By Edward Kellett
It’s later on in Series 5 that we see the debut of the other writer who could challenge PJ Hammond as king of the half-hour episodes, JC Wilsher. Together with Barry Appleton and Christopher Russell, they form an unbeatable quartet that was called on time and time again during the half-hour era. Once you add into the mix the show’s other prolific author, Elizabeth-Anne Wheal, who only became a regular contributor during the mid-90s, a staggering statistic emerges: these five were responsible for almost one in ten of the show’s 2,404 episodes across its 26 years. It’s no coincidence that between them they mustered just one episode following the 2002 revamp, so if you narrow the focus to the first 17 years then the figures are even more impressive: nearly 15% of the 1,642 episodes made. But drilling below the numbers, it’s no surprise that they were used so often, given that they produced quality work time and time again using different approaches that complement each other perfectly. Appleton delivers intriguing ‘what if?’ thriller storylines, Russell sharp and humorous social commentary, Hammond the morbid and supernatural – while Wilsher’s main interest lies in the power struggles and internal politics of the force itself. The research he carried out on the police for his scripts fed into the series he would become best known for, which with all respect to Line of Duty I would argue is still the best show about police corruption, if not the best cop show Britain has ever produced: Between the Lines. By moving into this territory he expands the focus of the show upwards as well as downwards, which I think is the masterstroke that elevates The Bill further above its contemporaries. It was rare to see the life of the ordinary street copper depicted on TV, but even rarer to see the decision-making and thought processes of the higher ranks.
Wilsher’s first episode, ‘Street Games and Board Games’, is a contrasting look at the two ends of the job. Brownlow attends a training course with other chief supers at a swanky hotel, while Ackland and Stamp speak to a woman with an angry mob of black youths waiting outside her door. It’s not an easy ride for the senior officers, however. Now the police are in the business of crime management, they must not only adopt the jargon of the corporate sector but also get to grips with its expensive toys. Brownlow and his counterparts play a bizarre game of monopoly in which they are given a scenario of a developing riot and asked what measures they would take to defuse it. Their answers are typed into a computer which gives updates on how the situation has changed, indicating success or failure. Riot control, and how easily the police can lose it under pressure, was a favourite theme of Wilsher’s, returned to again in both The Bill and Between the Lines. At the end of a decade that had witnessed Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth, Broadwater Farm, Chapeltown and more, there was certainly no lack of material to draw on. Brownlow gets into the exercise with all the enthusiasm that makes him both irritating and endearing, using the required lingo and exploring the options at his disposal. Finally he authorises the first-ever use of baton rounds on the mainland and succeeds in dispersing the rioters – but then faces a grilling about what would be a massively controversial tactic in real life. His fellow supers, having failed the exercise when it was their turn, take delight in posing as reporters and firing annoying left-liberal questions at him. When Brownlow observes that “anti-social elements” always target the police after hearing rumours on the bush telegraph, one of them is straight on his case: “ITN, Mr Brownlow – ‘bush telegraph’? Is that a reference to the ethnic origin of the rioters?” By now it’s obvious that they are taking the mickey, and we realise that the macho culture at the top is no different to that of the rank and file: club room, as opposed to locker room banter.
Meanwhile, as Brownlow extols the virtue of regaining trust in the community and promises that his officers are doing that right now, June and Tony face the backlash from an abortive drugs raid by Ted Roach in the heart of a black area. The girlfriend of the alleged dealer has stashed the drugs in her flat, and is shopped without hesitation by her racist mother, who is less than enthused by the company she keeps. Wilsher’s talent for caustic dialogue is immediately on display, the mother complaining about “schwarzers jumping up and down outside my front door” and pointing at her daughter’s baby: “She loves them – well, you can see that.” The crowd outside begins to swell, objecting to every order given by Tony, who is of course the worst possible candidate to deal with a tense situation like this. The show might have had to tone down its adult content when it moved to the 8pm slot, but it still sailed close to the wind, as demonstrated by the repeated chants of, “All coppers are con-stables!” When June tries to explain to the drug dealer’s sister what is going on, she is surrounded by a horde of people demanding that she get lost (one of whom is 2020’s newly unveiled alt-Doctor Who, Jo Martin, in an early TV role). Finally the girlfriend has to be rushed to the car and driven off as the crowd pelts it with missiles, like soldiers evacuating a combat zone. It hardly needs to be said that these issues are just as relevant now as they were then, if not more so. But the episode doesn’t simply condemn Brownlow and his ilk as being out of touch – it’s a function of the system they’re working in. The challenge of policing London has become so big, and so political, that the top brass pump out ever more elaborate strategies for maintaining both order and image, all of which take them further away from the realities of the front line.
The growing need for accountability at the top is seen in ‘Overspend’, another standout comedy episode. Summoned to a meeting with Brownlow, Burnside is asked what his objectives are for the month. “Keep nicking villains. Make London an even nicer place to live in!” (That line delivered with just the right amount of irony.) Brownlow replies that his objective is to keep the division within budget, and that because CID’s mileage claims are excessive he is cutting off allowance for the time being and instructing them to go by bus instead. “Big red things,” he adds helpfully, seeing Burnside lost for words. The DI breaks the good news to Carver, advising him not to nick anyone without a bus pass. As enthusiastic and on-message as ever, Conway asks Brownlow, “What if there’s a bus strike, sir? I suppose CID just break out the skateboards?”, and we see the legendary double act begin to emerge. Brownlow then gets on his case about problems with the uniform branch, namely the suspicious pile-up of arrests near the end of a shift, necessitating more overtime claims. “Should I issue an order forbidding all arrests in the last two hours of a shift?” “What I want you to do, Derek, is to realise that money is a serious matter.” Christopher Russell revealed on the podcast that a lot of his ideas for storylines came from real-life incidents fed to him by a rather subversive police source, which makes the content of his episodes all the more intriguing. The petty nature of bureaucracy and the constant tracking of expenditure are things we all recognise in real life but hardly ever see in fiction. Over the years the show illustrates how these factors dictate police work, the same as they do any another job. Often a CID operation goes down the plug because the money has run out, not because a vital clue has been missed somewhere, leaving Meadows to placate his furious troops.
The increased focus on the ‘higher end’ of policing gives welcome development to both Brownlow and Conway, allowing them to become more than just remote figures shouting orders from behind desks. The latter, in particular, seemed to be locked into this mode for a while, but there are signs of change during Series 5. In ‘Communications’, by Jonathan Rich, Conway unleashes the first of his bright ideas about improving station morale. Having attended a course on managing stress, he decides that people are not communicating enough and makes a point of going around dispensing cheerful remarks to everyone. Much to the dismay of Frazer, he wants the personal problems of the relief fed back to him so that he can discuss them one-to-one, and has drawn up a rota to talk to each PC, as though he can reduce it to an exact science. The universal fear that this instils is a good illustration of where the caring, sharing police force was at this time. Reg turns it into a Federation matter, labelling it an invasion of privacy, and Penny says it’s a waste of time: “In the old days, if you had a problem you talked to your mates about it, or a sergeant. People should talk to me!” he declares, prompting an alarmed look from Melvin. Conway comes unstuck when he sees June, who is interested only in her chances of becoming a sergeant, a career move that lay dormant for a long time after this but finally came to fruition in the mid-90s. Still obsessed with counselling the troops, Conway turns the whole thing into a discussion about the death of her father and the way she handled it at work. This immediately raises her hackles and she storms out. Things get worse when he sees Taff and discovers that he is planning to leave the Met. Suddenly the helpful mask is gone and Conway’s natural temper is in full force. Marching into the CAD room, he tears down his notices about stress management and Penny declares gleefully, “Normal service has been resumed!”
