By Edward Kellett
In a previous review, I noted how much of The Bill was written by a mere handful of authors – a small number of reliable names called on again and again, churning out high-quality work. But of what we might disparagingly call ‘the rest’, some names leap out even if their contribution was very small. Almost thirty years before Lennie James created, wrote and starred in Save Me, he delivered ‘Burnside Knew My Father’, in which the DI is reacquainted with a black family that used to look after him when he was a young copper. Now the mother is in pain from sickle-cell anaemia (“It’s an hereditary illness, prevalent among black people,” Turnham explains at length; “Wonderful thing, education,” comments Roach) and the father, played by Rudolph Walker, wants to assist her to a peaceful end, which Burnside understands but cannot condone. In the end, he leaves with a warning to “be sensible”, and we never know what happens behind closed doors. Another name that stands out at once is Roger Leach – the only member of the regular cast ever to get a script on air, though not for lack of trying on the part of others. In ‘One of Those Days’, June and Steve attend a hit and run where a pregnant woman has been knocked down, but as she is taking a witness statement Steve butts in and suggests she accompany the woman to the hospital because “victim support is your thing.” Furious, she puts down her notebook and gets in the ambulance. Meanwhile Brownlow returns from a meeting at the Yard where he has been given a dressing down about the lack of promotion of female officers at his station. Typifying the knee-jerk response of people in power to a new problem, he is determined to correct this at once. He warns Monroe and Conway that the principle of ‘vicarious liability’ means every supervisor down to the rank of sergeant could be blamed for this lack of progress, under equal rights legislation – a topic brought up by the departing Frazer when Brownlow and Conway tell her of the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that only male PCs should be sent to deal with pub brawls. After setting up a rota to see each WPC in turn, he arranges for questionnaires to be distributed asking for opinions on working with the opposite sex: something that Conway urges should be anonymous, if they’re going to get any response.
June returns from the hospital in tears after speaking to the hit and run victim, who lost her baby in the accident. When it’s her turn in the chair, she observes that she’s having one of those days. “We all have those,” says Brownlow sympathetically – and her eyes flash with the blazing anger that only Trudie Goodwin could produce. “No we don’t, not all of us! Do you know what women are treated like in this job, sir? Oh, a WPC’s the station bike when it suits the lads. But when it comes to child molesting, distressed mothers and children, the nasty rape cases, it’s always us who have to deal with them. We’re needed then, we’re respected even! It’s always the women who get the ‘delicate’ jobs – and they are awful, they just tear you apart. And you know why sir, it’s because emotions aren’t respected in this job.” This shows that the programme could offer alternative and challenging views to the status quo – June pointing out that the system is set up by men and geared to make things easier for men, and will always be inherently tough for a woman to work in. A chastened Brownlow says he understands how she feels, but she replies, “With respect sir, you can’t.” The scene brings to mind the rant she delivered to Cryer back in Series 1, about the cumulative effect of having all the worst jobs dumped on her, but the fact that nothing has changed in that time tells its own story. Pondering why she is still in the police, she is informed that the hit and run driver has arrived: a dead-eyed solicitor who rang 999 but didn’t stop to look after the woman he ran down. “He knew exactly what he was doing,” June tells Cryer. “He leaves the scene, sobers up and then comes in to confess later when he knows there’s no chance of him being charged with drink driving… There are laws against abortion, but not against killing unborn babies with a car.” After the man has duly passed his breathalyser test, she goes up to him and informs him bluntly that he killed a child.
June’s cynicism over the supposed impartiality of the law is voiced sharply in ‘Near the Knuckle’, a tale of domestic violence which is perhaps the most ‘directed’ episode to this point. The smoky lighting, low angles and numerous close-ups all seem to hail from another programme entirely, and would surely not have been let through without comment from above. But it’s important to push the boat out with a guest star as distinguished as Dorothy Tutin, playing a battered wife whose husband is not just a GP but a friend of Sun Hill’s FME. With the latter completely unaware that the former is responsible for the injuries he is treating, she claims that she was mugged in order to prevent embarrassment. The show delves into the issue of violence in ‘respectable’ households, and the damage caused by expectations of how people should behave. In the interview room, the woman tells Norika of her husband’s controlling behaviour and the hidden uses of his medical knowledge: “He holds me by the hair and punches me in the body. He knows exactly where it hurts, and the bruises won’t show.” But she makes it plain that a woman of her age can’t just up and leave home, and has to stick it out for the sake of her children’s education, no matter how painful it is. Watching the husband from the office, June tells Peters that he will probably get away with it: “All they get when they get to court is a fifteen quid fine and a slapped wrist. Some of these judges see nothing wrong with slapping your wife around a bit. They probably go home and do it themselves.” But of all the WPCs, it’s Cathy who is most disgusted at seeing her own doctor accused of battery. “It used to be Mrs Hooper, remember?” she jogs his memory. “I’ll be finding another GP.”
Cathy’s abusive past returns to haunt her in ‘Forget Me Not’, when her CID ex-husband turns up at the station on a mission to track her down. On edge from numerous silent phone calls, she is in the canteen when the loudmouthed Quinnan turns to the subject of how to treat ‘plonks’: “Some of them just need sorting out.” “Treat ’em mean and keep ’em keen, is that it?” she snaps. “What’s your idea of a really good time Dave, knocking them about a bit?” June later comforts her in the locker room: “They’re canteen cowboys, Cath. They’re ten a penny. Rise above it.” But the memories come flooding back when she deals with a woman in hospital who has stabbed her husband. Finding out that he is still alive, she murmurs in disappointment, “I couldn’t even do that right. Had enough today, couldn’t take it again. He comes in from the pub, just starts straight in, no warning, no reason, nothing – just bang. Something in me snapped; I felt it go.” “Makes you wonder if there’s any decent blokes out there at all,” Viv muses later. “None in this job,” replies Cathy. Viv nominates the DS she met that day, having been impressed by his charms, and is embarrassed to learn exactly who he is. Hooper has already caught up with Cathy and tried to win her back, because he has a complaint hanging over him and needs to present a good image. When pleading and flowers don’t work he resorts to violence, dragging her into a laundry room. She is saved by the intervention of Dave, who has to take a punch in the gut to learn the error of his ways. Tellingly however, just like the GP’s wife, Cathy relents from pressing charges in the end.
There are also longer stories in this year that take a traditional ‘woman in peril’ idea and use it to comment effectively on sexist attitudes in the legal system. ‘Victims/Somebody’s Husband’ opens with a young woman played by Catherine Russell arriving at the station while it’s still a building site, filled with workers chucking debris around. She has to approach a front desk that’s been relocated to a portacabin, manned by Garfield in his best, “What’s your problem, love?” mode, and report an incredibly personal crime in front of an elderly couple who have come to complain about their unsolved burglary. Letting them go first, she faints and is carried into the collator’s office, where she reveals that she was assaulted on her way home the night before. Tosh is sympathetic, but the first question he asks is what she was wearing, which elicits a mocking laugh. “You mean, was I wearing a see-through top and a slashed leather miniskirt?” He explains that if the case were to go to court, it would be the first thing the defence asked, “And all we’ll need is a senile old judge and he’ll get off.” “I was wearing an old duffel coat, over a dowdy calf-length floral print dress. I looked like a junior schoolteacher.” “What do you do for a living?” “I’m a junior schoolteacher.” The whole exchange is enough to make Cathy storm out and plead for a return to the relief, rather than being cooped up in an office “pushing bits of paper around” as collator. Back at her flat, the woman reveals that she had a hatpin in her bag but couldn’t reach it. “It’s probably just as well you couldn’t,” June advises her. “The law states that you can use reasonable force to defend yourself. Offensive weapons are a problem.” “He had a weapon,” the woman points out, demonstrating that she could be penalised by the law for not having the strength to fight back with her body alone.
Deducing that this attack is the latest in a pattern confined to one area, Tosh raises hell and manages to get a rolling night-time surveillance set up. While the team is assigned observation points, June visits a woman who has claimed that her husband is threatening to kill her. When she arrives, the wife reveals that she exaggerated slightly but she is concerned over his recent behaviour. He is out at all hours and never lets her know his whereabouts. We are given proof of his disturbed state of mind by the presence of horror videos and a Dirty Harry poster, a cliché about the influence of violent material that crime dramas rely on far too much; my brother had a Dirty Harry poster on his wall as a teenager and as far as I know never became a nocturnal predator, although I admit I’m not his keeper… But it’s when the man himself shows up that things get interesting. He is a curt, tightly wound figure, his every move full of pent-up aggression. His mantelpiece is bursting with trophies and he has copies of Police Review lying around. Questioning June about her job, he reveals that he applied to join the force but was turned down for being too short. “I could tackle people twice my height. It doesn’t matter how tall you are if you’re weak. I’m not weak. How is it you get to do the job and I don’t, when I could crush you with my little finger?” The inferiority complex bubbling inside him, the need to somehow ‘prove’ his manhood and the radio scanner he has fitted upstairs all suddenly add up for June. After leaving she calls in from a phone box, warning that he can monitor police transmissions, but he then goes out again and she follows, stopping him from committing another attack. She chases him into a cemetery, where he suddenly leaps on her and they fall into a vicious, chaotic struggle, June screaming her head off. This fight in two parts tells us everything about her strength of character: the first is to defend herself, then after Tosh sees her and comes running to the rescue, the second is to keep hold of her attacker, no matter what. This is the scene where the director’s method approach made life very hard for Trudie Goodwin, as she revealed in her podcast interview: grappling with someone she had hardly spoken to, without knowing exactly what he was going to do. The result looks disturbingly real, as does June’s anger when she unmasks the would-be hard man and slaps him.
