By Edward Kellett
The early Nineties is arguably the point where The Bill moved from hit series to institution. The appearance of the show’s first-ever Christmas special, quickly followed by a New Year’s episode, sums up how it had become a mainstay of the schedules, and plans for expanding were already in the works. But this is also an era that proves what strong material the show could depict in its supposedly watered-down 8pm timeslot. Some series seem preoccupied with certain themes, and in Series 7 there is an overarching thread of sexual crime in one form or another. By following events from the view of the police, there is a gradual revelation of unpleasant truths that makes for powerful storytelling without the need for graphic content. In ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ by Arthur McKenzie, June and Dave investigate a missing fourteen-year old girl, Veronique, who has been gone for five days without her parents reporting it. “She’s always come back,” the mother assures them. “There are some girls who come to the house sometimes…” Confined to a wheelchair, the embittered father tells Dave that she “does whatever she bloody likes, and what can I do in this thing?” Finding a diary hidden in her room, between the movie posters and childhood toys, Dave passes it to Monroe with the warning that “it’s not the sort of thing you want to leave lying around for anyone to read. It’s obvious she’s on the game… Some things get through sometimes, you know what I mean?” In the canteen, as he stares out of the window, cryptic details emerge about his past and why this case has struck a chord with him. “I got sisters, June. I saw it happen to them. When my old man screwed off, the youngest – especially the youngest – I saw it happen to her. I won’t forget chasing her halfway round the country. She won’t get over it. He destroyed her. That bastard destroyed the whole family, and I’ll never forgive him for that, never!” We have already met Dave’s mother and girlfriend at his commendation ceremony the previous year, and now there’s a hint that his affable, blokey persona is something he developed to hide a painful history. It helps to make him a more sympathetic figure, and proves how flexible the show was about the supposed diktat of ‘no private lives’. We may not follow officers home, but home often follows them into work.
Dave tries to break the news to Veronique’s father, only for him to admit that he has known for some time. “I’ve seen her being dropped off. Have you any idea how that feels…? Blokes in suits!?” It is Burnside who finds her by accident, courtesy of his infatuation with Brownlow’s secretary Marion, an odd plot thread that runs through McKenzie’s scripts. They are having lunch in a restaurant when he spots a teenage girl, dressed and made up to the nines, with a man thirty years her senior. When uniform arrive to bring her in, her prospective buyer is dismayed to learn that she is only fourteen, but was clearly in no hurry to ask. Begging not to be involved, he tells Cryer he’s a married man. “Aren’t we all, sir?” comes the stony reply as he is led past the other diners. In the interview room, the unrepentant Veronique insists she knows what she is doing. “You’re too young, you don’t understand. You need us,” her father insists. “No, you need me,” she replies with chilling contempt, implying that her invalid father should be grateful someone in the family is earning money. Adamant that she doesn’t want to go into care, she triggers a scathing lecture from June: “Well you’d better do some pretty serious thinking hadn’t you, because that’s where you’re heading if you can’t be controlled! Don’t think you’ve got it all sussed my girl, because you haven’t. I’ve seen dozens of little girls like you, and I’ve seen where they end up. Believe me, it’s not very nice. You’ve heard of AIDS? Do you know what can happen to prostitutes? Well don’t look like that, that’s what you are! You’re a little prostitute – and they end up in the gutter, with heroin habits and beaten-up faces. They won’t be taking you to West End parties, they’ll be taking you to the casualty department at the hospital; if you’re lucky.” Revealing her teenage self, Veronique whines “Dad!”, as though he can protect her from the nasty grownup. But she also reveals her other, learned habits when she pouts seductively at Dave, who tells her flatly, “Don’t do that,” as the episode ends.
It’s not long, however, before the show tackles the same subject of underage sex from a different and controversial angle. In ‘The Public Interest’ by Christopher Russell, June again deals with a wayward teenage girl who has become involved with an older man, to the extent that they are living together. When the police arrive at his home, the predator turns out to be an innocuous middle-aged man in a golf jumper. He insists that they are aware of the age of consent and decided together that it didn’t matter. “I’m not sure that’s your decision to make, Mr Townsend,” Stringer comments. The girl, Becky, makes it plain that she is there of her own free will, and does not want a medical examination or the involvement of her despised mother. When the latter arrives, it’s clear that this time she, and not the child, is the professional. Dragged away from a ‘client’, she sits coolly in front of Monroe, declaring that she has no control over her daughter and has no idea where the father is. “She’s always had boyfriends,” Becky explains to June. “Well, she calls them boyfriends, but she’s on the game more often than not. They used to give me the eye and all. And a bit more if they got the chance.” The mother confirms with relish that she has agreed to the medical examination on Becky’s behalf. But if home is not an option, the child protection team can only go for a Place of Safety order. “Look, she has care with Townsend,” June insists. “She has genuine affection and security. We won’t be stopping abuse by taking her away from him, we’ll be causing it!” After the examination is over, Becky declares flatly, “I feel like I’ve been raped. Gerry’s never raped me. You know what the best thing in the world is? It’s when we snuggle down in bed at night, and I’m lying there in the dark and the warm, listening. There’s a pub at the end of the road and you hear them at chucking-out time. You hear them going past, shouting and swearing, fighting sometimes. Men and women. And I’m lying there with Gerry and I think: poor bastards.” While she may come from an abusive background that has damaged her, this ‘inappropriate’ relationship with an older man has enabled her to move on and find something meaningful. It’s not a view that should be thrown around freely, but it does demonstrate that The Bill was capable of challenging clichés as well as forming them. June observes that, “Monroe thinks letter of the law equals public interest; all very simple. Still,” she adds bitterly, “Becky Curtis has nothing to worry about. We’ve got her a social worker and a bed in a children’s home. What more could she ask for?”
The social care system comes under fire again in ‘Too Many Chiefs’, one of two episodes this year by Tony Etchells that depict sexual exploitation leading to suicide. A teenage girl is found dead of an overdose in a children’s home, triggered by the abuse of the young and seemingly caring manager, who had persuaded her to pose for ‘modelling’ photos. ‘Profit and Loss’ is an even more hard-hitting tale of human trafficking and migrants kept in cellars. This time the deceased woman, discovered in overflowing bath water, turns out to have been a Turkish national employed at a cleaning company, where she was sold as a present to her co-worker, a vile gap-toothed sleazebag named Kellet (one ‘t’, the credits make clear! – anyhow, it’s nice to get a name-check, even if it couldn’t be for a man of quality). The bailiffs who found the body when they broke in to recover a debt could hardly care less, impatient to get on with their next job. Of course, the victim herself has no voice because she’s already gone. The use of women as slab-bound cadavers in crime shows has become increasingly frowned on in recent years, and one feels sorry for the actress here who has to lie in a puddle of water, stage vomit applied liberally to her mouth, as a bunch of blokes peer at the bruises on her torso. When the police track down her employer, Dace, they find a bruised and terrified weasel who runs away thinking they are the loan sharks he owes a debt to. He insists he tried to save her life, finding the “stupid cow had taken an overdose” and running a bath to put her in, not realising she would choke. “She was half-dead at the best of times… did he tell you he asked for his money back?” Dace’s own words condemn him, but unfortunately we have to get the condemnation of Meadows on top of that, giving it the Full Yorkshire. Shouty interviews are a cliché that takes you out of the drama, and they became increasingly common in subsequent years. Far more effective is Roach’s quiet retort at the end, when the small-time crook bleats about how he has lost a friend: “You haven’t lost a friend, Mr Dace. You’ve lost plant and machinery. Get him out of here.”