This is the point where Conway moves from angry voice of authority to long-suffering comedic foil – it isn’t a seismic shift, but it adds a new dimension to the character and provides good material for the episodes focused on station life. ‘Beer and Bicycles’ takes his obsession with micro-management even further, now focused on image rather than wellbeing. Having lined the PCs up in the collator’s room, he gives them a lecture on professionalism, criticising “that rat’s nest you call a locker room” and warning Tony that abrasiveness with the public is out. He investigates the loose floorboard he’s been treading on and discovers a hidden stash of beer. Now in full-on detective mode, he embarks on a station-wide hunt to find more and uncover the culprit. “I keep a change of underwear in that one, sir,” Frazer informs him as he rifles through her filing cabinets. But he becomes the victim of an elaborate wind-up, searching every nook and cranny only to unearth post-it notes telling him to try harder. In the 1991 Tony Lynch book on The Bill, Ben Roberts reveals that this episode went down badly with the powers-that-be, and was subsequently held up as a marker of overly broad comedy that should be avoided. But this is where the show should, again, be viewed as a series of discrete plays rather than one story – with each episode having a different author and outlook, the tone will naturally vary and there’s no harm in pushing the comedy further now and then. The scene where Greig leads a suspect to the interview room and discovers Conway inside, ‘just checking the walls’, is pure Fawlty Towers. There’s an underlying point too, which becomes clearer as time goes on: all these daft ideas for improving the nick are Conway’s method of interpreting the latest faddish thinking from high up, which Brownlow is also beholden to. But he also hopes that if he’s seen to tick the right boxes it will advance his career, even if he has no real faith in them. The sad fact is that he is the polar opposite of the upbeat ‘new man’ he is trying to create. When he tells the troops that the public like “service with a smile, and so do I”, they must wonder if he’s ever taken a look in the mirror.
These station-based episodes often play up the comedy, but they deliver high drama just as well. On several occasions the show explores the effect of the real life prison officers’ strike of 1988/89. With three or more remand prisoners crammed into each cell awaiting transfer, there is a real danger of the custody officer losing control of the situation. Cryer unwisely enters a cell on his own to remonstrate with a prisoner and has to push him away, laying himself open to an assault charge at a time when two councillors are visiting to see the conditions for themselves. The same problem is explored in more dramatic fashion in ‘Fort Apache – Sun Hill’, so called because one prisoner likens the nick to that very place while he and his fellow inmates are being given their daily exercise in the yard. Their relatives are even collecting their washing at the front desk! Frazer highlights the motley assortment of criminals banged up together, while Conway tries to tell higher powers that the station is not designed to handle long-term stays. The chaos enables a bogus chief superintendent, played by Tom Georgeson, to gain access to Sun Hill on the pretext of inspecting the books. He heads to the custody area and makes a daring attempt to spring a murder suspect being held by Roach. But while this is happening, Conway is dealing with an allegation of assault made by one of the prisoners against his cellmates. “It’s not just assault, sir,” says Peters awkwardly. “It’s more of a ‘consenting adults’ job – only he didn’t consent.” Given that hardened sex offenders are sharing space with petty criminals, this is one side-effect that should have been foreseen, but it will now have to be handed to another station to investigate. Little wonder that after the murderer and his accomplice have been disarmed, Conway looks in on a bound and gagged Roach and Melvin inside a cell and carps, “Don’t you think I’ve got enough trouble at the moment?”
The punishing standards put on the police are examined in the memorably bleak episode ‘Seen to Be Done’. It begins in the early morning, Sgt. Penny clearing the previous night’s detritus from the cells. He has the same flair for stony one-liners that Boyden displayed so often as custody officer. A hung-over yuppie complains that he wouldn’t get this treatment in South America, to which Penny observes that he wouldn’t be earning a hundred grand a year there either. “You’re a fascist!” “And you’re a dickhead, unfortunately we can’t charge you for it.” But things go wrong when he turfs out a veteran drunk who pleads to stay, insisting that he’s dangerous and needs to be kept behind bars. The man turns up dead in the front interview room with a head wound, and the machinery of investigation swings into gear. Penny and the other officers who were on duty are called in, having had no sleep, and put through the wringer by James Cosmo’s terrifying chief inspector from MS15. Urged to tell the truth, Melvin reveals that he heard Penny say he’d hit the man back if he attacked him. Now they can scent blood, and Penny panics as his words are twisted against him. He’s saved by one of those ‘one phone call and he was free’ denouements, which was always a weakness of the show when dealing with officers in the dock, but the damage has already been done. Reg, who has made a valiant effort throughout to protect their rights, notes with disgust that the only thing Brownlow said to them afterwards was not an apology but, “Remember to collect your uniforms, you’re on again tonight… Chuffed? Right now I feel like packing it all in.” The image of Penny sitting alone in the locker room, physically and mentally shattered, is one of the series’ most powerful statements. Ken arrives to apologise for dropping him in it, but is told not to bother: “I don’t want to hear it. All in a day’s work, eh?” Brownlow sees the MS15 officers out with all the bowing and scraping you’d expect, but it’s not enough to save him from a lecture about poor security at the station, which will go in their report. What they should be highlighting is poor design: it’s an odd quirk of the Barlby Road set that the front interview room is located before the secure doors, so that anyone can sneak in there off the street, a flaw that was changed in the Merton design, which otherwise has the same basic layout at the front desk.
Like Boyden, Penny is a character who can be moulded for both comedic and dramatic purposes when the story suits. He can dispense the jokes freely when he’s in the mood, but there’s always a stinging undercurrent to them. Advising Taff to “stop playing U-boats”, he hears his excuse that his radio must be on the blink and notes drily, “Taking its cue from your career, no doubt.” He clashes with Burnside over the familiar subject of PACE regulations, refusing to let the wife of a prisoner stay alone in the cell with him in case he kicks off. Realising that he’s not going to back down, Burnside goes over his head to Conway. “Hardly your style is it, running to sir?” Penny sneers. “Just do what you’re told, sergeant. It’s what you’re good at.” The sergeant is proven right as the wife attacks her husband instead. But he oversteps the mark in ‘Feasting With Panthers’, when he accepts a free cigar from a newsagent and immediately tells a special constable outside to tear up the man’s parking ticket because he’s “about to move” his car, to the disbelief of Stamp who is supposed to be acting as mentor. Finding a mocking message on the gents’ mirror, Penny almost comes to blows with Stamp before Cryer intervenes, with his uncanny knack of being within earshot of any dispute. He suggests that Tony should have a private word if he’s unhappy with a senior officer’s conduct. “I can talk to you like that, I can talk to Alec Peters – but not Penny. He can hand it out, but he can’t take it.” Indeed, when Bob tries to reason with Penny, the latter is too proud and angry to accept that he’s done something wrong. “Save your sermons for plonks and probationers – or your delinquent son, come to that!” It’s a mark of Cryer that even though this riles him, he still insists on going out for a drink with his fellow sergeant to clear the air. Ever the pragmatist, he points out that they have to work with their relief every day and that while “we can bang a few PCs’ heads together” they have to do more than that. “I know you’re a good copper…” “Oh well thank you! It must be true because of course you’re perfect, you’re Bob Cryer!” Bob has had enough and walks out, leaving Penny to slide further into the bitter, warped state that has been created by his shooting.