Soon after this, however, we are presented with a different and far more common type of assault, in a domestic rather than public context. ‘The Night Watch’/‘A Case to Answer’ opens with Viv and Ted on night duty in the CID cabin, preparing for a quiet night when a call comes through about an alleged rape. After speaking to the woman and her friend, they find out that her boyfriend forced himself on her and bring him in for questioning. Five years on from the rape storyline in Series 2, we see advancements in the way these cases are handled. There is now a secure location where the victim is taken for questioning and medical examination, while the suspect is interviewed elsewhere in order to prevent future claims by the defence of forensic cross-contamination. Where the episode really stands out is its depiction of these two characters. Not only is the woman, Marie, played by the late Emma Chambers, a quiet down to earth type, but so too is her boyfriend: a trainee accountant living with his parents, played with gentle bemusement by a young Mark Addy, he is a world away from the macho stereotype you might expect of an alleged rapist. But that doesn’t mean he was incapable of rape, and for once Ted tries to charm rather than bully his way to the truth. All smiles and bonhomie, he reveals that he has a relative also training for his accountancy exams, relaxing the man as much as possible. Trying to play on his feelings for Marie, he encourages him to confess on the basis that “you can save her from talking about your intimate affairs in court.” But the boyfriend calls his bluff, and won’t admit anything. “Oh he did it all right,” Roach tells Viv. “You ought to listen to the tape. One of the longest silences on record as I stare him out. He wanted to cough up, but I think his whole future career flashed before him… It’s fifty-fifty. A few years ago what we’ve got wouldn’t have been enough for a prosecution, but times are changing. Who knows?”
But in the second episode, Marie has to attend a committal hearing in advance of the trial, during which the defence have a chance to pick holes in her testimony but the prosecution are not able to do likewise with the accused. The female defence barrister asks her questions about her sexual history and points out with relish that she is still on the books of an escort agency that she joined when she first moved to London; in fact, this was how she met her boyfriend. Her credibility is instantly destroyed, and the show would return to this idea of sex workers not being taken seriously as victims of assault in future episodes. Having endured more questions about previous examples of clothed intercourse – “So you were hardly in the habit of standing upon ceremony, were you?” – Marie leaves the courtroom and in a rare moment away from police eyes, we see her break down in tears. She later tells Viv that she doesn’t want to proceed as she can’t bear the thought of having her entire private life broadcast in court. Greig tries to placate Viv by pointing out, “If it came to trial, the odds are against conviction when there’s been an ongoing relationship”, which is hardly what she wants to hear: “That’s never going to change if rape victims don’t get up and fight it!” It’s refreshing that Ted is the one most on her side, having put in the legwork with her so far. In the canteen he urges her to let it go: “There’s a limit. You help the victim, sure. But you don’t become the bloody victim! That’s the quickest way to a burnout.” The subject matter raises an interesting question: should a storyline about rape mirror real life, to highlight flaws in the way it is handled, or present a better alternative to encourage more people to come forward? Bearing in mind that almost a quarter of the nation would have been watching these episodes, and that in the days before reality TV The Bill was how many of the general public got their information about the police, the way such issues are handled and the degree of cynicism attached to them becomes very important.
Breaking with tradition, these episodes were not shown back to back but several weeks apart, and separated by two other, huge stories. This could have been the result of necessity rather than design, but whatever the reasons, this move towards ‘spreading out’ storylines led to one of the best in the show’s history: the hunt for the Canley Fields serial killer. These six episodes, which may be Christopher Russell’s greatest achievement on The Bill, are certainly the greatest use of the half-hour format. Shown over several weeks, and interlaced with episodes covering other crimes, they come closer than anything else to the reality of a murder investigation: a slow, painstaking process with endless amounts of donkey work and growing media pressure to find the culprit. Along the way it takes in the crime from many angles, showing how it affects different people’s lives. Each episode deftly recaps preceding events, meaning that a casual viewer can enjoy any one of them in isolation, as well as part of a sequence – an ideal, but hard trick for any serial to pull off. Cleverly, it begins as a comedic runaround in the night, the police responding to a phone call from two men who say that they saw a blond child being dragged across the road into Canley Fields. Forced to sweep the area, there is some quality bellyaching throughout from the relief. Tony insists that they need way more men to cover a huge space like this, suggesting that the abductor is “already through and gone while Conway’s up the road checking with the accountants.” Reg complains about his malfunctioning torch, to which George advises him to “stick it in your gob, perhaps it’ll run on gas.” Peters, true to form, complains about having to be out doing anything. Meanwhile Monroe delights in taking pot-shots at an increasingly harassed Conway, pointing out gently that the night shift will soon report for duty to find all their vehicles still in use. Learning that one of the men who reported the incident is a wannabe police officer, Roach is convinced they are both hoaxers and wants to charge them, but Conway lets them go, grateful that it turned out to be a false alarm. Only at the very end does he walk into the CAD room to find Datta taking a phone call from a worried mother: “Graham Butler, aged eight. Blond hair. Left his friend’s house at 7.15 – not home yet.”
It’s some time before the story is resurrected again, partway through ‘A Fresh Start’, by which time the death of the boy has been established. But it takes on greater importance when another body is discovered, this time a girl in a sack dumped in a waste pipe. Tosh declares flatly, “I switch off because it’s a kid. Just catch the bastard, that’s all.” He visits her school to confirm her identity, and we see him waving to his own kids in the playground. The headteacher notes innocently that Jenny Price seems to be absent that day for some reason, and Tosh looks despondent as it all fits together. The next episode in the saga, ‘Action Book’, is set the following day but was broadcast several weeks later. Roach has broken the news to Jenny’s parents and they are brought in to be questioned and to see what the police are doing. Eschewing a straightforward detective story, Russell delves into the politics surrounding the investigation, which start to become more important to the police than the crime they are trying to solve. The death of two children suddenly gives Roach a new opportunity to prove himself, as runner of the incident room and holder of the action book. “Ted Roach can’t handle responsibility – show ’em different,” Burnside urges him. But his new post starts to unravel the moment he’s introduced to Jack Meadows, who looks at him like something he’s scraped off his shoe. “Have you ever run an incident room before?” he asks, showing no faith in him whatsoever. Roach pitches into the role with his usual ham-fisted enthusiasm. Once they have traced the owner of a car seen in the area, he starts eagerly listing ways to surround the man’s house as though planning an anti-terror raid. When the girl’s mother is shown into the room, Meadows takes him to one side and says cuttingly, “Do you think you could cool it a bit, Ted? I think professional calm might make a better impression on Mrs Price than your headless chicken act.”
This little sub-culture of incident rooms and log books threatens to become an end rather than a means – officers believing that they’re achieving something, just by being seen to do the right thing. It’s only when Burnside interviews the parents that we are reminded what it’s all for, and that this hive of activity is too late to do any good. “They’re working so hard for us. The phones are ringing all the time, people who’ve heard the appeal. And then it suddenly hit me – you’re not looking for Jenny,” says the mother despairingly. “You’re looking for the man who killed her.” For all his attempts at sensitivity, Burnside has to rule them out as suspects, and his line of questioning about little-known relatives is soon picked up by the father. “You’ve got half the Met here mate, is this the best you can do?” he rages. “She was all we had, all we wanted, and now she’s gone!” When Burnside concludes that it definitely wasn’t the father, Ted notes Meadows’ disappointment with some relish; he might be a trainwreck, but he’s not a PR fake. Later he tells Dashwood, “We even hoped it was the parents at one point. You know why we hoped it was them? Because we got nothing. Two dog hairs and a fingerprint.” He is called into Meadows’ office to meet his replacement as co-ordinator of the action book, a DS from outside Sun Hill. “I did say it was only temporary, didn’t I?” “No sir, you didn’t!” Telling him that he can get back out on the streets, “Where you’re more at home”, Meadows thanks Ted for his work with the bland insincerity he later perfected as DCI. Meanwhile Tosh and Mike have trawled through registered sex offenders in the area (“I’d rather screen out pervs than interview the parents” says Mike), to no avail. One of them observes that they must be out of ideas if they’re sizing him up as a potential killer. “You get seventy-two hours to catch a murderer,” Meadows declares at the outset. “After that, you’re down to long hard grind and luck.”