Perhaps the most controversial of these episodes is ‘Without Consent’ by Julian Jones, in which a well-known local ‘tom’, Linda, walks into the station with bruises on her high-heeled feet to report a rape. “Sorry love, we class that as non-payment for goods,” she is informed by Steve Loxton, and is sent on her way. June tracks her down and they argue about the details at full volume as she follows her through an Underground station, finally convincing her to make a statement. However, the nearest CID to hand are Burnside and Roach, whose interest levels barely rise above mild curiosity. “Some bloke jumped me as I came off this job last night. He put a sack over me head.” “Can’t say I blame him,” Roach mutters, loud enough for her to hear. She reveals that after she got free, she came across a couple in a car who drove off rather than help her, which didn’t encourage her to go to the police. “You believe her?” Roach asks Burnside in private. “Well, she’s had a few drinks. But who’d want to rape her anyway?” Later he asks what she is expecting to get out of this, explaining the problem with her credibility: “What you do, basically, for a job, is get raped for money.” “You don’t go with these men because you want to,” adds Roach. “You’ve made things very difficult for forensic; you’ve been with four or five different blokes.” “Now don’t get upset,” says Burnside, “I’m just trying to be straight with you.” Cryer reminds the furious June that a rape case has to be handled by an inspector or above, but she argues that he has no interest in handling it. “All Mr Burnside wants to do is nick villains; spin round to chummy’s house and get a body. That’s not what this is about!”
Cryer has a word in Brownlow’s ear and Reid gets involved. “There’s a statement of intent on your office wall: to meet the victim’s needs. I don’t care who she is, do you understand?” She and June take over the enquiry, but it seems increasingly pointless to Linda, who has internalised all the negative attitudes the police have towards her: “These thing happen, I’m a prostitute. It’s what I’m paid for: to make sure that men don’t go out and rape ‘ordinary’ women. If he’d have paid me, I’d have put the sack over me head!” She is reassured that they can isolate and match the different DNA traces on her body, and is sent off to be examined. “Why do women allow themselves to be treated like that anyway?” Burnside asks Reid. “Something you don’t suffer from, Frank – low self-esteem.”
The story illustrates one of the abiding themes of the show, that familiarity breeds contempt. The associated hassle that comes with prostitutes, their involvement in drink and drugs and unreliability as witnesses, makes some officers reluctant to treat them as a member of the public with the same rights as everyone else. There’s an assumption that they can take care of themselves. “The thing is, we know Linda,” Roach tells Reid. “It’s not like her to come to us; she’s an old pro, she’s virtually bulletproof.” But if this apathy bleeds through into the victim herself, what is the danger of it bleeding out of the screen and into reality? The book The First Ten Years of The Bill, by Hilary Kingsley, reveals that, “An episode in 1991 in which two male detectives laughed off a prostitute’s rape ordeal was singled out by the Met Commissioner as a ‘disservice’ both to the police and to rape victims who might be dissuaded from reporting their cases.” Its intention was clearly the reverse, to critique outdated attitudes and show the need for change – but here we return to the argument of whether drama should reflect the real world or show a better alternative. The same book reveals that the programme included some ideas at the request of the police, showing that they recognised its potential for good; and perhaps for ill, in their opinion, if they weren’t more closely involved.
The Bill was a series of individual stories, told by individual writers. But because so much of the content in these early years was the work of a few reliable people, it’s more of an “authored” show than one might expect. This handful of writers is able to develop the show’s ongoing, long-term narrative, examining the themes that most interest them. Barry Appleton, the man with a real-life CID background and a heavy focus on Galloway in the hour-long episodes, always remembered the thwarted ambitions of the other two ‘originals’ from 1984, Roach and Dashwood. In ‘Kids Don’t Cry Anymore’, the professional struggles of both men are highlighted again. Harry Hopwood, the former Murder Squad detective who clashed with his old subordinate Roach in Appleton’s ‘Conscience’ two years earlier, returns in a story that illustrates how Ted is standing still while his former colleagues are moving onwards and upwards. “Why is it that retired coppers always go in for the security?” ponders Burnside. “You’d think after twenty-five years they’d have had enough.” Hopwood is setting up a firm with a Mayfair address, in order to “attract the right clientele”, and wants Roach seconded to him to investigate missing stock from a major communications group. The moment Ted realises who this job is in aid of, he tells Burnside flatly, “Get stuffed!” and is hauled into his office for a dressing-down: “Don’t you ever speak to me like that again!” “I object to that man’s presence in the nick.” “I don’t give a stuff what you object to – Harry Hopwood is well respected in and out of the force, a reputation that will outlast yours, unless you know something different.” Mike asks Hopwood what their feud is about, and his response is telling: “The job is full of people who think they’ve been hard done by, and Roach is no exception.” Roach spends his lunch break in the local boozer, nursing his drink and his grievances. “There are two kinds of copper I detest. Those who spend all their time studying to pass exams, and those who keep you under their thumb because it suits their careers. Hopwood’s the worst kind – guilty of both.” “You know, I’ve seen ’em come and I’ve seen ’em go,” the landlord declares, “but without a doubt, you are the most bitter and twisted Old Bill I’ve ever come across.” “It takes practice; and I’ve had plenty.”
Sat in a car with Hopwood as they monitor a delivery driver’s round, Ted works out why he was requested: “This is a big job, you can’t afford it to go wrong, and if it does you’ll blame me. You never change, I can read you like a book.” Hopwood reveals his plans to expand internationally, with foreign offices and a payroll of ex-coppers. “So you want to put me in your pocket? You think you can flash a credit card and it’s all sorted, even a clear conscience.” Roach again brings up the murder case they handled in the Seventies, which resulted in the conviction of the wrong man and his suicide in prison. “The trouble with you Roach, is you’re a fatuous idealist,” retorts Hopwood. “The hardest job I had with you was keeping your head out of the clouds. You should learn something: people who spend their lives tilting at windmills usually end by losing out.” “Maybe they do, but they still sleep at night.” When the lorry makes an unscheduled stop, Roach ignores Hopwood’s plea to order back-up and begins snooping around on foot. Getting too close, he is rumbled and almost done over by the thieves before he is saved by reinforcements that Hopwood has called in. “If he hadn’t phoned for assistance, you’d be a candidate for intensive care,” Mike informs him. “You owe the man a lot.” But Roach maintains defiantly that Hopwood was only looking out for his own interests. “You’re an ungrateful bastard, Ted,” says Burnside. When the hero of the hour turns up with a bottle of scotch to thank them for their help, Roach supplies the glasses from the permanent stock he keeps in his drawer – but that’s as far as he will go. “Aren’t you having one?” “I’m particular who I drink with.” We have seen umpteen times by now that Roach is his own worst enemy, and this episode reminds us what his idealism has cost him in the long-term. But it also illustrates his hypocrisy, going after glory himself when he sees the chance and having to be rescued by his colleagues, not for the first time. He dislikes Hopwood not for playing the game, but for playing it better than he can.