The development of Tony Stamp from background cameo to long-running legend is one of The Bill’s great success stories. Because the role was built up gradually, as Graham Cole’s ability became more and more evident, it doesn’t come with back-story or ‘issues’ attached, which makes Stamp all the more believable. Brian Hart, the ex-chief inspector who became a technical advisor during this series, devised an unused story idea that had Tony at the centre, showing how the real police identified with him above all others. As he grew into the long-serving mentor for newer recruits during the 90s, the aggressively lairy persona we see here was toned down a little, but all the things that Graham Cole noted about the character are present and correct: he is the man you want in a crisis, rushing to shouts and knocking down doors, but the last person you call on for the human touch. His regard for life’s unfortunates is succinctly conveyed in ‘One to One’: “It’s a knocking shop… We’re wasting our time with a junkie tom!” His idea of effective questioning is to wind up a hung-over suspect by leaning in his face and shouting at him, to the disbelief of Dashwood sitting opposite. We learn that he is not only an experienced area car driver by this point but an experienced crasher too. Having clocked up eight accidents in four years, he has cost the job £16, 000 in repairs, but has been returned to driving each time because of a lack of manpower. Conway warns him that one more accident will spell disaster for him – that slate was obviously wiped clean at some point… Stamp’s first big storyline is in ‘Kidding’, where Penny mischievously pairs him with the new, high-flying Richard Turnham and exposes the giant chip on his shoulder about young careerist coppers. When they catch three teenage ‘dippers’, Stamp gives one a clip round the ear and is threatened with a complaint, while the third escapes from Turnham. “I know why you let him go,” snaps Tony. “He was black, for a start… your record wouldn’t be so squeaky clean anymore. I’ve seen it all before – PC to inspector without getting your hands dirty!” When the kids are finally dragged from the nick by their angry mother, he sums up their prospects in two brilliantly venomous words: “Borstal fodder.”
Stamp gets top billing for the first time in the unforgettable ‘That Old Malarkey’, where he responds to a call for help from a woman in a flat and is ensnared by her feminine wiles. After he foolishly sits down for a drink, she spills wine on his shirt and has it off him in a flash with the promise of a clean one elsewhere. By the time he’s learnt the truth, she is inside a locked bathroom, taking a soak and giggling her head off. He looks through her medicine cabinet and proves once again that a career in social work is not for him: “The woman’s a nutter. She’s on medication from the Maudsley!” The episode demonstrates the show’s ability to push the boundaries by pairing the right character with the right storyline. If a different PC were held captive, especially someone like June, the drama would be a sensitive discussion of mental illness, or an exercise in suspense. Instead it’s an ever-more chaotic black comedy, Stamp’s only concern not to get out alive, but to get out alive with his reputation intact. “How dangerous would you say this woman was?” Reg calls to him through the security door that she has locked. “To my health or my career?” he hits back. By the time the fire brigade have cut their way in, she has set light to her room and has to be dragged from a window ledge by Stamp. As he sees the poor woman being led away, his only response is to glance at his watch and moan, “I just knew I’d end up having to do overtime on my birthday.” He is firmly of the ‘nick ’em and bin ’em’ approach, and sees anything else as a waste of time. Anyone who thinks that Burnside got all the good one-liners should check out Tony Stamp’s Philosophy of Police Work, as delivered to the relief down the boozer: “At the end of the day, five per cent of the population is slag. It’s our job to keep that five per cent under the thumb.”
The midway point of this series marks the change of executive producers from Peter Cregeen to Michael Chapman, returning to his original role. Given the non-sequential way that episodes were ‘banked’ in advance of transmission, there isn’t a clear cut-off on screen where the handover occurs; instead, they both receive alternate credits for a while. It can be no coincidence, though, that at this same point the first big turnover of uniform begins. So many departures at once can probably be attributed to the system of rolling six-month contracts, which would have come up for renewal at about the same time. The show does a good job of preventing them feeling contrived, but also has to do something it’s never done before, even five years in: give cast members an onscreen exit. As a limited-run series in its first three years, all the changes occurred between recording – Ralph Brown and Ronny Cush disappearing between Series 2 and 3, and John Salthouse leaving the show before the move to the half-hour format. It’s fitting that Robert Hudson is the first actor to get a proper leaving scene, given that Yorkie was there right from Series 1 and was such a memorable character; even more that his final episode is written by Christopher Russell, whose debut ‘Home Beat’ was the first to hand him a prominent role. His departure is used to make a wider point about the feelings that drive officers out of the job: the cynicism and fatalism that creep in over time. Yorkie may still be traumatised by the events of ‘FAT’AC’, but a more fundamental issue emerges during his final chat with Conway, who is annoyed to see a decent officer go into the private sector. “How long have you been in the job now, five years? It takes that long to make a really good copper – and you are a good copper.” “Five years, that’s the point, sir. What I have achieved? What do any of us achieve? No matter how hard we try. We can’t change anything… we don’t even solve that much crime. We’re just here to clean up the mess. Quite honestly, I’ve had enough of being a social road-sweeper.” We later find out he has included this choice analogy in his leaving questionnaire, as Cryer had hoped, but the latter doesn’t expect it will have much impact on the powers that be.
Yorkie was a useful character through which to comment on the Met, given his outsider status in London. Whenever the show’s Cocknese becomes too impenetrable, he’s there to poke fun at it. Having wondered back in Series 2 what a syrup was, he hears Ramsey declare that the villains they are tailing are “not blaggers, they’re burglars – a couple of joeys off the back of a van, that’s their SP!” “I wish you’d talk English once in a while.” He points out to Conway that as well as slightly better pay in the private world, he’ll benefit from a cheaper cost of living up north. His last scene in the locker room, where a heated debate erupts about the failings of the job, showcases the brilliantly dense dialogue in Russell’s episodes. Every line is either funny or pointed or both, ensuring that the viewer can’t tune out for a moment. Federation hat firmly on, Reg voices more criticism of Yorkie going to a security firm, suggesting that it’s “the thin end of the privatisation wedge.” Taff counters that people have a right to look after their property and he doesn’t blame them for their lack of trust in the police. Then Stamp weighs in: “It’s not our fault… What else do you expect with plonkers at the top and a government that wants the job run like it’s ICI?” But the cynicism is undercut by a poignant tone that creeps in towards the end. Yorkie looks forlornly round the locker room for the last time; then he hands in his uniform to the stores officer, who bids him farewell with a quietly affectionate, “Bye, Yorkie,” showing the high regard in which he’s held. He’s already been summed up by Viv as “an ideal copper – a well-behaved slob”, and having been the victim of one wind-up that day, he gets another one in the pub. Brind approaches him disguised as one of the nice old ladies he’s visited for so many years, only to whip off her overcoat and reveal something far racier. The final close-up of Yorkie, musing sadly as the party kicks off around him, shows that for all his complaints about the job he is going to miss the people, and the work has value for that alone.
