not dull, it’s fascinating. It’s the opposite of every orthodoxy in drama, where characters must somehow be made ‘interesting’ no matter how far-fetched the results. The show as a whole would be less nuanced and authentic without Taff there, making do and getting by, like most of us from day to day.
Having just listened to the final part of the Sally Rogers/Chris Simmons podcast, I noted the former’s comments on how she tried to modify her portrayal after seeing the real police in action, and that she thought the show had got “too slick.” One of the striking features of police documentaries is how the officers come over as regular, unremarkable people that you might meet in other walks of life. Of course this isn’t remotely surprising, it’s just that we are so used to fictionalised versions of this job in a way we aren’t with, say, forklift truck drivers, that it’s jarring to see the reality. I suspect the other thing about real police work that TV drama doesn’t capture is how often they venture into utter cesspits in the course of a normal day – not just in pursuit of suspects, but gathering evidence from victims and witnesses, who are caught in the inevitable overlap between crime, poverty and addiction of one sort or another. This was brought home to me watching a scene in ‘Skipper’, where Cryer and Patel are called into a flat by a man accusing an intruder of having raped his mother. They walk into the living room and find his parents slumped unconscious in drunken squalor, the mother lying on the floor. Once they’ve moved her into the bedroom Cryer makes her comfortable, and wipes something off his hand onto the sheets. The son still maintains that a big, black attacker of some kind has swept through their flat, and, demonstrating the Liam Neeson approach to racial profiling, demands that the police “get out there and pull a few in – there’s enough of ’em!” Knowing that his story is utter BS, Cryer gently informs him of the latest techniques in DNA evidence: that they match a hair sample with fluids found on the victim, and that of course samples will be taken from him for elimination purposes. The son visibly pales, and asks them to drop the whole thing. Once outside Cryer cancels the call, and remarks to Patel, “Some stones are best left unturned.”
It’s the kind of nasty, grubby reality that fell by the wayside a little in the half-hour era – although we don’t actually see or hear anything that would be unbroadcastable before the watershed, it’s more a question of feel. Perhaps it had less to do with the change in timeslot and more to do with the twice weekly, all-year format – when so much drama is being produced at such a fast rate, it’s inevitable that a formula emerges, and once it’s been proven people stick to it. The Bill’s formula had more depth than a lot of other shows but when it’s been running for twenty years it was bound to feel a little samey. I would venture that had the show continued, a good way forward would have been to return to the limited series format like they suggested on the podcast, since it would have allowed episodes to have a more individual tone. Certainly at this early point, no seediness is spared. The final episode, ‘Not Without Cause’, sees Sgt. Penny investigating a bag lady who lives in a top floor flat. He strides up endless dank, gloomy corridors, overrun with filth and stray cats, and when he enters the flat he’s shot with a booby-trapped gun that the woman has rigged because the landlord is trying to evict her. While he lies there in agony, surrounded by these cats all lapping milk like they’re in a surrealist film, the landlord in question arrives outside and sends the woman a message by relieving himself on the door. But in a quirky twist, she turns out not to be some generic crazy but a victim of Second World War torture who’s popped out to buy the works of Che Guevara and a bag of weedkiller, trying to set herself up as Sun Hill’s oldest terrorist. It’s funny and macabre, and unlike any other crime drama out there.
Mention of the watershed brings me to something else valuable about this era that was lost in the transition to the half-hours – it’s not the violence, it’s the swearing. There’s a YouTube clip of Jeff Stewart appearing on TV-AM in 1990, discussing the success of the show but mentioning in passing that their one real limitation is the language. Personally I’m not keen on film and TV that deploy continual bad language, unless it’s done so creatively that it becomes an art form itself, as in The Thick of It. But the swearing in this original era isn’t continual, and as I mentioned in a previous review, it’s confined to ‘Category B’. One of the unintended side-effects of the watershed is to create an artificial distinction between two kinds of show – pre-watershed they have to be squeaky clean, while post-watershed suddenly anything goes and sex, violence and swearing are ramped up to sufficiently high levels to justify the timeslot. The swear words used in these early Bill episodes are the kind of earthy, mid-range expletives that add verisimilitude without feeling as though they are trying too hard to shock. The situations depicted simply wouldn’t have any bite without them – like when Taff suggests that they put the difficult youth on the bus and he snarls, “You wanna come and try, dickhead?”, or the scene where a father has to pick up his hooligan son and calls him a “pisshead” and a “twat”. For comparison’s sake, simply insert any of the stock phrases that the show called upon for much of its future life: ‘scrote’, ‘toerag’, ‘scumbag’, and even ‘jerk’, which I’m not sure anyone on this side of the pond has ever used. Given that half the episodes that were made focused on out of control teenagers, this was a serious drawback. Having watched through the 2001 episodes recently before I returned to the beginning, it seems that the rules on language were relaxed about this time, as suddenly you start hearing the s-word with some frequency. Of course, I say that this ‘middling’ swearing is more realistic – what the police hear on a regular basis probably goes well beyond the foulest mouths you’ve ever heard on telly, but the line must be drawn somewhere.