Familiar as they are, Roach’s career knockbacks are not the only ones given an airing in this episode. Burnside calls Dashwood into his office and tells him that his transfer request to the Fraud Squad has been rejected. “You made all the right noises, said all the right things… you want me to tell you why? When a certain Chief Superintendent is sitting on a selection board wearing a Burton’s suit, and his subordinate is standing there in a Giorgio Armani number, flashing a moody Cartier timepiece, he starts to think! I mean if I didn’t know you I’d start to get the wrong messages, know what I mean?” “I’m not a bent copper, you know that.” “It’s not what the man knows, it’s what he thinks. He’s not interested in how many commendations you’ve got, doesn’t give a damn about all the good work you’ve done.” “I think I’ll jack it in,” says Mike in a fit of petulance. “Don’t be stupid! You’ve got a great future ahead of you. Do you want some advice? At home, I’ve got an old grey suit, stinks of mothballs. I hate it, everyone hates it – my old mum tried to give it away to Oxfam twice. Now I keep that suit, and do you know what for? Purely for selection boards and funerals, nothing else. That suit makes a statement about me.” “That you have no taste?” “Do yourself a favour – if you want a transfer that bad, sit for promotion. Follow the system. Show ’em what you’re made of.” In one scene the show acknowledges and hits back at its critics; real-life officers had questioned how a mere DC could possibly afford Dashwood’s designer suits and upmarket lifestyle, but now they are presented as more of a hindrance than a help to his career prospects, giving him the image of a man on the take. Later, Hopwood tries to court him, offering his card and saying he’s helped young officers who’ve become “disenchanted with the job.” One suspects that if Mike had accepted he would have regretted it in the end, and that Roach’s criticisms of Hopwood are not without foundation.
Mike’s cocky attitude comes back to haunt him a few episodes later in ‘Furthers’. He is about to bring more charges against a con nearing the end of a three-year sentence, James Bailey, when he learns that the man has absconded. Doing the rounds of Bailey’s former associates, including those who helped put him away, Mike learns that he has acquired a shotgun, that one barrel is his for his old business partner, “and the other one’s for you.” “If Bailey does manage to shoot you,” Tosh asks Mike helpfully, “can I have your suit?” With typical bravado he scorns the threat, even after one of the men he spoke to is gunned down on the street. AMIP arrives on the scene and Meadows is keen to know exactly why Bailey has in it for him. “Because I do my job.” “That’s a clever answer Mike, I don’t want clever answers.” Noting that he paid him a visit recently in prison, Meadows asked if he brought up the fact that he was going to send him down again. “It must have come up…. I wanted to clarify a few points of evidence. I knew I had a case.” Furthermore, Bailey knows his girlfriend has been seeing someone else: “It’s a pity somebody told him… you didn’t happen to mention that, did you?” His composure cracking, Mike admits that he did, because “he was asking for it – his attitude.” “Oh, you just wanted to knock him down, did you? How did you feel? You were pleased; you enjoyed it. We all know Bailey’s unstable, but he wouldn’t want you dead without good reason.” Dashwood is still hung up on the idea that he has to needle the villains, to land personal jabs on them because he’s seen others do it and thinks that giving aggro is what the police are for. The idea that one of them could ever cross the line and hit back has never occurred to him; he thinks of himself as being in a different class, but he soon finds out he’s not invulnerable.
Ignoring Burnside’s offer of the section house, he returns to his well-furnished flat and assures him over the phone that he’ll be all right. No sooner has he taken out a pizza than he is ambushed by the gun-toting Bailey: a brilliant, intense performance by Nigel Terry, sporting the grizzled features and cropped silver hair of someone hardened by prison life. Mike goes to turn off the radio and is told, “I shouldn’t bother, I’ll just plug you right back. Besides, you wouldn’t want to waste that. A man should enjoy his last meal.” He is taken into the bedroom to see the body of Bailey’s girlfriend, a victim of his desire to land a cheap shot on a criminal. How Bailey managed to find and enter the place unnoticed is a detail that’s skipped over, perhaps lost in the edit when the episode needed to hit its running time, but the dialogue more than makes up for this shortcoming. “Weren’t you brought up to finish your plate?” Bailey demands as Mike tries numbly to eat his pizza. “Some little chap died for that, the least you could do is chew it.” They hear the sound of sirens, and as he moves to check the window he pays tribute to his former love with the black humour that The Bill is rarely credited for: “She’d have liked it, great big fuss. Horrible bang it made, sending her off. I could have strangled her with piano wire, but, uh, I don’t have a piano and even if I did, I wouldn’t know how to play it… Looks like you’ll have to miss pudding.” Forced to his feet, Mike is taken onto the roof and his head thrust into the guttering: “Eat what you feed everyone else!” After being made to wave to the police below, he then has to announce how scared he is, so his colleagues can witness his humiliation. “Are you scared, or scared to say you’re scared?” Bailey asks, pinpointing Mike’s major failing. He also reveals that he only has one shot left, and he can’t afford to miss. “This is for my life… what a waste,” he declares, moments before that last shot is fired. When armed police hurry onto the roof, they find his dead body and Mike sitting against the railing. “You scared the life out of me,” Burnside tells him quietly. “Mind you, you didn’t half look a prat, up here waving.” “Well he got what he came for, then,” Dashwood admits as the episode ends.
The modernisation process in CID is a continuing interest for another of the show’s standout writers, JC Wilsher. ‘Initiative’ kicks off a story arc covering a major CID operation. Having stirred up the troops with her fresh approach to crime strategy, Reid does the same to Brownlow, pointing out that statistics reveal a rising trend in street robberies. She urges him to “look at what the customers want: all the survey evidence shows that street robbery is the public’s number one priority. It generates an exaggerated fear of crime and makes the public think the police can’t do anything for them. With burglary and auto crime at least we can tell people to do something for themselves: lock doors, fit alarms. What can we say about robbery, tell them to stay indoors?” Her proposal to run a project targeting the Bannister Estate is met with hostility by Brownlow, who has bitter experience of the drawbacks. “I don’t know where you were in the early Eighties. We tried to deal with muggings then with saturation policing and swamp operations. I was sending in uniformed officers against petrol bombs, I was having local politicians sharpening their knives to stab us in the back, and I am not going to put myself in that situation again!” Reid argues that they should stop trying to pretend they’re above politics: “We’ve always been in the political game, but up till now we’ve tried to be the referee and been treated like the football.” Brownlow tries to kick her ideas into touch by suggesting she draft a paper, only to learn that she already has. “I’ve got plans for this place,” she tells Burnside as they visit the estate. “I thought fighting our way in here through burning rubber tyres was the worst experience you could have,” he muses. “Then I thought about living here.” After running through the catalogue of burglaries, arson attacks and muggings in recent months, he asks what those plans are, and receives a simple but emphatic reply: “I want it recaptured.”
Reid’s approach involves a co-ordinated, multi-agency approach which doesn’t enthral Burnside: “Schools liaison, community involvement? That’s not really my part of the jungle.” She reassures him that it will also require intelligence gathering, targeting and surveillance of suspects. “Yeah, but that’s treating teenage toe rags like armed blaggers!” “They’re more of a problem than armed blaggers,” she points out, demonstrating the show’s admirable commitment to reflect the real issues of the day, and the crimes that occupy the police most, rather than just the ones that make for glamorous television. With the scope offered by the twice-weekly format, it was important to show a long-term operation that isn’t wrapped up in the space of one episode – and perhaps even more important to depict a success, showing the viewer that the police’s hard work and calculated strategy does yield results. Brownlow has gone to an area meeting with DAC Hicks and learnt that street robbery is now his main focus, prompted by concerns from the Commissioner. Suddenly changing his tune, he reels off Reid’s figures as though they’re his own invention. Hicks wants a proposal from each super for an initiative on tackling street robbery, and Brownlow has a ready-made scheme that he passes on, claiming to have commissioned it. “Changed your name?” one of his colleagues asks cheerfully as they leave. “Charlie Brownnose is it, these days? Oh don’t get me wrong, Charles. Swimming’s my sport. I admire a good crawl.” When Brownlow catches up with Reid, he observes how remarkable it is that she and the DAC were thinking in the same terms. “Well sometimes an idea’s in the air, isn’t it sir?” He gives the green light to her proposal, but warns that it will have to be presented as having come from the Sun Hill management team as a whole. “That’s what I’d assumed,” she smiles benignly, proving that she knows how to play the system: satisfy the egos of the men in power, let them think they’re running the show, and then get on with the job herself.