The story’s high point is ‘Witch Hunt’, one of the finest episodes ever made, featuring an outstanding guest performance from Ron Cook. Six weeks on, as newspapers demand, ‘Why is this monster still loose?’, the enquiry has become a poisoned chalice rather than a career opportunity, so the golden boy Meadows and his team have packed up and left. The case has been passed to DCI Wray, who asks Tosh, “What kind of man are we after?” and brings up the people he interviewed and screened out. He highlights Peter Angell, the caretaker at the school where Graham Butler went, who has access to children and was formerly a houseparent at a care home. Tosh, sceptical that he could possibly be a killer, returns to the school for a follow-up chat and discovers that Angell recently acquired a dog. He is also coach of the school football team, but has no kids himself, saying solemnly that, “Everybody should think carefully before bringing children into the world. They’re too precious to be bred like rabbits. It’s not a very macho point of view… They’re special. They’re alive, they’re fresh, unspoilt. Their eyes shine. How many adults do you know whose eyes shine? The only pity is they have to change – grow up.” It’s not just this distorted worldview that encourages us to view Angell as the killer, but the subtle direction. There are two slow zooms into his face when being questioned, at his home and in the station, revealing the hidden torment beneath his quiet exterior. Well aware that he’s under suspicion because he fits a stereotype, he tells Wray, “I’d rather you talk to my face than behind my back.” Wray brings up the report about his previous work from social services, who he condemns as “a bunch of mealy-mouthed bastards.” After having a go at some kids for coming back late at night with knives, he was suddenly accused of touching children: “Of course I did – what parent doesn’t touch their children?” “But you weren’t their parent, were you?” “No, I was a bloody sight better than their actual parents! Where were they? Paralytic outside a pub, shooting up in some filthy public bog.” Following a long enquiry where his word was doubted, he was finally cleared, and “I told them to stuff their caring profession. Care? They don’t know what it means… I’ve learnt my lesson. Don’t look. Don’t even touch, because someone with evil in their hearts is watching. That’s the caring society. Just by not having a child of your own, you’re an outcast.”
Throughout the episode Wray keeps probing delicately for the truth, portraying himself as a man who can help Angell, rather than convict him. When Angell talks of seeing “real” parents ignoring their kids at the school gates, and that, “Children are what their parents make them. That’s the curse of mankind”, Wray suggests he has found his own solution to stop them growing up. His line of thinking is enough to convince Tosh, who meets Jim in the toilets and tells him, “I’m looking myself in the face – while I still can.” Taking Angell in there for a break, he asks him a question “like I’d ask if you’d nicked a packet of crisps. Did you kill those two children?” and tries to wring the truth from him. But his guilt at having missed the obvious is nothing compared to Angell’s. Finally he admits that Graham called at his house on the night he died. “He’s crazy about dogs, but his parents didn’t want one. Didn’t want him either, come to that.” He asked if they could walk the dog on Canley Fields, but as Wray is about to close the net, Angell shatters his theory. “That’s the point. We didn’t go. Me and a young boy, walking in the gloaming, throwing sticks for a dog? Showing affection? I couldn’t risk that, could I? I didn’t have the guts to give him friendship, so I sent him on his way, and because of that, he’s dead. That’s the guilt I want to share with you, Mr Wray.” The disappointed Wray learns that his alibi for the Jenny Price murder checks out and realises they will have to let him go – but it’s clear from Angell’s tearful face that he’s serving his sentence already. Wray turns to Carver and asks, “Satisfied?” to which the latter replies drily, “Oh yeah. I love crucifixions.” With the simplest of set-ups, the episode delivers an enormously powerful punch and a thought-provoking comment on the overprotective culture surrounding children, demonstrating that it can have precisely the opposite effect. In what is perhaps the purest expression of the show’s format, the dialogue and acting take centre stage, and the camera is there simply to allow us a window on it.
This episode and the next in the saga, ‘What Kind of Man?’, demonstrate an increasing focus on the interview room confession as the climax of the drama, which it never was in the early years. Dave Quinnan is at a school that’s been burgled and sees a man giving a talk about animal welfare. He’s accompanied by a mascot, a huge stuffed dog, and Dave recalls a statement by one of the local winos after the Graham Butler killing, about seeing a big red dog propped up in the passenger seat of a car. What was dismissed as drunken fantasy turns out to be the vital piece of evidence – the man, Donald Blake, is a regular visitor to schools including the ones that both children attended. Wray and Roach go to see his wife, played with the quiet, strained air of someone who knows that something is amiss with her husband. Yet she cannot comprehend how he could be a killer: “It’s just not possible… He loves children! We’ve got a grandson of our own, he means the world to Donald… I don’t know how you can come here and say those sorts of things.” An urgent call is put out for Blake, but Sgt. Penny wanders down to a nearby park and finds him walking his dog there. Far from putting up a fight, he asks simply, “Is this about Graham and Jenny?” and is grateful to be apprehended at last. However, he insists he’ll speak only to the sergeant who brought him in. Here Christopher Russell once again shows how the politics of the situation blind the police to what really matters. Burnside complains that uniform are “already taking the glory – it’s us who’ve done all the donkey work over the past three months!” Only Wray, the newcomer, has enough perspective to see the important issue: “He kills children. What does it matter who gets him to say it?” “There are limits sir, and Tom Penny is beyond mine!” It’s a master stroke to give this vital role to Penny, the hardened cynic whose sole interest is thinking of new jibes to aim at prisoners and PCs alike. For a few minutes he gets to be a hero, and whinge about Brownlow’s lack of gratitude, before he’s sent into a situation nothing could prepare him for. Blake, played with chilling monotony by Jim McManus, explains that he wanted to do it again that morning – “Take a child. Oh, I know it’s wrong. That’s partly the reason I do it. Because it’s wrong. Because it’s beyond anything normal people do, and I’ve always been very normal. That’s what makes it exciting… Even how I feel about myself afterwards: hating myself for having done it. That’s exciting too, in a funny sort of way.”
Once Blake officially ‘coughs’, Brownlow organises a celebratory drinks do in his office, much to the disdain of Roach. While everyone is patting themselves on the back, Blake admits quietly to Penny that “kids of a certain age… do things to me, inside. Exciting things.” He describes how he met Graham while walking his dog, saw he was unhappy and started talking to him: “Then suddenly he got frightened, he started shouting, calling me names. I started pulling him away… but I don’t think it was panic. Deep down, I wanted to be with him in the trees. He got more and more hysterical, and I had to hold him tighter and tighter. I’ve never held a human being that tight before – not even my wife. And the tighter I held him, the harder I squeezed… the better I felt inside. And then he was dead.” Now he was hooked, he found Jenny by accident and she and the dog were drawn to each other. Sensing his chance, he trapped her in the car and took her back to his garage, “and it was just as good. Afterwards I felt brave. Strong. Like I could walk through a wall.” He reaches out to Penny, taking his hand to thank him, and we see the latter’s disgust at being perceived as his friend in some way. Brownlow is surprised to learn that Penny is still in the interview room, “while CID polish off my whisky? Uncharacteristically noble of him.” It never occurs to him or Burnside that getting a confession from a child killer is not an honour to be fought over, and can’t be let go of easily. These are the conversations the real police have had down the decades with the Moors Murderers, Fred West and Ian Huntley. That much used phrase, the banality of evil, informs the whole storyline as well as the killer himself. There are no car chases, no stakeouts, no tense phone calls or ultimatums: any of the usual suspense devices that the show would have employed in future years when treading this sort of ground. In the absence of comforting escapism, we are left with nothing but the boring words of a boring man, justifying the taking of life as the only thing that gives his own meaning. Small wonder that when Penny emerges at last, sick to his stomach, he can hardly speak to an eager Quinnan, who is taking all the credit and the commendation. The last thing he sees is Blake’s wife taking their dog away, clinging to the one ordinary thing she has left.