Of course, while his may be the first onscreen exit, it’s not the first time a character has been written out. Pete Ramsey has already bitten the dust several episodes earlier, in the show’s first ever death – sort of. The original intention was for him to be crippled and left a wheelchair-bound invalid, who could return at a later point if his condition improved. Notably, this is the same idea that had been put to Ralph Brown when the producers tried to persuade him to stay on as Pete Muswell, suggesting that they had a fixation on giving one of their ‘PC Nasties’ a disability, by hook or by crook. It’s heavily foreshadowed at the start of Ramsey’s final episode, ‘Don’t Like Mondays’, when he pulls over a motorist for a minor offence and lets the man go because he’s in a good mood. “If we’re gonna get a job, let’s make it a half-decent one,” he tells June. “Something with an insurance payout, you mean?” “Now you’re thinking positively!” But if the intentions of the episode weren’t followed through in the end, it is still masterfully plotted. The trouble begins with the money problems of Tosh’s wife, seeded at the end of the 1988 run when he had only just arrived. She turns up at their bank with her five kids in tow, pleading for a loan from the manager, and uniform are called in to deal with it. Word gets back to Tosh, who heads down there to try and defuse the situation, unaware that armed robbers have just broken in and taken everyone prisoner. Equally oblivious, June and Pete arrive at the bank to help with what they think is a domestic and disturb the getaway driver, who nearly hits Tosh’s car as he races off. When Tosh sees what is happening, he races for the front door of the bank and it is Ramsey, holding him back, who takes a bullet from the gunman standing there.
The story crams a remarkable amount of incident into 25 minutes, not only developing a hostage scenario but illuminating Ramsey in more detail even after he’s off screen. Despite some glimpses of his original malice in episodes like ‘NFA’, the bad boy who arrived at Sun Hill has by this point been softened into a far more likeable character. Arguably it’s inevitable that a person who stays around in a series for a long time will lose some of their hard edges as they interact with others, and the near-demonic aura he had in his first few episodes would have been hard to sustain. Most importantly, the planned racial tension with Malcolm Haynes has been completely flipped on its head, at first by the actors and then by the writing as it catches up. Ramsey is seen giving Haynes an affectionate squeeze on the shoulders, saying, “You’re all right with this bloke around.” The friendship they have established is used to fashion both characters’ departure from the show. We learn that Ramsey, the loudmouthed ladies’ man, lives with his mother – and it’s particularly telling that Cryer, who has always despised him, knows his home address and can instantly recall it when asked, before he even knows why he’s been called in from his day off. The episode’s title brings to mind Dog Day Afternoon, as does the climax, in which the robbers try to make their escape by edging to the getaway car using their hostages as a human shield. But their ploy doesn’t work, and it’s poor old Taff, the unlikeliest of heroes, who is last in the firing line. He gets away by elbowing his captor and legging it as the villains are gunned down. The brief shot of him slumped over the bonnet of a car, gasping for breath, tells you more about what fear feels like than a lengthy exchange of dialogue would.
The following episode, ‘Pick-Up’, explores the aftermath of Ramsey’s shooting as he lies in hospital, still in a coma. This is the first time that we do see a lasting effect on the officers of something bad happening to one of their own; it’s too big an event to be brushed over, especially as it was caused by another officer’s panic. Haynes is devastated, taking out his anger on those around him, and it’s made worse by the realisation that no-one else shares his feelings for Ramsey. When Taff, with typical sensitivity, unfolds a newspaper with a massive picture on the front and sits there reading it, he’s unrepentant: “The man was a class-A bastard, why should I care what happens to him?” Haynes is tasked with retrieving Ramsey’s uniform from the hospital. After talking to Pete’s mother he is handed the bloodied clothing in a plastic bag by a completely disinterested attendant, which is the one moment that doesn’t ring true – even the worst jobsworth wouldn’t be that callous and unfeeling to a police officer about one of their own. Haynes reserves his greatest contempt for Tosh, telling him he’s only good for stuffing his face with tea and biscuits, and he gets it in the neck from other quarters too. A DI from area turns up, a brilliantly laddish gum-chewing performance by Martin Cochrane, and remarks drily, “No, I’m not investigating that copper you got shot – playing on your conscience, is it?” But the episode performs a clever redeeming act on Tosh. Burnside uses him to grill a series of working girls brought in off the street, without letting him know that one is an informer for the robbery squad. The idea is that he can “do the business”, shout in their faces and hide the real reason they’ve been arrested, but Tosh is far too good a detective and instantly gets the name of their pimp from the first girl he speaks to. The man is arrested, ruining the operation that Burnside and his fellow DI had planned, while they are busy celebrating down the pub. We see that Tosh is far from useless, whatever Haynes says; even when he’s manipulated, his people skills shine through.
Haynes’ own departure follows soon after, and as well as smarting from what happened to Ramsey, he has other problems to face. As ‘the black copper’, the show did a better job of making Malcolm a distinctive character than it had with his predecessor Lyttelton. Apart from his growing rapport with Ramsey, he also has a natural wry humour, directed at himself as much as others. When describing a recent conquest to Tony, he recalls in great detail how, “She stubs out her cigarette, looks at me with her big brown eyes and says, ‘Malcolm, if you’re Britain’s answer to Shaft, then one of my most cherished illusions has just been shattered!’” But if he’s spared prejudice from colleagues at Sun Hill, that doesn’t stop the police at large having a go. In ‘Duty Elsewhere’, his undercover work is almost blown by two PCs who see a black man behind the wheel of a flash car and immediately bombard him with questions and comments, pointing out minor defects that need fixing. In desperation Haynes ushers them away, giving the name of the superintendent who has assigned him, but they’re clearly not convinced. This treatment comes full circle in his final episode, ‘Pressure’, when he again resists the efforts of Frazer to push him into the limelight as an ethnic success story. “Provided you put in the homework, you’d make a very good candidate for sergeant,” she announces. He is interested, but clearly suspicious of her motives: “I think you know I won’t be a token black, not even for stripes.” He has already experienced the welcoming attitude of the public from both sides when trying to deal with a black accident victim. First a black youth demands to know where the ambulance is, saying the authorities don’t care, then the husband of the driver remarks, “It’ll be here – you lot look after your own, don’t you?” When Haynes tells him to remain behind as a witness, the man adds, “Love it, don’t you, bit of power? Worst mistake this country ever made.”