In the next instalment, ‘Targets’, a youth arrested for carrying a knife says that it was for protection against two older teenage muggers. Sensing targets for the street robbery scheme, Jim puts it to Burnside, but his recommendation is only the starting point. Tosh produces a costing breakdown of the men, vehicles and hours involved. Their meeting with Burnside suggests the DI is finally being dragged into the new decade; rather than keep him a maverick straining against change, the show has him gradually adopt the managerial tone that is being exerted from above. “I have to be satisfied on various points before I apply the resource, right?” he notes as he studies their figures. “These are known street robbers, you’ve come up with a feasible action plan, so the final question is: is your budget offering value for money? You do need the numbers; that’s why you’re only going to get half the hours, and I’m going to have to go cap in hand for that.” “So if they haven’t offended by six pm…” “Then you’ve blown it.” The wheeler-dealer who started out infiltrating gangs in the mid-Eighties must now crunch the numbers to even get close to them. “The essence of crime management is the precise application of limited resources,” Brownlow declares. “We speak of little else in CID,” Burnside assures him. Reid’s plan includes discussions with the council, the courts and the probation services, the show acknowledging that this is where criminals return to the same vicious cycle that puts them on collision course with the police again. We see how far her belief in covering all the bases will go when one reporter takes a shine to Mike: “We need good informal channels to the media, so… get stuck in! Do you think you could slip a few column inches to young what’s her name on the Gazette?” “I’m hopeful, ma’am,” he replies smugly, seeing no downside in being pimped out by his boss! But when he is first into the fray to arrest the two teenage muggers, he receives a smack in the mouth that renders him less than photogenic for his briefing that night. “Not the image you want to present to young Julie, is it?” notes Reid sadly. “Especially when he’s trying to give her a controlled leak,” adds Burnside, and she tries hard to conceal her smirk.
One of the arrested youths reveals that he started nicking at the age of twelve, under pressure from an older boy. The way the young are groomed and coerced into a criminal lifestyle is explored by Wilsher in the following episode, ‘Joey’. June helps out with an anti-bullying initiative in schools, focusing on a kid who seems particularly unhappy and rushes away after it is over. She speaks to a teacher who suggests he is getting good practice for the adult world: “He’s quite low down in the pecking order, but then somebody’s got to be. Come on, there always is a pecking order, wherever you go in life. There’s certainly one in this staff room. I bet there’s one in your station.” When the kid reveals that an older boy has been stealing his pocket money, the headmaster’s strategy is one of containment: “He’ll be warned off in no uncertain terms. He’s not exactly one of our academic prospects. He’ll be out of our hands fairly soon.” “Yeah, and straight into ours, I shouldn’t wonder,” comments June. Steve Loxton brings in another youth for stealing a piece of jewellery, but the boy is so terrified that Steve is thought to have intimidated him. Eventually he reveals the full story, in one long unbroken take that zooms in slowly on his face. A boy at school used to take his money, but after this boy left he saw the younger kid in the street and accused him of slagging off his mum. To prove he hadn’t, he had to go out that evening with him and his mates. “We went up the graveyard. They said, we’re going in here. We went over the fence, and they took me through all these graves. There was this new grave; like it had just been dug. It was empty, all the dirt piled up. They pushed me in… they said I had to do what they said, or else they’d push me in again, and put all the dirt on top.” This led to a gradual path of thieving and robbery, taking bigger risks as the pressure increased. “You were what they call his ‘joey’?” asks Monroe. “He said if I got caught, I’d get off with it ’cos I’m only a kid.” The story illustrates deftly how different layers of crime are connected, victims becoming perpetrators. It’s also a sign of how the show can take a seemingly run of the mill crime and expose a darker undercurrent running beneath.
Another of the show’s long-standing authors, Julian Jones, begins to explore the wider world of Sun Hill during this year, reminding us that there are plenty of people working there beyond the margins of the TV screen. ‘Dead Man’s Boots’ sees speculation over who will replace the recently deceased duty sergeant. Alec Peters is being courted for the role, to the disbelief of Roach: “No way, duty sergeant? Most powerful man in the station?” “Brownlow’s gonna need someone he can talk to,” suggests Burnside. “Bob can be a bit ‘moral’ at times.” “Alec’s a nice guy, but it’s no use talking to him unless you’re talking about runner beans.” Roach opens a book on the eventual winner, and Dave insists that Peters has no chance. “He couldn’t organise a brothel in Bangkok,” he remarks as the man himself comes up behind him. Of the late occupant of the role, who has dropped dead at only forty-nine, Cryer observes that “he was a nice man, but what I didn’t like about him was that when it came to going on courses, or people needing overtime, he always favoured his old relief.” He claims to be uninterested in a nine to five job, “sitting up there like the Olympic flame – you never go out.” However, viewers with long memories will recall how station-bound Cryer was in the early years, to the point where venturing onto the streets to replace an injured PC was a major event. Conway suggests to Brownlow that moving the ever-popular Cryer from his relief to a desk job could give them greater sway over him. “How very Machiavellian of you, Derek.” Peters is still the favoured man, but wants more time to discuss it with his wife, observing that regular hours for him will make little difference to her, given that she is a nurse. “I’m a relief man, I’m happy where I am,” he tells Cryer, insisting that Bob deserves it more, and reveals later to Burnside that he himself turned down the job. “Don’t screw yourself Alec, this is your chance to move on – you’d be upstairs!” “I dunno. Maybe I’d get vertigo.” The difference between the two men becomes clear as day; when given the chance at something new, Peters still prefers his comfort blanket, and it’s not long before he pays the price for remaining, quite literally, at the sharp end. By contrast, when the duty sergeant role is offered to Cryer he doesn’t pause or dither but says, simply, “OK.”
It was an interesting shake-up to give one of the show’s core cast a new, office-based role, and we soon see the effect of Cryer’s transfer on those around him, which is far bigger than any change to the man himself. Reg is surprised to find him in the normal washroom rather than the executive one, and is set straight: “Contrary to rumours being circulated, I am not Mr Brownlow’s minder, nor am I his snout; I’m just the duty sergeant.” “I ain’t heard no rumours.” “No, well you wouldn’t, would you? You start them all.” Reg brings up the sick cards that Cryer is passing to Brownlow each morning, declaring, “If that ain’t snouting, I don’t know what is.” “I have shown him the sick cards of officers injured on duty, so he can phone them up and ask them how they are. I’m trying to educate him into showing a little concern.” This is where Cryer’s thorough approach to everything he does works against him, now he’s seen to be applying it for the benefit of the high-ups rather than the troops on the street. In ‘Empire Building’, a crackdown on fine defaulters leads to an endless stream of prisoners clogging custody, which the harassed Peters must control while dealing with a defective lock on a cell door. Cryer wanders past and is advised to keep his big nose out of it. “I’ve had enough of you and your moods, Alec,” he mutters, and Peters suddenly flips, taking him into the office for a chat. “Don’t you ever dare talk to me in front of the prisoners like that!” “I was out of order; but so were you, I don’t know what’s got into you lately.” “I’m not the one who’s changed, Bob. You have. You’ve become a governor’s man – brownnosing the senior officers, stealing a job here, a job there. You write briefing papers for Conway, you do the overtime budgets, you even do the duties for sergeants and inspectors!” “And you’re afraid I’m going to penalise you? Give you the worst duties? I’ll tell you what it is, it’s jealousy. You cannot handle the fact that I’m doing a job that you turned down.” “You’re just not the man I used to know, Bob.”