This, it seems, is the culmination of the story after five episodes – but instead it goes on, into a sixth and final part, ‘Something to Remember’. While Dave is attending his commendation ceremony, along with other young PCs, Tony and Cathy attend a domestic that turns out to involve the parents of the deceased Graham Butler. The father has to push their memory a little: “Our son was strangled by a lunatic, remember? Of course that was months ago. You’re busy people, aren’t you? You’ve got shoplifters to nick, and parking on yellow lines… we only lost a kid. We’re solved, so that’s all right, innit?” he yells, chucking his beer can at the wall. Making a point of addressing them by their numbers, he reveals that “number 340 came round with Graham’s stuff, in a plastic bag. ‘Here you are mate, we’re finished with these, happy birthday.’” They had no further visits, and were given no information on the case. “We only found out you caught the slime who did it by reading about it in the paper. I had to play detective to find out when the court hearing was; had to queue up to get in. To see the man. I sat next to his daughter.” Knowing that 340 is getting a pat on the back from the DAC at that very moment, Cathy points out that he was the one who found the killer, but can offer no excuses for the lack of care the police have shown. “You don’t go to work, do you Mr Butler?” asks Tony, cutting through his self-pity. “Not since Graham had his neck wrung, no. Sorry, ‘property number 2476’ to you,” he adds, reading it off the bag. “You can’t help people like that,” Tony declares once they are gone. “If they’d taken better care of the kid, maybe he wouldn’t be dead. It’s a guilt complex they’re suffering from.” Rounding on Cathy, he hisses, “I found Graham Butler’s body. I trod on it on Canley Fields, and I was the first on scene for Jenny Price. I found her in a plastic sack. I couldn’t sleep for weeks, so don’t pigeonhole me as a callous bastard!” Back at the station, Penny is complaining bitterly about Quinnan’s “smarmy grin” being plastered all over the newspapers when he was the one who caught the killer and got a confession out of him. His mood is lowered further when his paperwork is audited by the joyless Conway, who points out that Dave will get an official reprimand to go with his commendation if he doesn’t return some overdue property. In one of those stunningly tactless statements that only he could make, he tells Cryer and Penny that, “You sergeants have got to screw down on these procedures – nicking people’s just not enough!” This causes Penny to launch into a vicious rant about Dave once he has gone: “He’s up there taking tea with the Queen, I’m here made to look a prat because of his laziness!”
The episode demonstrates the hollowness of victory for everyone concerned; it hasn’t helped the parents get over their loss, while any sense of triumph for the police is buried as they get back on the treadmill, facing the same petty criticisms as before. Tony reveals that Butler has got form, to which Cathy scoffs, “He can’t feel grief, he stole a packet of fags when he was eighteen?” “Cath, we caught the murderer. Justice has been done. We don’t owe these people anything!” “It’s because they’re slag, right? Well the Prices aren’t slag. I’ve checked – they’ve split up.” They get called to another argument at the Butlers’, where the husband has slashed his wife’s arm. She says they will lock him up; “What, so you can get all the blood money?” he rages. We learn that she is planning to sell their story to a tabloid, asking, “Why should we live in this dump forever, why should our daughter? What did you ever do for Graham, except give him a slap when he nicked your lager?” He charges at her again and is arrested. “It ain’t blood money,” she insists, trying to convince herself as well as Cathy. “Like the bloke from the paper said, maybe it can do some good – as a warning to people who read it. Graham’s dead… You got to take what you can get in this life.” It’s a measure of The Bill’s format that it can tell a story from her perspective, making you understand and sympathise with her decision, when it could so easily show her as a callous exploiter. The uncaring parents who were condemned by Peter Angell in the earlier episode do not remain faceless but are given their own moment of truth, realising that they didn’t appreciate what they had until it was gone. In showing the damaging effects of the crime on the relatives left behind, rather than just the mechanics of catching the criminal, it anticipates long-form series like Broadchurch by more than two decades, and demonstrates that we shouldn’t take The Bill for granted. Familiarity breeds contempt, and as The Bill became a staple of TV, always there in the background, it was perhaps viewed as formula television: cosy little tales wrapped up in twenty-five minutes with a moral at the end. But by taking a step back from the action, and not giving us one ‘hero’ character to identify with, it could tell stories of messy, conflicting viewpoints that come closer to capturing real life than many dramas ever manage.
Of the show’s staple writers, this year is notable for the sharp fall in episodes by Barry Appleton, as his huge contribution to the series begins to winds down. Also less in number than the previous year are the episodes by PJ Hammond, but each one is memorable and utterly different in tone from those surrounding it. ‘Addresses’, an early example of the ‘graveyard shift’ episode set entirely at night, sees Cryer and Martella stop a woman who is wandering the streets with a suitcase that contains “knickers and shoes, just knickers and shoes.” She has a list of addresses of people who used to attend a crisis group where she did odd jobs, and is going round knocking on each door in turn. No-one, however, is pleased to see her, and it transpires that she was a member of the said group. “She’s been leaving home with a suitcase since the age of twelve; she always comes back,” says the woman who ran it. “She can’t hold down a decent job, she can’t hold down a decent relationship. The only two things she’s good at are packing a bag and telling lies.” There’s a direct echo of the Z Cars episode ‘Breakage’ that Hammond wrote almost two decades earlier, where Fulton Mackay plays a man with a bundle traipsing around in search of his old commanding officer from the war. At the end we realise that he is picking up other people’s identities wherever he goes and passing them off as his own, and that his service is as made-up as everything else about him. These kinds of oddballs at the fringes of normal life are what the police have to deal with on a regular basis, and probably cause them more headaches than anything else, as they defy simple categorisation. One of the group, an old man played by Victor Maddern, “got done about nine or ten years ago” and since then has left every single light on and multiple radios playing non-stop, in order to ward off potential burglars. “It’s not what they thieve, is it? It’s what they do to you – do to your home.”
Another group of disturbed individuals is presented in ‘Safe Place’, in which CID investigate a bank robbery where the manager was ambushed at his home and kidnapped – for the second time in eight years. Refusing to believe this can be a coincidence, Roach sends Viv undercover at the psychiatric hospital where the man is being treated to find out if his breakdown is genuine, an operation which nowadays would violate so many human rights laws that to list them would take longer than this review. “I’ve just had another murder thought,” a patient announces at a therapy session, picking up a glass and smashing a window behind Viv’s head. Roach observes that, “It’s registered under the Mental Health Act, which means our Mr Brand can be deemed incompetent to give evidence. Nice touch – except that in my book, there’s no such thing as a safe place.” But when Jim and Tosh try to reconstruct the kidnap route through his blindfolded descriptions, they realise that it all tallies. Viv, who has already been rumbled and hates what she is doing, asks Brand about his feelings on violence and he rants about the damage caused by “people like you”, recalling the wife who abandoned him. She tells Roach she thinks he is genuine. “I reckon he’s the kind of person that things happen to. All the bad luck. A kind of natural victim. Some people were born to have trouble all their lives, we know that… You only have to look at the man to know what I’m talking about. You kind of feel like you want to do something to him. I mean if I was a mugger, and he was walking through these gardens, I’d have to mug him. I’d consider it my duty.” Roach asks Cathy if this sort of person really exists, and she replies blithely, “Of course. I was nearly one myself. For the natural victim, nothing ever seems to change… The same man who’s been attacked in three different countries. Certain women, something about them, some vulnerability that makes them targets.” This idea of victimhood as a kind of natural selection is, of course, controversial to say the least – but seen from the hardened perspective of the police, who have the same people come through their doors again and again, one can understand how it grows in currency. The story was probably inspired by real-life copycat events ten times more bizarre than those depicted here. Brand, who reveals that both his first and second wife ran off with other people, apologises to Viv for his outburst. The operation is wound up, and as she leaves he watches her from the window, still trapped in a ‘safe place’ he can’t escape from.
At times in Hammond’s work, the police themselves become a malign force, intruding into people’s lives and then vanishing mysteriously. ‘Answers’ is an important money-saving episode, set in the gap between the old station and the new. Tosh and Mike arrive at a suburban house and interrupt a morning barbecue, in a continuous take that lasts seven and a half minutes, unsurprisingly by director Christopher Hodson who filmed a three minute exchange in a crowded street in Series 1. The man organising it is less than delighted to see them again, two years after he was questioned about a series of sexual attacks. His alibi was that he was seeing his ex-wife, who is now denying this. The strain begins to show, but it turns out that they are testing the strength of his reactions to judge whether she was lying, and it emerges that he has seen her more recently. Despite being cleared as a suspect, his current, and pregnant wife realises he’s deceived her – and as the police depart, their marriage is left shattered. This episode, perhaps more than ‘Conscience’ a year earlier, feels like An Inspector Calls transferred to the present day; one could imagine them calling Sun Hill afterwards and being told that no one was ever sent out from CID. The idea of the policeman as avenger takes a more dramatic turn in ‘Scores’, when an old adversary of Burnside’s, vice kingpin Ralph Trafford, turns up on his patch and he is determined to move him out somehow. Lines and Roach are sent to keep an eye on him and his cronies as they swill champagne and throw money around. Burnside listens to the report of them living the high life, and muses, “I got a mortgage on a one-bedroom box.” Of Trafford’s glamorous wife, Roach sneers, “Chequebook slags like that, they always land on their backs”, which seems to offend the DI. Burnside carries out his own surveillance and realises that Trafford is having an affair with one of his allies’ wives; when the man returns home he stops him to “have a little word.” Roach gleans from Burnside the fact that he divorced his wife around the time he was investigating Trafford, and runs a story past him. “I knew this copper once who made a right mug of himself over a bit of tail. He even thought that she was going to give up the good life, run away with him, and live off his income. Of course she didn’t. She was with some right bent bastard who she wouldn’t leave.” “Takes all sorts,” Burnside smiles, saying no more. The wronged husband turns up at Trafford’s home carrying a shotgun, and both men are wounded in a struggle, which Burnside takes his time to observe before he radios for an ambulance. Trafford’s injuries are fatal. “What happens now?” asks Roach. “That’s easy. I can get back to the normal, everyday stresses of life, can’t I?” says Burnside, and saunters off past the grieving wife like the Grim Reaper in a suit.