The story goes up a notch when Haynes visits a businessman who saw the accident, Wilmot, played by Joseph Marcell on the verge of his career break in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When two black characters are given screen time together, as opposed to one appearing in a sea of white faces, the drama is able to move beyond depictions of racist behaviour and examine the cultural issues for the first time. Malcolm talks about his beginnings in the police and we see the deep hostility he faces everywhere, straddling the divide between two groups that are fundamentally at war. “The first day you step out on the street in uniform, they send you out with an experienced officer. I was over in Brixton… the guy I was with was white. He didn’t notice a thing. But you know how it is. How black people are. There’s a look – just a look. I got it from every black person on that street… I pulled the peak of my cap down so they couldn’t see my eyes. But I’m no Bounty bar.” Amused, Wilmot invites him for a drink after work to celebrate his likely promotion. It’s revealed that he is from Jamaica while Malcolm hails from Grenada – the same origins of the streetwise Danny Glaze and the straight-laced Gary McCann, as given in the episode ‘Carnival’ a decade later when they compare notes on life in the police, suggesting a long-running stereotype of both places. Haynes observes that if you move up the ranks you are viewed either with hatred or as a token appointment, so it doesn’t matter how good you are. “It never matters how good you are,” says a dismissive Wilmot. When he offers to put some business Malcolm’s way, which will depend on knowledge he can supply, Haynes realises that he’s being offered a job as a tame copper for a drug cartel. For all his talk of forging a career in the police, it’s assumed by one of his own people that his colour automatically puts him on the other side of the line, and that he should make the most of it.
The last few compelling minutes could easily be taken from present-day headlines, which tells its own story. Disgusted, Haynes rejects the offer and follows Wilmot out of the club to make an arrest. “You think that uniform makes you one of them?” he sneers. “It comes off, it isn’t skin.” His point is instantly proved when two white officers appear and treat both men as suspects, pinning them to the wall and searching them. “You deaf or what, Leroy? What started all this, then – he got your ganja?” Only when they find Haynes’ warrant card do they accept that he’s a fellow officer. Reluctantly he lets Wilmot go, but the latter has this memorable parting shot for him: “You betray black people.” “No, that’s you.” The PCs note that he’s going up in the world now he’s applying for sergeant, and he replies coldly, “All the way, son. All the way.” What adds extra power to this ending is that we have already seen Haynes as an enforcer of ‘the system’ as well as a victim of it. In ‘Pick-Up’, still hurting from the shooting of Ramsey, he pulls over a black driver and gives him a hard time about his details. The man says he’s going to make a complaint about his attitude, snarling, “Black copper, you sell-out!”, and Malcolm has to be restrained from attacking him. Take a look at the end credits and you will see that this driver is played by one ‘Ian Roberts’ – better known to us as Kwame Kwei-Armah, the award-winning playwright who changed his name after discovering his African heritage via the slave trade. More pertinently, he has also spoken of his formative experience as a child, seeing the police charging down black and Asian kids during a riot. One wonders how he felt about what was a rite of passage for any young actor, appearing in The Bill: the scene makes for pointed commentary, but it hardly breaks out of the limited repertoire of roles available to black actors at that time.
While not a departure, there is huge upheaval in the world of Reg Hollis, who is virtually the most powerful man in the station, having carved out an empire as both Fed Rep and collator. In the weekly crime meetings with senior officers he runs the show, giving them a breakdown of figures across the different categories. Unfortunately, power goes to his head and he sneaks criticism of Sun Hill’s management into an anonymous article in Police Review – although his idea of keeping it anonymous is to grab the magazine from June’s hands and urge her to read a “very interesting” and “not badly written” piece on station administration. Brownlow has already seen the article, and is in no hurry to recommend it to anyone. Trying to pacify him, Frazer suggests that “without any proof…” “No proof? I can hear his pathetic, whining little voice!” Later he summons Reg to his office and asks him “a fundamental question – if you dislike the police force so much, why are you in it? Perhaps it’s just work in general you dislike.” Reg presses home his point about needing more investment in the force and that the superintendents should be directing their efforts upwards to lobby for change. He thinks he’s made a breakthrough in industrial relations, but June deflates his triumph by objecting to what he wrote. Always the voice of integrity, she says that attacking Brownlow doesn’t help: “You know exactly what the point of the article was. Just grow up, Reg!” She views it as an exercise in point scoring that does nothing to help the officer on the beat, and in the wider picture this is about more than just Reg’s obnoxious personality. Even after the Fed Rep post changes hands during the 90s to people who are viewed with more regard, the same cynicism persists over how much good it really does, and how much it’s an ego trip for the incumbent, who gets sucked into the world of high politics and loses sight of what the role is for. But the writing is too good and even-handed to depict Reg as wholly selfish; he moans, “These are the people you’re trying to help”, and we do see evidence that he cares about the job, even if he enjoys the prestige it gives him.
Brownlow has already clashed with Hollis over the latter trying to wangle three days at the Federation conference instead of the usual one and a half, leaving the station without a collator. “I realise it’s your ambition to one day be chairman of the Police Federation, but until you reach those dizzy heights you work for me… Has it occurred to you that you might be spreading your talents a bit thinly?” “No sir,” replies a genuinely puzzled Reg. But he seems to take Brownlow’s words to heart and sets about dismantling his empire, asking to leave the collator’s role and return to the relief – much to the astonishment of Cryer and the dismay of his fellow officers. When Frazer wants to know what he was like on the relief, the only answer she gets is, “He’s like… Hollis.” On his final day as community liaison Yorkie is asked by one of his nice old ladies what their new man will be like, and one can practically see, “The horror… the horror…” coursing through his brain, Marlon Brando-style. Cryer tries to dissuade Reg, telling him, “You’re a nine to fiver,” and warning him that handing over a card on a violent criminal is different to tackling them in person. Reg is not to be deterred, voicing his hope of advancement within the Federation now that he can devote more time to it. It’s only afterwards that we find out his real motive, as he calls his would-be girlfriend and announces proudly that he is going back on the streets as he promised. But once he realises that she doesn’t want to go out that night to celebrate, or indeed any other night, he hangs up disconsolately – and contemplates life back at the sharp end, which he has brought on himself for the daftest of reasons.
Having split the storyline about Cryer’s son over two episodes at the end of 1988, the show takes further, tentative steps in this direction in 1989. The first two-parter is the self-explanatory ‘Cock-Up’/‘Repercussions’, in which a failed drugs raid on a sweetshop turns into a post-mortem over the numerous errors that have been made, acting on duff information and then mistakenly processing underage girls in custody. The second, later in the year, could easily have the same titles; at this point the serial stories are linked by procedural errors, not ongoing cases, suggesting a reluctance to make viewers follow a long-running investigation. ‘It’s Not Majorca’ starts out as a day in the life episode, Sgt. Peters dealing with chaos in custody while showing two lay visitors around the cells. In a rush to help Brind with a man who is getting violent, he slips on the floor and cannons into the elderly visitor played by Zohra Segal, leaving her with a broken leg. Things get worse when a boy is brought in for stealing a tin of insects that get loose, forcing Frazer to squash one underfoot in the surgeon’s room. Stamp offers this helpful advice to Peters: “They were lay visitors – you can say you thought it was your job to lay one out.” Faced with a divisional complaint, he is ordered by Brownlow to attend a school fete run by the other lay visitor in the second episode, ‘Mending Fences’. This story is also bound together by an odd sub-plot involving a young hooligan and his acolytes winding up the police: first spray-painting a CID van, then taking advantage when Tony and Reg are forced into the stocks at the fete as part of Brownlow’s PR drive. After pelting them with sponges and burgling the school, the gang is chased to a wrecker’s yard and the ringleader suffers an unpleasant fate. An embarrassed Melvin reveals that the kid is in hospital because “a car fell on him” and Brownlow disappears in a huff, declaring the whole day a waste of time. Peters trots after him, unable to contain his mirth: “Anyone for the hoopla?”