Julian Jones examines another regular trying to cope with a different role in ‘Your Shout’. This time it’s Cathy Marshall, due for a sergeant’s board and slipping back into the mantle of acting sergeant, an on-off post we have seen her adopt several times. This felt like an attempt to give her something distinctive beyond her history of domestic violence, and amounted to no more than slipping on an armband. But this episode and Jones’ next, ‘A Corporal of Horse’, delve deeper into the problems that Cathy faces as an acting sergeant – and do so by taking the focus beyond the regular characters, to another relief entirely. At the changeover of shifts, the boys of C relief head to the pub, to celebrate the impending fatherhood of their sergeant. Having been advised by Brownlow that she needs to “project the right image” and “smile more”, Cathy waves them off. But when Tony attends the first outstanding call, the woman who made it comes to the station to complain about the lack of response from the police, which has given her ex-husband time to abduct their children. It turns out to have come in twenty-five minutes before the shift change. “It’s down to the previous relief then,” says Tony. “It’s down to us if we didn’t notice at handover,” Peters corrects him, and wants to know why Cathy didn’t check. She grows more anxious as the search for the children intensifies. Meanwhile, C relief’s booze-up becomes so rowdy that another complaint is made. Dave encourages Cathy to dob them in to Monroe, in retaliation for dropping her in it: “They’re always the ones who give Sun Hill a bad name. It’s the sergeants – they’re too young. I’ve got as many years in as Martin Welsh… He’s a nice guy and all that, but he’s not a leader. If the lads don’t see you as skipper, then basically you’ve got no hope.” His message isn’t lost on Cathy, who instantly regrets telling Monroe. Peters manages to convince Monroe to let him warn off C relief instead, and can’t believe that Cathy got him involved: “You don’t point Mr Monroe at anyone unless you mean to bury them!” Dave makes an ill-advised joke about how Brownlow will soon have Cathy back on the beat, and her patience snaps: “It might help if you gave me a little more respect!” “Yeah, well that’s got to be earned, hasn’t it?” The kids are located and Cathy can breathe easy, but not for long. Brownlow pops in to give her the good news: with Sgt. Welsh on leave, C relief is short of an acting sergeant. “I thought that would make you happy,” he adds, as she tries hard to put on a game face.
In the second episode we see her struggling with the macho culture of C relief, something which is causing concern at senior level. When Cryer gives Brownlow the figures on their “batting average,” the latter notes that they’re “not exactly the West Indies, are they?” “They consistently have the worst arrest rate in the station. Yet there’s an ethos sir that persists, that they’re the top guns.” Conway’s argument that “each relief has its own character, it helps to build a sense of identity,” does not impress Brownlow: “I want that identity changed.” Cathy discovers that the loudmouthed PC ‘Lucy’ Locket has driven another officer’s car that day despite being uninsured on it, but when she confronts him, he snaps, “Look you jumped-up little cow, don’t play sergeants with me!” He doesn’t take her seriously and nor does C relief’s governor, Inspector Bruce, a laissez-faire type who is the polar opposite of Monroe. “Got himself into a bit of a mess – and, you’re obviously taking the matter seriously,” he adds reluctantly. She finds out that he has already been told about the incident, and realises he was going to do nothing. Seeing Brownlow, she asks to be considered for a new domestic violence unit, rather than pursue a role she isn’t suited to. “Organising and disciplining officers, it doesn’t come naturally to me.” “Well it’s difficult being an acting sergeant,” Brownlow sympathises. “You’re neither one thing nor the other; you’re a corporal of horse.” The regular cast in this episode besides Cathy are all people doing nine to five jobs who would interact with each of the reliefs: Viv working in CID, Ron Smollett as collator, Cryer as duty sergeant and Brownlow and Conway in their upstairs offices. The other roles are filled by a new set of characters, reminding us that what we see in most episodes is a small piece of the overall picture. This experiment could only have been attempted in the half-hour era, when the number of slots to fill gave a freedom to try out different approaches. When the show returned to the hourly format in 1998, there were episodes that thrust one character into new surroundings, undercover or on attachment; but this ‘shock of the new’ never applied to Sun Hill itself. Given the executive producer Richard Handford’s declaration to the cast that he was going to “turn them into stars”, an hour of prime time television in which half the officers roaming the station are completely unknown to the viewer would be a difficult sell.
Another relief stirs up trouble in the hour-long Christmas episode, ‘Vital Statistics’, which opens with the news that B relief has an arrest rate that’s fifty per cent higher than ‘our lot’, A relief. Monroe takes this as a personal affront, suggesting that “my relief are so red hot, the villains keep their heads down when they’re on duty.” But to Conway, a man fixated on quick victories, success can somehow be reduced to a numbers game: “When you think there’s a PC in Avon who’s doing a hundred and twenty in a year? A hundred and twenty, Andrew, in Avon! This is London! The streets are paved with crime!” Smarting over this news, Tony tells Dave that he has made a bet with the loudmouths of B relief that they can top the ten arrests they managed in their last shift. As they embark on patrol he grows steadily more agitated, screening calls for arrest value and determined to nick anything that moves. He stops a man with a sack returning to his allotment; and, in a scene you won’t see played for a laugh in any current police series, takes keen interest in a black man carrying a bag before Dave warns him firmly, “No.” Two kids are caught breaking into a timber’s yard, but the area car is detailed to bring in their mother, much to Tony’s disgust: “Free taxi rides for slag now!” “You’re just prejudiced,” says Dave. “They’re all human beings, you know.” “That’s what’s so depressing.” She insists that her sons are under the age of criminal responsibility and she can prove it by fetching their birth certificates, which entails other ride home and back. “Go via Tesco, shall we? Get your shopping in?” Tony finally admits what is at stake: “At tonight’s disco, the losers dance the conga… buck naked. I’d had a couple of drinks! Bottle out if you like.” “I don’t remember bottling in!” Dave retorts, now equally panic-stricken. The shift turns out to be one of the least dramatic in memory, the highlight a rampage of destruction by an OAP in an electric wheelchair who injures both Reg and Norika, in a scene that feels lifted straight from a real officer’s experience. “I can see he’d terrorise the whole estate, provided the lifts were working,” notes Peters sagely. Hearing of a shout at the Cambridge Arms, Tony is at first unimpressed – “Hoo-yah, make my day; yuppie punch-up” – but when he learns that a group of rugby players are involved, it seems his prayers have been answered: “We’ll do half of ’em for assault and the other half for theft.” However, they are diverted to search for a woman who has been abducted, and while they manage to save her life, there is nothing left at the pub that TSG haven’t cleared up already. They are left with no choice but to bite the bullet and disclose their particulars, to the ire of Conway and the delight of everyone else.