The stand-out writer from this year is JC Wilsher, who delivers fourteen – or to put it another way, one in every eight – of this year’s episodes, just as Barry Appleton did the year before. His ability to fashion compelling crime drama with and without crime in it is something only The Bill’s format could accommodate. In ‘Workers in Uniform’, a community festival that was thought to have been cancelled is suddenly reinstated. Brownlow has to cover it at the last minute and plans to call in the relief on a Sunday that they were supposed to have off. Knowing this will prove controversial, he tells Monroe, “I’m going to have Hollis up here soon, trying to break my heart with the grievances of the toiling masses!” Sure enough, the latest chapter in their industrial relations is as tense as ever. When Brownlow points out that officers can have leave cancelled at any moment under ‘exigencies of the service’, Reg produces a dictionary to debate the meaning of ‘exigency’, causing Brownlow to exclaim, “I’m not playing scrabble with you, Hollis!” He reminds him that the police have no right to withdraw their labour. “Absolutely not – but they have been known to feel poorly.” The challenge Reg is facing becomes clear in the range of attitudes held by his much-cited ‘members’. Stamp is mouthing off about standing up to the governors when he is taken to one side by Peters, who urges him to watch his Arthur Scargill routine; the TSG training he wants to go on can always be withdrawn if he’s deemed a troublemaker. “You’re not the only one. There’s people after promotions, transfers, courses – all sorts. The job giveth, and the job taketh away.” Suddenly Tony is a little more circumspect, and Reg realises that everyone around him is clamming up when he needs a united front to put their case to management. Penny sees it as a charade anyhow: “You’ve got to make a good show of it… When push comes to shove, orders is orders. We have to put up a fight, have a good grouse, but we’re a disciplined force of men, not a shower of skivers.” It demonstrates what a thankless task the Fed Rep job is; Reg gets it in the neck for not being effective enough, but when there’s a chance of him being too effective, people start to back-peddle for fear of retribution. Deep down, they believe it can only ever be an empty ritual before they bow to the inevitable. But this time Reg stands his ground, telling them that if he’s going to reject the proposal, “I want your fingerprints on it.” At a meeting of the relief with Brownlow, he squeezes Tony’s true feelings out of him and the resulting chorus of discontent forces the super to acknowledge the issue. Rather than accept Reg’s counter-offer of overtime payments, he decides to pull officers from other reliefs and desk staff in order to plug the gap. Every victory is a defeat for someone else however, and Cathy learns to her dismay that her Monday to Friday collator’s job has suddenly been expanded.
Wilsher was, of course, much in demand because his police-focused episodes were cheap at the price – a vital consideration this year in particular, when the move to Merton swallowed up so much of the budget. One episode specifically designed as a money-saver while gearing up for the change is ‘CAD’, which provides the setting for almost the entire story. Having volunteered for Reg Hollis’ blood drive, Viv is ordered out onto the streets by an irritated Peters, who keeps moaning about how he should be on a training course instead. “They want your blood and your body in this job,” she notes. She is sent to investigate a robbery and chases the suspects onto a housing estate, where all contact with her is lost. As the minutes tick by, the increasingly worried Peters throws more officers into the area to try and find her, all to no avail. This simple but effective set-up gives a role to half the cast as disembodied voices searching the ground, describing events in their own unique way. The unspoken dread in the room reaches a climax when PC Able radios in to announce, “I’m sorry, it’s bad news.” “Come on son, spit it out, you’re a police officer,” says Peters – and Able passes on the awful truth, that he has driven round a corner and hit an ice cream van. “When you’ve got a police accident you say ‘I’ve got a POLACC’, you do not prat around like a big fairy!” Finally they hear Viv’s voice crackle over the radio, to their immense relief; she had been pushed into an underground garage by the youths and locked in, unable to get a signal through because it is a dead zone. Proving that underneath the griping he has genuine care and affection for the officers in his charge, Peters gives her a final instruction: “Viv? Come home.”
Another low-budget episode is ‘Effective Persuaders’, in which officers from CID and uniform are sent on a training course in the kind of interview techniques we saw being developed the previous year. Predictably, Burnside deems it a waste of time, whereas the keen as mustard Greig is the first person taking notes at the introduction, followed reluctantly by others, a domino effect that anyone who has been on training will recognise! The instructors begin to gather a list of buy-signs, the verbal and visual clues that a suspect is willing to talk. When they are split into groups to practice interviews about supposed crimes, Burnside – who boasts of how a villain once told him he’d make a natural armed blagger – has to settle for playing a roving knicker thief instead. After he coughs, he tells the camera that he’d “like 375 other offences taken into consideration – black frilly ones!” But when it’s Dave’s turn in the chair, being questioned by the harassed Jim who has turned up late and spend the whole day on a payphone trying to patch it up with his girlfriend Sonia, he takes the opportunity to tease him. “I was seeing this girl, but I stopped because she was a bit of an old slag… Sonia. I’m not surprised I left some fingerprints, I probably left some on her and all.” Jim finally loses his rag and tips Dave’s chair onto the floor, resulting in a scuffle that has to be broken up. “For a moment there I thought they’d brought the Muppets back,” Burnside comments. He tells the instructors that this is an internal squabble and will be sorted, but they ask what they happen if they witnessed such behaviour in an actual interview. “In the real world, the co-interviewer would swear it away, no problem! It happens, it gets squared – you know it, I know it.” But they reveal that there is a pilot project underway to monitor and videotape interviews. “What we’ve just seen could be evidence. Do you want to stand in a box while that’s shown to a jury?” Burnside is left in no doubt that the future is fast approaching, and that the odd slap to help things along is no longer a safe tactic.
What comes over in all these episodes is Wilsher’s ability to interrogate police practice, not just reflect it. He points out that, like any public body, its agenda is dictated by whatever is worrying the government at that time. When discussing Burnside’s raid on the local crack factory, a problem that is just developing at Sun Hill, Brownlow asks the ever-doubting Conway, “Is it your opinion that we can shrug off the crack epidemic, despite what we’ve been told?” “Not at all, sir. But if you look at our figures, you can say we average about seventy-odd arrests per week. Sixty of those are related to alcohol. I haven’t seen any Members of Parliament dancing up and down about the booze epidemic, but then an interest in the latest dope fashions ensures more free trips to the United States.” The effect of this concerted string-pulling, from Cabinet level down to the copper on the beat, was a key feature of Wilsher’s Between the Lines, and many of the authors who worked on that show cut their teeth on The Bill. 1990 sees the debut of a name familiar to today’s audiences: Russell Lewis, who is best known for his work on the various Morse franchises but started out as a child actor, and appeared as a background PC on The Bill before moving behind the camera. His best episodes come the following year, but one of his earliest, ‘Blue Murder’, features Sgt. Cryer shooting dead an armed robber whose shotgun turns out to be empty, a storyline he later echoed in his Between the Lines episode ‘Out of the Game’. The dazed Cryer has to surrender his gun, ammunition and holster in separate evidence bags, as though a case were being built against him. The relief welcome him back with heartening words, but behind his back the gallows humour flows freely. “There they go, Burke and Hare,” notes Phil Young as the undertakers zip up the body bag. “Dying trade, mate,” Dave chips in. Cryer walks past the canteen window as the sound fades to silence before the credits. When he returns from leave, Brownlow is keen to dissuade him from taking his firearms refresher course, suggesting a move to a less high-profile position. “Marvellous, isn’t it?” says Monroe. “We give him a gun, tell him kill if you have to, the ultimate decision. When he does, lawfully, we say, ‘Well that’s your problem. Get on with it kid, you’re on your own.’” Observing that people have been treating him like he has the plague, Cryer tells Brownlow, “I’ve got to live with what I’ve done for the rest of my life,” and insists on taking his firearms training again. Lewis’ next episode, ‘Safe as Houses’, features more gunplay as Stamp ambushes two thugs who have broken into a safe house. These are perhaps the last vestiges of the harder-edged Bill of the Eighties, before the job is handed to specialist teams and the regulars are no longer expected to play Cowboys and Indians.