That this counts as a major storyline for Peters goes some way to illustrating why Larry Dann felt he stayed too long in the role. As a man who lets out his passion only when alone with a Cherry Bakewell, Peters is a great character to watch but perhaps a case of diminishing returns from an acting perspective. In reference to the complaint hanging over him, he tells Melvin that, “I’ve got five years left to put in and I ain’t going to bother. I mean, what’s the point? I’m gonna be a mobile coat-hanger from now on.” Somehow Melvin keeps his composure while the thought of this massive change sinks in. Given that he was almost entirely confined to the station, there were limits on how big Peters’ role could get and the kind of stories he was given. In the end he makes it up to Zohra Segal’s character through their shared love of gardening, which is the one subject that will get him energised. His desire for routine is revealed in ‘Climate’, when he explains to Cryer why he’s in such a bad mood: “Sunday morning – I didn’t get me cup of tea in bed. I always get it, 7.45 on the dot. Didn’t get any tea at all… if she wasn’t going to make it, there was no way I was! Then she locks me shed up and throws the key away. She knows I like to go in there on a Sunday afternoon and potter about, I have done for years… Of course there’s me Sunday dinner, I didn’t get that – completely put me off me snooker. Then there’s me Sunday pint, that didn’t taste right either…” This brilliant monologue demonstrates why the show kept away from the characters’ home lives; by getting a brief glimpse into Peters’ utter lack of home life, it tells us more about him than an in-depth story about his marriage or children ever would. Here is someone who copes with a difficult job not only by putting in the bare minimum at work, but by doing the same mundane things over and over again at home and panicking when, as Cryer puts it, “Your wife decides to stick up for herself just once!”
Speaking of doing the bare minimum, this series also witnesses the gradual move of Taff towards the exit door in the following year. The decline and fall of the promising PC Edwards is one of the show’s great successes, however paradoxical that may sound. As one of just four cast members retained from the pilot episode, it was fitting that Colin Blumenau got this long-term character arc, which is rare in any TV series outside of a soap, and one of the few that straddles both hour-long and half-hour eras. In theory this change in length meant sacrificing character in favour of plot, yet Taff’s storyline arguably works better in the shorter format, because it’s one of little moments, not dramatic ups and downs. With each knockback he suffers, there’s a slow accumulation of resentment with the job and his life as a whole. There was a sense with Taff in the original series that what you see is what you get, but this exterior is peeled back in the half-hour era to reveal greater depths underneath. His instinctive coping mechanism is still the brilliantly tart quip; when he attends the death of an old woman, a neighbour asks if they can get him anything. “A decent job with prospects?” When June later asks if the mortuary van turned up, he replies acidly, “No, I just carried her out and dumped her in a skip.” But in ‘Communications’, he and Brind get no interest in their door to door enquiries about a missing girl and he unleashes a rant about how people in London are isolated from each other and have no concern for their neighbours. “Been a copper everywhere else, have you?” she challenges him. “It’s my impression that it’s worse in London, all right?” He reveals in his one to one with Conway that he’s voicing the thoughts of his wife, who hates being stuck in their flat on her own and wants to move – not to the suburbs, but to Wrexham.
Taff gives the impression that this is a done deal, saying that the flat is on the market, but we later discover that Mary has been into the station, bending Cryer’s ear over his refusal to grant her husband a transfer, when no such application has been put in. With another character this could have been an example of lax continuity, but it’s typical of Taff that he would give out these mixed signals to the people around him, trying to keep everyone satisfied without doing anything. There follows a rare rapprochement with his nemesis Cryer, as they talk in an interview room – “Appropriate isn’t it, bringing me in here?” – about what’s troubling him. On the verge of tears, he admits that his wife is lonely. Cryer suggests that he gets her involved in police functions and get-togethers, but he doubts this will work: “Not going to win the Sun Hill popularity stakes, am I?” He does stretch to a quiet “Thanks” as he leaves the room. But they are at loggerheads once again in ‘A Fair Appraisal’, when an already damning report by Inspector Frazer is made worse by Taff’s failure to spot a break-in at a factory. His persecution complex returning, Taff responds, “Anyone could have made that mistake. If it had been any other officer, I don’t think you’d be so critical.” Cryer’s tough-but-fair mask slips for a moment, revealing a hard edge, when he warns Taff not to try bringing this up in his appraisal interview: “You’re in enough trouble already. You try spitting on me in the process and I wouldn’t give your chances in this station more than five minutes!”
Conway tots up his various examples of absence, lateness and poor arrest rate, and offers him the olive branch of counselling. Taff rejects this at first, but when he does show up for an appointment in ‘Beer and Bicycles’, we get the most detailed look into his psyche so far. He is prickly and defensive from the start, wanting to know about the counsellor’s background and qualifications. This scene is a fascinating time capsule, showing the early days of counselling and psychotherapy, in this country at least. The counsellor, an ex-DS, reassures him that the tough guy attitude of the Met is changing, but Taff is keen to emphasise that that’s not the problem. “I’ve got no hangs-up about being a macho man… I just don’t like talking about myself.” Asked to identify the one word that is the source of his unhappiness, he singles out ‘marriage’. He observes that his wife is always on at him to move back to Wales, the thought of which fills him with dread. “She’s a small-town girl with small-minded parents, they like living in each other’s pockets. I don’t want to creep back to my home town and my in-laws, and be expected to spend the rest of my life slagging off the big city.” But when he talks about why he came to London in the first place, to escape the boredom of the provinces, he reveals that city life is not to his taste either: “Getting all tanked up and talking about sex in a loud voice, not really my scene.” We see that he’s the kind of shiftless person who will never be happy with his lot, because he’s after something that eludes him. Moreover, he needs someone else to give him the direction he lacks. The counsellor concludes that he has never really fitted in and the idea of moving home is really his own wish, not his wife’s. Galvanised by this, Taff decides to leave and the closing moments of the story provide sad, telling justification. Feeling brighter, he asks the rest of the relief out for a drink and gets no takers. He breaks the news of his departure to June and she says cheerfully, “I think you’re doing the right thing, Taff.” His final dry look confirms the truth he has known all along: that no-one is going to miss him.