There are years on The Bill where certain writers come to prominence, and in 1991 the name that perhaps has the biggest impact is Russell Lewis. There’s an edge to Lewis’s stories that marks them out from others: a feeling that danger and violence are just around the corner, and can erupt at any moment. ‘Night and Day’ sees members of the relief deal with situations that rapidly get out of control. Phil Young is sent to a snooker hall and faces an amped-up punter who has lost money in a bet and nearly takes his head off with a cue ball. Phil has seemingly calmed him down when he suddenly lays into him with a cue and gives him a kicking before back-up arrives. His foul-mouthed tirade when escorted to the cells is probably the show’s biggest test of the pre-watershed timeslot. “I’d prefer it if he was completely legless, it’s when they’re half-cut they’re the worst,” says Cryer. Then Delia investigates an old man’s report of a prowler and chases him into an underground car park where her radio packs up. “Don’t work down here love, it’s just you and me!” his voice rings out menacingly. He throws a bottle at her and asks, “Can’t you see me? I can see you.” She bumps into the pensioner who’s followed to help her and the villain drives straight at them as he escapes, injuring them both. Back at the station, Delia demands to know what happened to her back-up and doesn’t accept Phil’s story that there were transmission problems. “I’ll do the same for you one day. I could have been killed, you bastard!” The outraged June follows her into the ladies’ and gives her a warning: “You’re a probationer, you need all the friends you can get. If you carry on like this they’re going to have you handing in your papers before six months is up, believe me, I’ve seen it!” “I was scared.” “Well what did you expect when you joined, sunshine and flowers? Welcome to the real world Delia, ’cos different to what they tell you in training, the cavalry isn’t always going to come and bail you out; just don’t bleed all over us!” Delia breaks down in tears as she reveals that the old man who helped her is on life support, and she could be responsible in some way for his death. The mysterious prowler and his motives are never seen again; it’s just another example of the random life and death scenarios that a police officer can suddenly be faced with.
June’s comment about “bleeding all over us” foreshadows the events of ‘Cry Havoc’, in which Alec Peters’ luck runs out. Having spent years avoiding anything out of his routine, let alone something hazardous, Peters hears that June has spotted the “local pillhead” Gary Mabbs, wanted for an assault. He intercepts him, trying the ‘give it up son’ routine, but the psychotic Mabbs, high as a kite, refuses to come quietly. As Peters turns to use the radio, a knife is produced – and June sees the result as she approaches. The timeslot may have ruled out a graphic depiction of the actual stabbing, but there’s no such restraint in its effects. Peters collapses and the blood spills freely over June while she tends to him. The dried stains are still smeared across her uniform as she waits anxiously in hospital. Cathy finds Cryer sat in the locker room, musing on how fate is catching up with him. “I’m getting too old for this. First Tom, now Alec… That could just as easily have been me out there. Maybe someone’s trying to mark my card.” His worries are understandable. Lewis expands on a disturbing theme that crops up in other episodes this year: not just the disinterest, but the delight from some quarters when a blow is struck against ‘the filth’. “One-nil, one-nil, one-nil, one-nil!” a crowd of yobs chants at Monroe and Maitland as they pass through the estate. In the mood for a fight, Maitland turns on one of them and he cravenly backs down. “Gary Mabbs should have been smothered at birth,” declares Conway, and when Burnside searches his mother’s flat, it’s clear that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. “Your boy has put one of our lot in hospital!” “I hope he dies screaming.” This triggers perhaps the most quoted of all Burnside’s one-liners: “Stick her on.” “What’s the charge?” “Being in possession of an offensive mouth.” When Peters returns to work, he is honest about what went through his mind: “You sit there in hospital, drugged up to the eyeballs, pissing into a bag, and you realise: I’m a statistic, that’s all any of us are. It occurred to me that when I do finally jack this job in after thirty odd years, the only thing I’m going to come away with is this scar… I feel like I’m an addict. I don’t want it, yet I can’t do without it. I’d give up tomorrow if I thought… what else can I do?” “You’ve got to think of a life outside this; otherwise you really will go nuts,” warns Conway. “I lived the job myself once, until the first wife got sick of it and packed me in.”
In an amazingly packed episode, the stabbing is only half the story. The fleeing Mabbs runs into a Panda driven by Barry Stringer, whose defective radio has left him unaware of what is happening. Fearing that he is injured, Barry pursues him onto an industrial estate and up into the gantries of a derelict factory. The resulting scenes feature some of the most daring and inventive camerawork ever seen on the show, miniature cameras filming chases over perilously high girders and Jonathan Dow twice tumbling over the edge of a sheer drop, with no false perspective involved. One could argue that logic takes a backseat to action: while Barry may be nice enough to play the Good Samaritan at first, then determined to catch a thug who has knocked several lumps out of him, he would be happy to leave Mabbs to his Philippe Petit act and wait for him to come down one way or the other. Health and Safety may still have been nascent enough for a camera crew to capture these amazing shots, but not for a real policeman to risk life and limb! What the episode may lack in credibility, however, it earns back in spades with the performances. Teenage tearaways were ten a penny on The Bill, but Marc Warren brings another level of intensity to the drug-addled Mabbs, who is visibly disintegrating each time Barry corners him. The beatings that he hands out in return look viciously real, and when he finally has Barry helpless, suspended in mid-air while he pulls out the netting that’s keeping him alive, the terror on Jonathan Dow’s face seems to be more than just a good performance. His unlikely saviour is a guard dog that comes charging onto the gantry and attacks Mabbs, sending him plummeting over the edge instead. It’s a weakness of many action sequences that characters emerge from a death-defying experience looking slightly ruffled and out of breath, but otherwise unharmed. By contrast, when Barry hauls himself to safety he is a hyper-ventilating wreck, bruised and sweating, almost in disbelief that he is still intact. “Me shoe… I lost me shoe down there,” he gasps as Tony looks after him. “He pulled it off… as he went. It was new.”
Russell Lewis plays a significant role in one of the major storylines of this year: the decline and fall of Phil Young. This continuing thread is an example of the show’s ability to shuffle characters forwards into the limelight from nowhere. Phil started as a walk-on role in Series 5, usually found slopping out the custody area and offering the occasional tart one-liner. His softly spoken, inoffensive manner gives very little away, but as time goes on he begins to offer firm opinions out of nowhere, hinting at an inner bitterness that takes his colleagues by surprise. In Series 6’s ‘Attitudes’, he plays a game of cards with Dave and Steve and surprisingly wins, much to the chagrin of the latter, who doesn’t like a young upstart scoring points, and pounds, off him. In revenge he sends him on a series of wind-up shouts, leading to frayed tempers and a warning from Cryer: “I don’t want officers gambling for money on my relief, it’s divisive.” The sardonic Phil takes away a different message: “Don’t win.” Then in ‘Loophole’, he tells Cryer that he is feeling ill, at a time when sickness is already spreading through the relief. Unable to pinpoint any physical symptoms, except a general tiredness, he is urged to “get a grip. If we all clocked off every time we felt minus one, this place’d be as empty as a church.” Seeing Dave and Steve wind him up for trying to skive off, June suggests that he is suffering from delayed shock: “He was the one who found that fifteen-year old who committed suicide last week.” “Well if he doesn’t learn the nasty side of this job now, he never will,” Cryer declares bluntly. “I’d like to have a nervous breakdown, but if I did I’m sure they’d cancel it at the last minute!” It’s one of those wonderfully illuminating lines that shows, a) why Bob will never go through those kinds of struggles, and b) why he’ll never understand anyone who does. Anxious and sweating, Phil thinks Steve has gone into a scrap yard and Dave advises him over the radio to have a look inside. Climbing over the fence, he is cornered by a dog and his two colleagues turn up outside to laugh at their prank. Once they have released him he fails to see the funny side, launching himself at Steve and having to be pulled away. He later tells Monroe that he will have to go sick, that “everything feels like an effort”, and refers to the suicide he attended. “I’m no good to anybody like this.”