Another future writer on Between the Lines, Steve Trafford, disproves my sweeping assertion that the half-hour era saw a reduction in political commentary by delivering perhaps the most explicitly political episode ever made, ‘Beggars and Choosers’. The social divide of the title is made explicit as June and Tony investigate the beginnings of a new Cardboard City beneath an underpass. A homeless community is growing because Barton Street have pushed their vagrants onto Sun Hill’s ground, a game of pass the parcel that is played with beggars and prostitutes throughout the show’s run. Tony, of course, remains the model of sensitivity; when he observes that there’s “more slag kicking about here than a coal board tip”, he sounds as though he’s disparaging the miners themselves, rather than making a pun on their product. It’s pointed out that the homeless are not necessarily jobless, some people sleeping rough in order to put by money from their wages to support their families. A northern lad who catches June’s eye is later arrested for begging. Banged up with a veteran dosser who has got himself arrested to earn a warm bed, it’s clear he shouldn’t be in the system, but he is stuck in a familiar Catch-22: “Can’t get a job without an address, can’t get an address without cash, can’t get cash without a job.” June gets him to call home, but his mother makes it clear within seconds that they’ve no interest in having him back. This Ken Loach-esque tale of social deprivation is contrasted with a visit by Brownlow to a rotary club lunch, to discuss policing in the Nineties. Conway gives him a helpful primer for his speech: “You can tell them from me that policing the Eighties was a joke, the Nineties is going to be a nightmare!” When he arrives he is sat next to a silver-haired bigwig who opines the need for greater discipline, and greater police powers, to combat the rising tide of disorder and violence: “Your hands are tied by namby-pamby liberal opinion.” “As you can see,” a retired headteacher tells Brownlow, “some of my colleagues have very firm opinions.” “I believe in people speaking freely.” “Oh yes, so do I – but it always profoundly depresses me when they do.”
Brownlow keeps his counsel until he delivers his speech, which turns into one of the longest and most partisan monologues ever written for the show. Observing that the good old days of looking up to the police are long gone, he describes the reality of policing the inner city today: “On the streets, my officers daily encounter disrespect, abuse and downright bloody-mindedness. Respect for the law among all sections of the community, both high and low, from yobbos to yuppies, is in short supply… But there are no simplistic solutions. If there’s one thing I want most of all from you, the public, it’s this: the realisation that you cannot go on looking to the police to hold the lid down, and paper over the cracks, of a society that is in fundamental moral and material decline. The root problems are unemployment, poverty and an increasingly desperate housing situation. We have a younger generation with no jobs, no proper homes, and little prospect of ever being able to afford one. I make no party political point here; governments of all persuasions have failed to tackle the problem. What then is the answer? A tougher approach? Saturation policing, harsher punishments? I spoke to a young man arrested for throwing petrol bombs at a recent riot. He said to me: ‘I’ve had no proper education, no job and no home. I’ve been nicked for thieving, I’ve been in borstal, I’ve been to prison. What else can you do to me?’ What indeed? Bringing back the birch will make little impression on such views as these.” Stressing that these are his personal opinions, he declares, “We must stir ourselves from our own comfort and complacency and deal with the problems of inner-city deprivation. Police officers may not be able, or willing, to act as the front-line troops for a society at war with itself.” His words do not go down well, particularly with a civil servant from the Home Office who has been sat quietly at the end of his table. “Thank you for your speech, Mr Brownlow,” he says as he departs. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.” “Oh, I didn’t say I enjoyed it.”
Brownlow’s insistence that he ‘makes no party political point’ is a shade disingenuous, given that his speech could have been cribbed from a Labour Party broadcast of the time. But it would also be disingenuous to suggest that the show could remain scrupulously neutral on these issues at the end of a decade of Thatcherism – which, for all people knew at the time this was made, would continue well into the next decade. The widening gulf between rich and poor, and the huge social tensions as a result, provided fertile ground for writers. It’s no coincidence that in the early half-hours the police often deal with ‘cultural tourists’, upper-class parasites deliberately slumming it so they can see how the other half lives. They range from squatters and junkies, wanting to be bailed out by their distinguished parents, to the Bullingdon-style antics of ‘The Assassins’, who trash restaurants and then claim immunity through their diplomatic status or noble lineage. But this is a rare moment when the show’s standard left-liberal commentary pushes further, into outright polemic. More surprising than the message is the messenger, but the usually staid Brownlow is the only man with the motive as well as the opportunity. Peter Ellis had learnt in his research for the role that superintendents were the ones pushing for change in the force. Brownlow’s conclusions on society have probably been drawn in private by many of his real life counterparts – whether they’d feel able to voice them in public is another matter. We see the police go into Cardboard City to break it up, facing such hostility from its inhabitants that Monroe orders the van driver to plough straight into their midst to disperse them. It’s a familiar sight to us, given that this is how people tend to express their differences in both Europe and America nowadays, but it’s still disturbing to see it used as an official tactic. “Cut the backchat and move it!” Tony yells at a vagrant who’s giving him lip. The episode ends with the youth from before hanging around the steps of the rotary club, scrounging change off the members as they leave. He heads down the same street as Brownlow, who is clutching his briefcase, the two ends of society briefly rubbing shoulders. It’s important for any police series to reflect the times it is made in, but rarely does it happen with such precision – only two days after this episode aired, the Poll Tax riots took place in central London, signalling the beginning of the end for the Thatcher premiership.
Tony, like Dave, is a future legend who starts out very differently, as the man who often gets into trouble because of his thick-necked approach to the law. An episode that’s particularly apposite for our times is ‘Body Language’, in which Stamp and Stringer pursue a gang of black youths who instantly fled at the sight of them and are assumed to be up to mischief. Tony corners one of them in a warehouse and brings him to the ground in a struggle, leaving him with facial injuries, but when he takes him in he discovers that no crime of any kind has been reported. The youth in question is a polytechnic student called Nigel – “Do you think someone like me ought to be called Leroy, or Winston, or Wayne?” – whose lawyer sits on a local police accountability committee. “We’re sick and tired of being stopped and searched for no reason, that’s why we don’t stop anymore when you tell us to!” Defending his actions to Monroe, Tony declares, “If you think I’ve broken the rules then fine, chuck the book at me. But nothing I’ve done is against PACE, not as far as I see it.” Monroe points out that he’s given their critics all the ammunition they need, and this is soon proved at a town hall meeting attended by Brownlow, who has spent that same morning opening a crime prevention unit on the high street. In scenes reminiscent of the early Christopher Russell episodes, councillors from opposing parties snipe at each other about the responsibility for cutbacks, before protesters take over the public gallery and begin chanting, “No collaboration with the racist police!” As the officers leave to an accompaniment of slow hand-clapping, Norika predictably gets the ‘traitor’ tag applied to her. Back at the station she asks Barry how she’s supposed to defend herself from accusations like, “‘My honky colleagues go around knocking the living daylights out of anyone they fancy.’”
Brownlow gives Tony a further lecture about how he has set back community relations, telling him there’s a world of difference between an “anti-police organisation” and the accountability committee, but the latter is unconvinced. He suggests that the day’s events are part of a deliberate tactic by black youths to provoke the police and then claim harassment later. Tony runs into Norika and she wants to know the truth, leading to argument that spills from the male to the female locker rooms. “I heard you got a rough ride and I’m sorry,” he says bluntly, “but that’s the price you pay for being Sun Hill’s token black. If you can’t handle that sort of garbage, pack it in, quit the lodge, here and now!” “I can imagine what happened this afternoon, and I hope to God it’s not true,” she snaps, pushing him out of the door. Tony’s parting shot is illuminating: “I’m an ethnic minority as well, we all are – the day we join the job. So get off my back!” It demonstrates the police’s view of themselves as a breed apart, coping with hostility from all sides, as opposed to how they are viewed by minorities: enforcers of the status quo, permanently entwined with the establishment. Tony is ordered to meet Norika at the crime prevention unit, but it becomes academic when she turns up to find that the caravan housing the unit has been stolen: “Lock, stock and burglar alarm.” The final shot of her standing amid the debris is a comedic but potent symbol of failure. The episode as a whole demonstrates how wrong it would be to suggest that the show simply cheerleaded for the Met: the production team might have been reliant on it, but not beholden to it, otherwise they would never have produced stories like this.