The other character following Taff through the exit is Christine Frazer, after only 18 months in the show. Her role seems to have been gradually whittled down over time; having appeared in half the 48 episodes from the previous year, she turns up in only about a third of the 104 episodes across 1989. Given the size of the regular cast and the need to shuffle storylines between them you might think this unsurprising, but it also smacks of uncertainty over how to develop her. As I suggested in the previous review, Frazer’s role always seemed to be caught between the sympathy of the sergeants and the ear-bashing from Conway. This problem is subsequently solved when he gets drawn into high-level politics and it becomes the inspector’s job to discipline the troops, but this was only after her departure. The show seems to have forgotten her for a while before suddenly pushing her into the limelight in ‘Just a Little Runaround’, where she is the first character to get a story to herself, on the Met’s Shield training course. The imaginary divisions that Brownlow and his peers were pushing around a board are now seen in the flesh. Without making any overt comment, the story demonstrates that policing London in the late 80s has turned into a gigantic military operation, with a huge outlay in facilities and equipment comparable to an army barracks. Frazer is put in charge of the serial unit that has to tackle an assault course of hooligans, chucking first missiles and then petrol bombs. In the heat of battle her commands aren’t heard clearly and the red mist descends on her unit, matching the thugs’ aggression with their own. When they are left trapped with flames all around them, the instructors deem her to have frozen under pressure. “I’m afraid I’ll be submitting a report to your governor,” the staff constable informs her. “We have to be sure you’re suitable for this kind of work.” Frazer insists that he’s making a mistake, but on the bus home, surrounded by laddish banter and drinking, her nervous smile betrays her fear that an avenue of opportunity has just been closed to her.
Sure enough, criticism comes in the form of another scathing appraisal, like Taff’s. This isn’t a coincidence, as the writer of both episodes, Garry Lyons, revealed on the podcast that he was given this brief by the production team. ‘Speaking Freely’ gives Frazer some brilliant head to head scenes with Brownlow during her interview, which reveal a lot about the power dynamics at the station and in the police as a whole. Brownlow has already taken Conway to task over his negative comments, observing that the lack of high-ranking women in the force is a problem. For all his obsession with image and buzzwords, when he talks to Frazer we see he is fundamentally decent: a pressured man trying to keep everyone happy while also giving them room to air their grievances. When she disagrees with the negative feedback from her Shield course, he can’t contain his exasperation: “Why do you keep up this front, Christine? Why do you feel this need to prove yourself invincible? It really doesn’t help. You fool yourself and make yourself unpopular with everyone else.” But we know why, the same way anyone who is forced to be a trailblazer has to be exceptional: to prove they deserve it. Recalling her experiences as a senior officer, Frazer declares that if you speak out against sexist treatment you make enemies and if you get close to a male colleague you are thought to be sleeping with him. “I’ve been touched, mauled, abused, patronised…” “By the public?” “And by policemen! And the worst part is, they think it’s a compliment – so you grow a hard skin, keep your feelings to yourself, pretend you’ve no interest in things like sewing or having kids. In the end you’ve got to check in the mirror to see if your femininity’s still intact!” To his credit, Brownlow accepts all her criticisms and that the force has to change, but she observes that this won’t happen if women are giving it up. He declares that the self-assessment she has written “isn’t entirely about you”, which isn’t surprising – as a member of an oppressed group she has to represent her entire gender, in the same way that she pushed for Haynes’ promotion in the hope that it would boost ethnic recruitment. Brownlow delivers the usual platitudes about needing more development, but decides that she isn’t ready to be a chief inspector, and she says she must consider her future at Sun Hill.
This electrifying scene is reinforced by a sub-plot about an anti-abortionist giving a talk at a nearby college. Frazer has passed Conway a memo about possible trouble from female protestors, which he has ignored, and when he is forced to deal with the consequences it somehow becomes a problem that she has saddled him with. It’s a good illustration of the pack mentality of men when they come together to deem a woman useless and a source of trouble. Conway harangues Sgt. Penny over his intricate plan to smuggle the lecturer into the college, insisting that they need a low-key approach, but they are happy to agree that it’s been dumped on them by Frazer, and the PCs sent in to keep order display equally toxic behaviour. After noting that Frazer is “getting her annual pat on the back, or somewhere else”, Garfield drives up to a group of activists at the college and fails his audition for the Fawcett Society: “Here we are – slags’ convention. Who’d want to give any of them a baby?” It also shows the dismissive attitude of men in power to a ‘woman’s issue’. When Conway criticises Frazer for going over the top with security precautions, declaring that “this isn’t Tiananmen Square”, she counters, “Abortion may not mean a lot to you, but there are a lot of people who feel very strongly about it.” “I think we’d better leave personal feelings out of this,” he replies sharply, stung by having his biases exposed. But as well as suggesting that the jaded and detached attitudes of the police can be a problem, the episode also shows why they get that way, having to take elaborate precautions for the smallest of threats. At the end as they are leaving the college, Penny notes wearily: “You know how many people turned up to listen to him? Five. All that for five bible-bashers.”
Yet as well-written as the episode is, by delving into these issues right at the end of Frazer’s tenure it highlights how lacking they have been up till now. She has a good beginning in the show and a strong end, but no real middle; we haven’t seen enough of this treatment, or her struggles against it, to build her up as a sympathetic character. I noted above that seeing Haynes have a discussion with another black person, as opposed to being one black face among whites, helped draw out the issues of racism in more depth. Frazer too has little opportunity to discuss her problems with another woman, but in some respects that is the point of the character. As a senior female officer she is doubly isolated, the combination of gender and rank making her unpopular with almost everyone. Viv, who has already shown disdain for her intruding on the WPCs’ space in the ladies’ toilets, tells Stamp that she won’t be sorry to see her go: “I’ve never been one of her favourites – none of us women have. It’s the obvious moment for her to be moved on,” she declares, not realising that she is listening behind her. In ‘Just a Little Runaround’, Frazer is knocked over by a stone and is so shaken that she has to have a breather in the locker room. The only other woman on the Shield course, a down to earth WPC, comes in to see if she’s all right and they share a moment of the femininity that she later talks about having to suppress. She is startled to learn that the WPC has two kids she has to provide childcare for: “I feel a bit guilty, but I love the job, so I’m stuck.” The implication is that Frazer has had to sacrifice the idea of a family for her career, and she says as much in her rant to Brownlow.
Defying expectations, this action-packed episode is directed by a woman – which, as Garry Lyons and Barbara Thorn noted on the podcast, was a rare thing at this time. Even rarer were female writers, who had contributed precisely two episodes in the first five years, and this improved a little, but slowly, as the 90s drew on. You don’t have to be the biggest champion of diversity to recognise that what comes out of a creative effort reflects what goes into it. Therefore, you look at the on-screen handling of Frazer in a different light after hearing Thorn reveal on the podcast that her departure stemmed from Michael Chapman’s belief that there “wasn’t really a place for women” in The Bill. This damning statement makes her exit an unpleasant case of art imitating life. The show gets to have its cake and eat it, using the issue of sexism to get rid of a female character so that it doesn’t need to explore it any more. Barbara Thorn went on to play police officers in other series such as Trial and Retribution, but it’s little wonder that Lynda La Plante told her she felt that they had underused her on The Bill. After Monroe arrives the following year, the top brass in uniform remain unchanged for the next decade – in most respects a good thing, as it allows the audience to get attached to them and builds a strong sense of realism, but it also means that no new faces get a look in. Things are a bit different in plain clothes, but once Meadows takes over as DCI that leaves only the DI’s role to provide any variety at all, and that too is fairly short-lived. That’s not to say there is no decent material at all for female characters, but there is something of a missed opportunity, especially when you consider The Bill’s unique ability to reflect the whole of life in the police.