The show continues to use Phil as a practical example whenever the theories of tackling stress are brought up by management. In ‘Stress Rules’, where Brownlow wants to launch his stress detection scheme, Phil and Cathy are heckled by a gang of youths. Going over to confront them, Phil causes trouble rather than defusing it, and Cathy almost has to call in back-up. “Join the Met: free hat, good pay, throw your weight about,” sneers the ringleader. “Make a prat of yourself on a daily basis!” It’s amusing to hear this careers guidance from the mouth of Rene Zagger, given his return to the show at the other end of the decade as PC Nick Klein. The gang is later brought in for attempted robbery, and the leader makes a run for it when he sees the chance. Phil grabs him at the custody door and lays into him before his colleagues intervene. Cryer sees Phil and asks what happened: “If you carry on like that, you’re going to end up in serious trouble. You lost control, didn’t you? Police officers get wound up, but they do not lose control. Because if they do, they stop being police officers. Is it getting to you, Phil? The job?” His hands flailing as he tries to express an invisible frustration, Phil declares, “It’s more than a job, Sarge.” “That’s what they say in the ads.” “It’s what we find out! I can’t look at anybody without asking myself what they’re up to! That’s off-duty, that’s with your mates! If you do your job you get abuse, if you don’t half the public’s on your back.” “Not easy, is it? But you’ve got to hack it.” “And what if you can’t?” “Then you’re no use to us.”
The struggles continue in the next episode, Russell Lewis’s ‘They Also Serve’, the great experiment in minimalism that chronicles the boredom of a group of officers trapped in a van on permanent standby. The episode is rightly acclaimed for its single unbroken take that covers the entirety of the first half; but seen in context, it’s also the first major sign that Phil Young is beginning to break up. Colin Alldridge gets the majority of the dialogue as Phil embarks on a series of rants about how unappreciated they are by the public. “I reckon we should bill ’em,” he declares, referring to the demonstrators they are supposed to police. “Soon see who’s got ideals then, won’t you? Demonstrate by all means, but pay for the privilege. I’m not talking about the British, I’m talking about the Fifth Columnists!” He invokes the ‘Tebbit Test’, the marker of true citizenship suggested by Norman Tebbit the previous year: “You get the Windies over on tour or Pakistan, your ethnics aren’t in the crowd rooting for England, you know. You can’t have it both ways; you can’t be British one minute when it suits you, and the next minute giving it ‘Come on Windies’ or whatever.” Bemused by Phil’s eagerness to get stuck in, Tony sets him wise. “There’ll be no fun going on out there. I did Wapping mate, I know,” he adds, referring to the bitter stand-off between the print unions and the real police that scuppered The Bill’s first base at Artichoke Hill five years earlier. As the WPCs muse sadly on how respect for the police has declined, Phil vents again: “How many times have you waded in to stop some member of Joe Public getting a pasting? And how many times have they done the same for you? They couldn’t give a monkey’s; they’d cross the road rather than help us.” Norika points out that many of them have to live alongside the perpetrators and are scared of the comeback. “Too many wets, that’s the problem,” he snarls. “When the muck and bullets are flying it’s me that’s going to be in there, see the results first-hand. I don’t come into it six months later when it’s all nice and civilised in court and the jury goes, ‘Ah, don’t look too bad, what’s all the fuss about – next?’” Phil’s tirade gets only semi-ironic applause from Dave, and the great strength of the episode, like so many, is that it rewards both the long-term and the casual viewer. The former may see his attitude as part of a destructive spiral, but to the latter he is merely voicing the cynical extreme of police thought on society, and how it doesn’t function. The chaotic, overlapping dialogue recalls the fly on the wall feel of the early episodes. Sat in the front, Maitland and June are the long-suffering parents to the bored offspring acting up behind them. We even get to hear Graham Cole’s pitch-perfect impression of Christopher Ellison, as Tony recalls Burnside being close to the departed Frazer and suggests that he’s a romantic at heart: “’Ere, I brung you some flowers, you toe rag! Now get yer kit off!”
A significant moment is buried in the episode, when Phil asks Norika what she’s doing at the weekend and offers to help decorate her flat with her boyfriend being away. “Nah, I don’t think it’d be a good idea,” she replies. “You know what this lot are like.” Later he delivers another broadside about “some poor plod getting the stuffing kicked out of them, and for what?” Maitland quotes the rulebook at him, on the need to uphold the Queen’s Peace, emphasising that he for one believes in it: “If you don’t, if you let that truth slip, then you might as well put your papers in, ’cos you’ll just be going through the motions. And believe me, there’s nothing worse or more despised in this job than a timeserver.” Suddenly Norika sticks up for Phil, saying that he just wants a little more appreciation. “Yeah, well if he wanted applause he should have joined the circus.” “Not so sure I haven’t sometimes,” Phil snipes, having the last word as he steps out of the van. Norika comes to regret that small gesture of sympathy, as he latches onto her and tries to draw her into his torment. In ‘Out of Order’, he arrives at the station to see her having a mild dispute with her boyfriend as she gets out of his car. Having listened to Barry and Steve banter on the secrets of pulling birds, she is sent on patrol with Phil, who notes that she’s never been out with anyone from the nick before. She voices her fears about “canteen cowboys” and he insists they’re not all like that, in an exchange that echoes Jim’s not-so subtle advances the year before. She tries to brush them off in the same way, making light of the idea. “Give me a chance, come out with me one night,” he pleads, and she tells him to concentrate on the road. Later they set off in pursuit of two muggers and Norika chases one of them into a derelict warehouse. In the darkness she is set on by an attacker and shoved against a wall – and as she fights him off, he is revealed to be Phil, who calmly radios in his whereabouts to CAD.
In shock, Norika carries on as though nothing has happened, but then snaps and threatens to report him to Monroe. “You need sorting out; there’s something wrong with you.” “Look, I’ve had a bad time lately. I don’t know why I did it, but I couldn’t help it.” They almost blow the arrest of the mugger who evaded them earlier, and George has to tackle him instead. Phil sees Norika speaking to Monroe and is called into his office for a word. “Bitch!” he snarls in her face as he goes past, proving that being different from other blokes isn’t necessarily a recommendation. Monroe merely wants to know if he’s got any problems to bring up before his next assessment, an opportunity he doesn’t take. His pain has now become Norika’s, who is found in tears in the locker room by June. “I can’t work with him anymore,” she sobs as she dries her eyes. But she wavers over whether to make it official, a familiar tale of a work culture that could turn against her if she causes trouble. Phil tries to apologise and is pushed away. In the men’s locker room, he declines the offer of the pub and is left alone, clawing the air in desperation. The episode shows how abusers choose their victims well: any attempt to harass a forthright person like June would have instant repercussions, whereas Norika’s gentle, low-key personality and desire not to make a fuss are picked on as weaknesses to be exploited. She becomes a target again in the next Russell Lewis episode, ‘Losing It’, where the last vestiges of Phil’s sanity are broken. He calls at the house of a woman who has not been seen for several weeks, and breaks the back window to get in. The first thing that hits him is the smell, followed by the sight of cockroaches and maggots crawling all over the food left in the kitchen. Venturing upstairs, he opens the bedroom door and a swarm of flies engulfs him. A closer look at the remains lying on the bed makes him dash out in revulsion. The discovery of a decomposing body was, of course, one of the first things the rookie Jimmy Carver had to deal with in ‘Woodentop’ – and while he coped with it, here we see the road he could have gone down. “It’s always me,” Phil mutters, as Tony’s joke about a nice big fry-up fails to chime with him. “Why me, what have I done?”