That Norika could be described as a ‘token black’ shows the ignorant atmosphere in which she is operating. At one point Reg commends her for giving blood that could prove useful “if one of your ethnics turns up.” Exasperated, she snaps, “I’ve got the same blood as you moron, when I cut myself it’s not mango chutney that comes out!” She has to contend with people she’s arrested mouthing off about how she shouldn’t be here, which she tries to deflect with quiet dignity. We’re given an insight into her background in ‘Enemies’, the only contribution to The Bill by the late, great Philip Martin. His groundbreaking series Gangsters, a show that defies description as it grows from an offbeat thriller into the most bizarre fourth-wall breaking fantasy, explored the different ethnic communities in Birmingham and presented many black and Asian faces in breakthrough roles. But this rainbow nation of crime made few nods to political correctness, and Martin has the same taboo-breaking approach here. Norika is ordered by Penny to attend a domestic involving a family by the name of Gopal, as “our resident expert on ethnic matters.” “I was born in Uxbridge!” “Nobody’s perfect.” The father is furious at the wayward attitude of his daughter, who has “changed” and no longer obeys him. Sporting a bruise on her cheek, she wants him charged with assault. Meanwhile, rising hate crime figures have prompted area to send in their own expert on community affairs, Superintendent Jarvey, an old foe of Conway’s. Peters brings in an Asian youth he saw stealing from a till, and Jarvey is horrified: “That is Jamir Gadwani – eldest son of Aslam Gadwani, chairman of this area’s community relations committee. You’ve made a mistake. He saw you running towards him and he panicked – understandable, to anyone with any ethnic sensitivity.” He tells Cryer to drop the charges, and has to be reminded politely that he cannot override the custody officer’s say-so. “This could ignite a powderkeg,” he insists. “Have you forgotten about Brixton, and Broadwater Farm?” “I was at Broadwater,” Cryer responds curtly. “I didn’t see you, sir.” He keeps his cool until Jarvey has left, then snarls at Peters, “Where do we get these dead-legs from?” “From the knacker’s yard. Useless at anything else, so they’re promoted to where they can do the most harm.” Since Peters is the only witness, and Jamir has no prior record, Cryer decides to let him go. When Norika brings in the Gopal family, Peters tells her she’s wasting her time: “We’re only nicking whites today.”
Norika learns that the daughter was brought up in Bombay by her aunt and got used to her freedom, but on coming to London she has stepped back in time: “Do this, do that, don’t go out.” “My dad was like that,” Norika smiles understandingly, “until I trained him.” “You are cleverer than me; I can only fight.” But the father is pouring out his feelings of disgrace to Jarvey, who assures him that he will “sort it” and marches into the interview room to instruct the daughter to drop the charges. “You’re angry now, but when you’ve calmed down you’ll realise: you don’t want the shame of going to court over a family disagreement. He is your father: your family, the head. You know your place. He has his.” “Do I have to talk to this person?” she asks Norika in disbelief. “Do you not employ someone who understands the modern Asian community?” After he has gone, Norika takes her to another room to talk reasonably. Working out from her high and mighty attitude that she has servants at home, Norika reveals that, “My parents had servants in Uganda, before they were expelled.” When he found out she wanted a career in the police, “my dad had forty fits. But I proved I was serious. Did the training. And me dad – well, we went up to this wedding in Huddersfield and everyone knew me as ‘that very fine policewoman from London’. He’d been boasting… Our parents need time, that’s all.” She convinces the daughter not to press charges, urging her to use the stubbornness she shares with her father to convince him the world is changing. I observed in a previous review that stories about ‘the Asian community’ became commonplace on The Bill, more so than stories on black characters. While Norika wasn’t called on to deal with every case of domestic abuse or forced marriage, she was involved in a lot, and one wonders whether Seeta Indrani felt that these all blended into one after a while. Here, Norika’s argument not to involve the law is in stark contrast to later episodes, where she is often trying to persuade an abused wife to take her husband to court. The theme of a generational clash provides an extra layer of substance that was perhaps missing later on, when episodes were being mass-produced three times a week. The futility of Jarvey’s role is proved when the youth Jamir is caught thieving again and comes quietly, sneering at Peters, “You’re an old man like my father, old and respectable.” As he is taken away he gets cheers of approval from his mates, who “know now, that I’m not on his side. Goody-goody, do-gooder.”
Norika finds herself the victim of some unwelcome attention as the show begins to flirt with the idea of inter-office relationships. In ‘Small Hours’, she is borrowed by Jim to help bring in a witness for questioning in the middle of the night. When there is no answer at the door, they settle down to wait in his car – and all of a sudden, he is showing an unhealthy interest in her private life. “No arranged marriage?” he asks, finding the topic of Asians a little more palatable than he did back in Series 3 when he told Galloway he just didn’t like them, no matter how hard he tried. “I’m not seeing anyone much now,” he continues. “As a matter of fact…” “My boyfriend’s a teacher,” Norika cuts in benignly, using sweetness and charm as her defence mechanism where Viv would respond with humour and June defiance. “I don’t think I could stick that, could you?” His attempt torpedoed, Jim drives them back to base. But once their shift is over, he offers Norika a lift home, and she is forced to spell it out: “Listen. I’ve tried it nicely. Get the message – not interested, all right? Sierra Oscar, out.” What’s left unsaid is the implication that Jim made up the witness in the first place as an excuse to get Norika on her own: an example of how the show can invest ostensibly likeable characters with very dark traits, which come to the surface now and then. It also foreshadows events the following year, when she gets much more unwanted attention from another quarter. The extent of Jim’s feelings for her are made clear in ‘Just for a Moment’ when he turns his back on a disturbed youth in custody and the latter grabs a knife from Peters’ desk, using it to hold Norika hostage. After Tony has disarmed the kid, using his tied-together shoes as a weapon, the devastated Jim takes her hands: “If anything had happened to you, I…” As the shock kicks in, she rushes off to throw up, and any chance he may have had of making a move on her is gone.
One relationship which does come to fruition this year, however, is the non-clandestine affair between June Ackland and Gordon Wray. Ignoring Frazer and Roach’s shared dinners the previous year, this is the show’s first romance since June’s off-again, off-again dalliance with Dave Litton in Series 1, which ended with her pouring a drink on him. The Bill’s philosophy of not showing personal lives was easy to enforce when the lopsided gender balance of the early years made it difficult to pair up regulars. Now that the number of women in the cast is approaching half a dozen, as opposed to the two that started out, scenes in the hitherto-sacred territory of the WPCs’ locker room can explore the dynamic between female characters. The difficulties of dating in the police are succinctly explained by Suzanne Ford: “Get a bloke with a normal job and he’s not going to put up with you being on shifts. Find one who’s on shifts himself and you might never meet!” “So you want a bloke who does absolutely nothing,” observes June. “Yeah, I’m spoilt for choice.” Unsurprisingly this line comes courtesy of JC Wilsher, who gave Siobhan Redmond the following gem in Between the Lines: “Men are like dog turds. The older they get, the easier they are to pick up.” The liaison between Ackland and Wray is confined largely to his episodes, and in keeping with the established dictums, is notable for the complete lack of action: no bedroom scenes, no clinches in cars, no paperwork swept off desks. The purpose of the relationship is to show how it affects everyone around them, who assume it to be far more than it really is. Taking a shine to June through her work on a burglary initiative, Wray invites her to dinner – and when they separately cry off a night at the pub, Roach, the man with the one-track mind and the biggest gossip in the nick, instantly puts it together. When the affair does stray outside Sun Hill, work is not far behind. The upmarket restaurant to which Wray has taken June for lunch is the site of a drugs surveillance, which Burnside has initiated without informing his boss. June is already uncomfortable with the situation, observing that “this is the sort of place bosses take their secretaries to play footsie under the table.” Cleverly, it’s Wray who is the more open-minded and progressive of the two, insisting that “a man in a restaurant with a woman doesn’t have to be a boss seducing his workforce. They could be two business people, having a working lunch.” He is seemingly trying to pretend that this is all their meetings amount to, but when they are seen by Roach and Martella, any hope of keeping it secret is gone. Inevitably, all the blame gets attached to June, and she finds herself being cast as the scarlet woman. When she passes on her apologies for not attending Tosh’s birthday party because she’s got things to do, he mutters darkly, “Yeah, mucking up some guy’s marriage.” “Oh come on, she’s hardly a vamp,” Dashwood points out. “He must have made all the running. How come you’ve never gone over the side, Tosh?” “Who’d have me? I need a block and tackle at home as it is… In me last nick, I was the only guy in CID who was still on his first wife. Made me feel a bit like a virgin.”
The affair is brought to a sudden end in ‘Out of the Blue’, when Brownlow summons Wray to his office to inform him that he is being transferred. He has just had an upbeat meeting with Greig, who unsurprisingly is his one acolyte in CID. “In my view, we’re moving in a very positive direction. We all still talk as if our snouts and our street cred are all that matters, but we’re actually paying attention to the paperwork these days!” “And it’s the paperwork that makes a good result stand up in court.” “Absolutely.” Wray has high hopes of moving into a specialist team, and hints that Greig could be his first choice to join him. The moment he learns from Brownlow that he is to take up a post in CID training, his calm, measured demeanour is gone, and he demands to know what disciplinary offence he’s committed. “You’re being transferred, not punished.” “It takes me out of line operationally, which means I’m off the promotion ladder!” But the order has come down from on high, and there’s nothing Wray can do about it. Having resisted a previous attempt by Brownlow to inculcate him into the Masons, on the basis that “I spend enough of my life with men already,” he asks scathingly, “Is it too late to take up your kind offer of the funny handshake?” Only later does Conway tell him that the instruction came from the new DAC, who happens to sit on the same social affairs committee as Wray’s wife. “She doesn’t know!” “She knows more than you think, mate.” When word reaches CID, Greig is in the process of assembling a Venn diagram to illustrate a complex fraud case. Burnside is unable to locate any coloured pens for him: “Nor have we got any plasticine or jigsaw puzzles, neither.” Hearing Wray’s door slam, he asks in disbelief, “Alistair! You didn’t forget to warm the bog seat for him this morning?” He can’t resist rubbing in the fact that Greig has lost his biggest ally: “What a choker. Bit gutting for you – all that time you’ve put in on your knees.” “Actually, I think it’s very bad news for this nick. Oh well… back to the Stone Age, eh guv?” says an unusually lippy Greig, which takes Burnside by surprise.