While there are many faces hanging up the uniform, there are just as many putting it on – a procession of legends, one after the other, most of who would be in the show for close to a decade or more. Importantly, none are parachuted in via an attention-grabbing storyline (with the exception of the short-lived Richard Turnham, whose first appearance is a memorable one, going undercover as a hired gun who is supposed to fulfil a gangland contract). Indeed, they’re not all given the fanfare of an introduction – the much put-upon George Garfield makes his debut wandering into shot in a corridor, having been there for some time already. Garfield has that great ability to make you sympathise with his dogsbody status one minute, then wince at his stupidity the next. After he’s cocked up a vital arrest, Burnside snarls “Prat!” in his face as he marches down the corridor, reducing him to a frightened toddler. When he’s paired with one of the show’s forgotten PCs, the ironically named Tim Able, the two hapless rookies come across as the Dumb and Dumber of Sun Hill. Taken to task over their awful collecting of witness statements, they are given the opportunity to improve in a staged scenario with a colleague. “What’s your name, love?” “Why are you calling her ‘love’?” demands Frazer, to which Able replies proudly, quoting direct from the textbook, “To put the witness at her ease, ma’am.” The witness in question is the new girl on the block, Norika Datta: a good example of a character brought in and then left to sit on the sidelines as the stories catch up to her. But even with little to do, the quiet, caring strength that defined Norika is already in evidence. In one early episode she questions a teenage runaway and calmly bears her racist abuse until she uncovers the disturbing truth about why the girl left home.
Of all the arrivals, the one given most screen time is Reg’s replacement as collator, Cathy Marshall. My childhood impressions of Cathy as a viewer in the mid-90s were of a rather stern and forbidding figure, which couldn’t be further from the shy and demure woman who enters the scene here, putting up first with Reg’s guided tour and then with his impenetrable filing system. The relief can’t work out why a perfectly able woman is taking over a desk job that was ideal for the malingering Hollis; she is said to have made a dangerous arrest for which she received a commendation, but also perhaps a lingering trauma that forced her out of the front line. The first real insight into her background comes in ‘Kidding’, when Viv reluctantly follows up a series of domestic violence cases. She criticises the inaction of the women she’s seen, only to learn that Cathy was a victim too. The episode demonstrates how the show combines characters with issues – it’s done not to launch a long-running storyline for the former, but to provide insight into the latter. In particular it shows how domestic abuse spans all walks of life, including comfortable middle-class households. The worst involves one of those nightmarish, sneering, police-hating intellectuals that the show always depicted so well. When Viv turns up expecting that the woman will be alone, he emerges from the flat and blackmails her into coming in for tea with the quiet warning that he’ll “cause trouble if you don’t…” Reading between the lines, she enters and stands watching him like someone eyeing a wild animal. “TS Eliot’s rather neurotic first wife was called Viv. Do you know who TS Eliot was?” he baits her. “Yeah, he wrote Cats.” “Almost right.” After the terrified woman has urged Viv not to return, she voices her anger to Cathy, who sits down and quietly admits, “My husband used to knock me about. My big, brave CID husband… Then he’d cry and say he was sorry. And he meant it too! I’d take him in my arms and tell him it didn’t matter. ’Cos I understood it you see, that was the problem. So you see, I was one of those stupid cows too.” The ‘understanding’ line is a disturbing hint about violence in police relationships – that because Cathy knew the stresses of the job, and the toll it took on her husband, she also accepted the abuse as an inevitable result. There is an optimistic post-script when the battered woman turns up and declares that she will press charges, admitting tearfully to Viv that the final straw was seeing the contempt on her face as another woman, not as a police officer.
Cathy turns out to be resilient in more ways than one. In ‘A Little Knowledge’, she has settled into her role as collator and begun to devise her own card index. This pre-computerised database, alien to our twenty-first century eyes, depends on recording the smallest details of each crime for future cross-referencing: height, clothing colour, facial marks, days of the week on which burglars like to operate. But the digital age is coming, with Cathy expressing her wish for a computer. At the same time she outlines the associated problems that we face today, showing they were foreseen long before they became commonplace. “Then you run into data protection, don’t you? Villains’ll start demanding copies of their own printout. Rather defeats the object of local intelligence.” Sure enough, subject access requests for an individual’s police record became a basic right. But Cathy’s ultra-efficiency is getting on people’s nerves. “You know she’s started an index of mannerisms?” says a disbelieving Taff. Jim sets up a “character-building” prank to knock her down a peg, informing her that the fire officer is due to visit and as collator she is also fire liaison. Acting on supposed procedure, Cathy goes round collecting every fire extinguisher and lugging them into the yard to be tested. Even Cryer colludes in the wind-up, insisting that he doesn’t want to know the details. But when she overhears what has been going on, she quickly turns the tables. Carver is summoned from the canteen by a furious Brownlow and taken into the yard to see his own car, which has had each extinguisher dumped in the back. “What concerns me is the lack of maturity that makes you the obvious target for such a juvenile prank. If you want a career in CID, I suggest you leave the locker room behind and start to take the job seriously.” The irate Jim grabs the first extinguisher and sets it off, dousing everyone around him in a haze of CO2. This time, Conway is on hand to dispense his own words of wisdom: “Can’t you use a sponge and shammy like everyone else, Carver?”
The last of the new regulars to arrive in this year is the most significant: the mighty Dave Quinnan, backbone of the relief for the next decade. As so often happened with people who came to be old stalwarts, he’s initially presented as a rather shadowy figure, holding the dirt on Richard Turnham over his affair with the wife of a senior officer at their previous nick. They have a stand-off in his first episode ‘Chinese Whispers’, which doesn’t go unnoticed. But Dave’s main preoccupation is skirt-chasing. Within minutes of being introduced to the relief he is directing his unsubtle charms at each WPC in turn. Tony warns him that, “Crumpet here set very high standards, Dave. They’re used to quality”, at which point June walks past with a mocking cry. That same episode, however, begins the overhaul of the show’s biggest character, when it’s revealed that estates management have been round the building inspecting it. Brownlow insists that he has no idea where Sun Hill falls in the modernisation programme, telling Conway, “I’m just the chief superintendent, they could be knocking this place down round our ears and I’d be the last to know.” “It’s going to lead to rumour and speculation.” “What else are police stations for?” Sure enough, the grapevine is soon busy, with suggestions that Sun Hill is going to be merged with Barton Street in one giant new complex. “The thing is, the grotty old Victorian stations keep the coppers out on the streets. Make ’em too comfortable and they’ll all want to stay in!” Tosh declares, sipping his latest cup of tea. But you can’t keep the tide of progress down, and as the show moves into the 90s, it is about to acquire a new home for the rest of its television life. Moreover, the drama will go from strength to strength, moving into darker and more inter-linked storytelling. For my money, the next few years are where The Bill really hits its stride, and delivers what no other crime series could.