By this point the show is dominated by two writers, Barry Appleton and Christopher Russell, who between them contribute nine of the twelve episodes in this series. The Appleton storylines focus increasingly on the world of organised crime: in ‘Missing, Presumed Dead’ CID investigate a drive-by shooting that stems from an old gangland feud, and a cafe owner remarks on how the area has gone downhill, commenting, “It was never like this when the twins was about.” Similarly, in ‘Overnight Stay’ the police are guarding a jury that’s under threat from a notorious pair of brothers who have friends and connections everywhere. Galloway handles constant dangers throughout the night that turn out to be linked to an IRA cell in the hotel. This signals another move that the show made in the early half-hour episodes, towards not just organised but upmarket and international crime. Many future episodes use hotels, banks and embassies, involving the smuggling of arms, drugs and bullion, and we also dabble in the shadowy world of the secret services. The mysterious body dragged from the river in ‘Blind Alleys, Clogged Roads’ turns out to be a top-secret number just as Roach predicts, and the team are warned off by an MI5 officer in a storyline that has shades of the Roberto Calvi murder on Blackfriars Bridge five years earlier. Meanwhile, the Christopher Russell episodes have a sitcom-like feel, except they’re funnier than an awful lot of sitcoms. Virtually every line I’ve quoted in this review is one of his, but it’s no wonder when they’re so eminently quotable. In ‘Brownie Points’ the PCs are stuck in a van with a group of rounded-up ‘toms’, including two day trippers from the North that Nick used to go to school with. He wonders what they should do while they’re waiting for the all-clear. “Open a mobile brothel?” suggests Taff. “I wouldn’t pay much for you, love,” sniffs one of the professionals. They eventually get round their boredom with a jolly sing-song of ‘Ten Green Bottles’, just as the departing DAC’s car goes past.
In general, the writing has become sharpened to a fine edge by this point and there’s a sense that everyone knows how to get the most out of the format. Geoff McQueen wrote the series opener for all three of the ‘originals’, as well as the half-hour era, and ‘The New Order of Things’ is by far his best work to that point. In fifty minutes it balances no fewer than four major plotlines while having to introduce new characters in a new station, and pulls it off seamlessly. The increasing confidence of the writing also shows in other, small ways. In ‘Some You Win, Some You Lose’, there is a viewing of recovered property at the station and a man claims an antique snuff box, only for a kindly old lady to arrive later hoping to find it. Horrified, Cryer encourages her to put in a claim for damages to the police as it’s their fault they have lost the item. Then, right after he has explained the situation to Penny, we cut to a scene in Galloway’s car – and through the windshield, the man and woman are visible together on a moped, driving away having pulled off their scam. It took me another viewing of these scenes to work it out and it doesn’t affect the main plot of the episode, but it’s a nice little nugget of detail for those who spotted it. And throughout the series the blend of hard-hitting drama and silliness is finely tuned: in no other show would the trauma of suicide be mixed with the antics of a man in a bear suit, who got the idea because he’s called Fred Baer. “Right, Mr Baer… is there anyone you wish to inform of your arrest?” “Yeah – the RSPCA!” Similarly, we take a break from the hotel surveillance in ‘Overnight Stay’ to witness Nick Shaw bringing in a man who has offended public decency with a blow-up doll. “What have you got to say for yourself?” demands Sgt. Peters. “I was drunk…!” “I’m talking to her.” It’s no surprise that the dialogue in this series is particularly snappy, given that it benefits from the script editing talents of Chris Boucher, who already had sterling work on Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 behind him and was putting in quite a shift at the time. In this same year, 1987, he finished a four-year stint as script editor on Bergerac and brought his own vehicle, the short-lived Star Cops, to the screen.
But all good things must come to an end, and the revamp was just around the corner. Having talked a lot about the strengths of this original period that were lost in later times, it’s worth acknowledging that there were many advantages to the half-hour format that would not have been possible in a conventional series. Had the show continued as it was, it would probably have come to a natural end after a lifespan of five to ten years and been remembered as a superior, and unique, example of its genre. But it wouldn’t have become the long-running institution that it turned into. This way, we are left with three series that are not only distinct from the show that later developed, but quite unlike any other crime programme. Peter Cregeen revealed on the podcast that the change to the 8pm timeslot was entirely driven by advertising demographics, the show being unique in its ability to attract viewers in the 18-35 bracket. It didn’t just offer something fresh to the audience, it drew in a fresh audience, and while the relative youth of the cast compared to many programmes was probably a factor, it wasn’t the only one. The real innovation is to see characters taken out from behind desks and plunged into the real world, with all its mess and chaos. Some of the camerawork is still extraordinary today – shots taken from the centre of a riot, being jostled and bombarded with petrol bombs, or following the chasing Jim through a house in a five-second sprint from front door to garden fence. And bearing in mind the one significant casualty of the changeover, it’s fitting that the last shot of the episode, the series and the era goes to John Salthouse. One can debate whether he was justified in his belief that the show would lose its edge, but there’s no doubt that its success to this point owed a huge debt to him. The show is punchy, in your face and uncompromising, and all these qualities are perfectly mirrored in the character he created. No Top Ten list of characters from The Bill would be complete without Roy Galloway.