June is dismayed to learn that Gordon is taking a fall for something that’s “practically over… You’re not prepared to be a bastard to your wife and children, and I’m not asking you to be! When you’ve had your candyfloss all you’re left with is the stick, I found that out years ago.” The martyr in her is soon replaced by hellfire, when she realises someone must have ratted on them. Having sat through a patronising chat with Monroe about personal problems, she is sure she’s found the source. “He tried to give me the old Dutch uncle routine this morning. It’s like watching a gorilla doing brain surgery.” Marching into his office, she unleashes a diatribe for the ages: “Since you took over this relief, you’ve established yourself as a petty-minded and rule-bound Little Hitler with all the warmth and humour of a rusted-up Dalek! We can put up with that. But what you don’t do is grass on us. That way you’ll be giving the orders and nobody will be listening.” The visibly terrified Monroe insists that this is the first he’s heard about Wray getting canned, and that rumour got back to him from a training course about the affair, hence his private talk; but she doesn’t believe him. “Like I say, you’ve done a lot to make yourself unpopular on this relief. But you did have respect. We never took you for a liar.” With that she is gone, and a snide comment from Tony about loyalty soon escalates into a campaign against Monroe. He has a pile of manure dumped in his driveway, and the relief start working to rule, assembling for parade at precisely two o’clock and not a moment sooner. But now that Wray knows the truth he is suddenly keen not to fight his corner, to the fury of June, who points out that she’s had to put up with the gossip and hurtful remarks. She becomes less and less enchanted with the vendetta being waged on her behalf, declaring, “If I’d wanted to put on a uniform and mess people about, I’d have got a job on the railways.” Reg has made it into a labour dispute, citing “a range of regrettable supervisory attitudes”, but she can sense he is on an ego trip. She and Monroe end up at the hospital, dealing with a woman who is clearly not the mother of the baby in her care. He proves he can still roll his sleeves up by changing its nappy himself: “I hate watching simple jobs done badly.” June relents and apologises to him, and the campaign is “temporarily suspended.” Meanwhile Wray tries to ask Greig about his fraud case before he leaves, but Alistair would rather discuss it with the incoming DCI Reid, demonstrating that when you’re gone, you’re gone.
But Wray is not the only man to find himself suddenly out in the cold at the end of this year. Tom Penny’s reluctant attendance at Cryer’s twentieth anniversary bash turns into the worst decision of his life. The scenes of Cryer being lured to the pub by an unusually sneaky Monroe and ambushed by the whole relief are heart-warming. Jim turns up on behalf of CID, announcing that “Sgt Cryer taught me everything I knew! It’s true – thanks mate.” He hands him the most fitting of gifts, a model policeman. As Cryer gives a speech to everyone, the camera pans slowly round each character until it alights on Penny, watching pensively, knowing that he will never inspire that sort of affection. When he leaves the do, his car is tailed by officers from Barton Street who have been staking out the pub. They pull him over and enact the familiar routine, warning him of a defective brake light and querying the alcohol on his breath. Aware of how it works, Penny insists that they’re wasting their time as he is not over the limit, but the breathalyser test is positive and he’s taken to Barton Street. He pleads with the custody sergeant to overlook it, but the latter is unmoved. “They were waiting for me, I’ve been set up!” When he has to provide a further test, and is talked through the same procedure he has delivered himself countless times, he starts to realise what it could mean. “Anything over fifty…” “…And I lose my job, right?” Having worked out what this is about, Penny brings up what happened to Terry Coles earlier in the year: “I was happy to let it go. I tried to cover for him, it was Peters who pushed me into a corner!” He is reaping the consequences of his attempts to stay in the middle; to be everyone’s mate, without having the backbone to be consistent on what is right and wrong. This is the same man who insisted on punishing Tosh to the letter of the law, but now wants special treatment himself. When the test produces a reading of fifty-two, the shock is etched on Penny’s face. As he is taken into the custody area, two vandals are brought in kicking and screaming and it seems to dawn on him that he has crossed the line; he is one of them now, as far as the law is concerned. You know he’s out of luck when his last resort is the utterly unmoveable Twist, full of the sensitivity we would come to love in his future guise: “All I know is the facts: fifty-two on the old clapometer, and didn’t he do well! What you don’t want to understand, Tom, is that it doesn’t matter whether you’ve been set up or not. What does matter is that you’ve been caught.”
In the following episode, we see Penny preparing for his court appearance. He dismisses his GP’s opinion that he has never really recovered from the trauma of his shooting, and has a solid case for retirement on medical grounds. “That’d put me in the waste bin with no embarrassment for the job, won’t it?” Suddenly he’s never been more popular, receiving a string of visitors at his home: first Hollis offering Federation advice (“If you need my help…” “I’ll jump in front of a tube train!”), then Conway asking him tactfully if he’s willing to fall on his sword. “If people could see the speed and enthusiasm with which police officers wash their hands, they’d never call us pigs,” he observes in disgust. Finally Cryer turns up to talk sense into him. It’s interesting to see the last appearance of Penny’s demure wife Wendy, the same woman who revealed his violent side five years earlier, then later her brief affair with Bob. “Can you cope with this?” he asks her, to which she replies quietly, “Who else is going to?” With twenty-five years’ service, Penny is entitled to full retirement pension but he refuses to stick to the script, declaring that he will go down fighting. “Driving over the limit isn’t like other crimes,” Cryer impresses on him. “It’s not about your state of mind or your intentions, there’s no room for blowing smoke. Guilt is a fact of biochemistry.” Furthermore, resignation is a better alternative than dismissal, which will affect his pension and references for other jobs. “What other job? I’ve spent my adult life as a copper, what else can I do?” The mention of security work incenses him: “That bloody shower? I’ve spent my career locking up the kind of scum that get jobs with security firms!” As he contemplates his future, he asks plaintively, “God almighty Bob, where’s the justice?” From one veteran to another comes the reply, “You’re a bit old to believe in Father Christmas, ain’t ya?” When his moment comes in the dock, Penny pleads guilty but is then asked if he has anything to say. He unfurls a piece of paper, ready to outline the criminal conspiracy against him – and after a glance at the CIB officers in court, he instead delivers just what was expected of him, soft-soaping the magistrates about the stress he has been under. It’s another expression of the awkward reality that The Bill was always so good at depicting: that people don’t always make the perfect or the heroic choice, but settle for less because they have to. In the words of Ted’s snout Roxanne, played this year for the last time by Paul O’Grady, “Welcome to the grown-up world, where you don’t get what you want, where you never get what you deserve.”
The expected penalties follow in short order: a fine, a year-long ban and notice of a disciplinary enquiry. Penny returns to Sun Hill to see Brownlow, and as he’s thanked for his long service we see a last hint of defiance well up in him and then subside, as he realises he can’t fight the inevitable. Tears in his eyes, he submits his request for retirement and Brownlow assures him that he will leave with excellent references. On the stairs he makes a feeble promise to Cryer about coming over for dinner, but it’s clear that without a life in the police he is heading into oblivion. The man who collects his belongings in the property store assures him that he will never shake off the job. “I see it all the time. Nobody really leaves, you know. You may not believe me, but you’ll see. In years to come you’ll keep in touch, know what all your mates are doing, who’s been promoted, who’s got transferred. You’ll sit at home thinking about them getting on with the job. In my experience, people invariably ‘lose’ their helmet, stick and whistle,” he adds with a nod and a wink. “Souvenirs, you understand? Mementos of your police experience.” Pushing these treasured items across the counter, Penny sums up his experience in two words: “Stuff it.” That his return as a guest the following year bears out the man’s prediction only adds to the poignancy of his exit. Tom Penny was one of the most distinctive characters of the early years – neither old and wise nor young and dashing, but a difficult, spiky, unknowable figure, his tweed jacket and pipe hinting at respectability yet his actions proving otherwise. If Cryer is the copper we’d want to be, Penny is what we would be instead. This complex character was brought to life so memorably by the lugubrious features and Aussie twang of Roger Leach: a man who lived to just fifty three, but who, in complete contrast to his alter-ego, is remembered with affection by every cast member who is asked about him.