Phil announces that he’s going home, but Monroe then arrives and he must accompany him to see the body. The dead woman has form for soliciting and is a registered drug addict. The (female) SOCO picks a bad time to indulge in gallows humour: “More than her fair share of pricks, then.” Jim finds a tape recording she made before her death and plays it. The camera zooms in slowly on Phil’s gleaming face as they listen to a reedy, despairing voice begging her mother to forgive her. “Try not to hate us… Please pray for me. I love you. It’s for the best. Pray for me; me and the baby.” The one person who does have sympathy for Phil is Norika, an odd stance after what has just happened, which suggests that this script needed to be joined up a little more with the one before. But her concern takes a different form when she enters her room at the section house, fresh out of the shower, to find Phil sitting inside. “You said we could talk,” he pleads as she sits defensively on her bed. He begins to muse on the dead woman, asking whether it would have hurt: “It’s not meant to, is it? Pills and booze – like going to sleep… How would you do it? Kill yourself?” He reminds her that this is the second suicide he found. “The first was a kid… not even our age. She must have said, enough. This is it.” He has to take the woman’s mother to formally ID the body. “What am I going to say tomorrow? How do you prepare anybody for that… horror? How can she possibly recognise her, she barely looks human!” “You can’t let them drag you down!” Norika insists, trying to shake him out of the responsibility he feels for their deaths. “How, how could you have saved them? You didn’t know them, it was their choice!” But another, darker thought is preoccupying him: “Will you go to bed with me? I love you, you know. I’m not like the others, jump on anything that moves. It’s got to be the right person, and you are, I can talk to you.” When she tries to throw him out, he produces an engagement ring and makes a proposal. The direction builds a rat-a-tat exchange of close-ups until he lashes out, slapping her in the face. Shocked at the blood pouring from her mouth, she asks him to go to the first aid box and locks him out, collapsing in tears. It’s slightly ironic that Jim is the man who defends her honour, giving Phil’s door a sustained kicking. “You bastard! A bloke your own size too big for you? I know you’re in, you gutless tosser! You touch her again and I’ll break your neck!” The words have no impact on Phil as he stands on the other side, gazing into the void; except, perhaps, for Jim’s final warning before he stalks off: “You’re dead!”
The saga concludes in ‘The Square Peg’, a crucial episode unsurprisingly handed to Christopher Russell. The man of the moment barely features, giving Reg a lift into work from the section house, and numbly accepting his beat at parade. “At least he looks smart,” Monroe comments to Maitland after Phil is sent on his way. “From the shirt collar down, yes sir.” When a shout comes in he is mysteriously unavailable, not responding to his radio. The story builds slowly around him as other characters get on with what they think is a normal day. In the area car, Steve and Dave are discussing the merits of the Shield training course that Monroe has offered to interested parties. “There’s got to be more sport in that than you get on division,” argues Steve. “I mean when you analyse it, fifty per cent of our work here is crap.” His point is proved when they are assigned what should be Phil’s call, to get a drunk down from the tree he’s stuck up. Even Dave’s rendition of the Thunderbirds theme, complete with authentic Supermarionation, isn’t enough to inspire Steve. “Nursing a dog’s breath – Philip should be doing this, it’s his ground,” Steve mutters darkly. As time goes on, the only theories that his colleagues can offer on his whereabouts are revealing. “Anything on offer on five beat?” asks Monroe. “Bored housewives, rich widows?” “No way could our Phil be OTS with a merry widow,” Steve assures Dave. “I dunno – still waters run deep.” “Him? He’s probably gone walkabout on another planet; where he came from.” Reg drops in and suggests that Phil has taken his car to be MOTed, having noted his tax disc was out of date on the journey in. “Has he, by God?” declares the vengeful Monroe, ordering that the search for him be cancelled. After all this time, no-one has any clue what’s really on his mind, and before long they face the consequences.
Steve and Dave are dispatched to the Jasmine Allen, where a man is sitting in his car with the exhaust on and a hosepipe in the front. They break the window and drag him out, only to discover that it’s Phil, having found another use for the car that Reg dismissed as “one expense after another” at the beginning. One check of the pulse confirms that it’s too late. By the time CID get to the scene, the body is being taken away. “You’re a bit swift, Andrew,” remarks Burnside. “I’d rather not leave one of my men lying in a public place,” he replies coldly. “So that’s Phil Young,” Cryer notes briskly as he walks off with Monroe, trying to keep a lid on his inner feelings. “Finished and gone.” “Doesn’t say much for our powers of man management, does it? These lads and lasses are our responsibility.” “To a point; but in the end they have to be responsible for themselves, everyone does. If they won’t talk to you, what can you do?” Cryer’s dismissive attitude is his attempt to draw a hard line, between the things he can comprehend and manage and those he can’t. They find Phil’s locker empty and his room at the section house neat and tidy, uniform and warrant card stored on his bed with the ‘M.P.’ logo blazoned across it; a final attempt to be the model policeman he never was. “Very considerate,” says Cryer. He opens an unsealed letter and reads its brief contents, which echo the tape recording Phil heard days earlier: “Dear Mum and Dad, I did my best. Love, Phil.” Meanwhile, June tries to console the person dealing with more guilt than anyone else. “How do you know what I feel?” Norika snaps at her. “It’s not fair, I mean he’s dead now, and he’s still on my back. He’s still affecting my life, there’s going to be an inquest…” “There is nothing you could have done about it! He was a very strange man, he was mentally unhinged. He found two suicides in the space of a few weeks, he had this thing about you, he’s got a really strange attitude to women! He assaulted you!” “Maybe I should have told Monroe; maybe he could have helped him.” “Yeah, maybe he could have suspended him, he could have sacked him! Maybe he’d have got a pat on the back from his friends!” “But that’s the point, isn’t it?” Norika yells. “He didn’t have any friends, so he picked on me!”
On learning that there has been a death on duty, Brownlow is momentarily dazed. “You’d better inform area. Nothing wrong in his last appraisal, was there?” he asks Conway, hinting at a need to cover their backs, even at a moment like this. “There was no suggestion of any suicidal tendencies, no.” Brownlow rings the parents to let them know he is coming round to discuss a serious matter. En route he observes that Tony has had to deliver more than his fair share of death notices, and the latter suddenly emerges as the star of the episode, with one of the bleakest and most outspoken comments ever uttered on the show: “Suicide’s different. An old-fashioned word, but to me suicide’s wicked. It’s the ultimate selfishness.” “That’s a robust point of view,” replies the ever-diplomatic Brownlow. “I don’t think it’s one I shall be putting to the parents, though.” When he arrives at their pleasant, suburban house he is shown into a living room where Phil’s mother is waiting in silence, broken only by the tick of a clock in the background. Brownlow sits to talk to her and the father, a stoic white-haired man in a grey jumper. The news that their son has died slowly sinks in, but when they ask how he met his end, Brownlow has to reveal that he took his own life. Shaking her head, the mother insists, “He wouldn’t do that. Not our Philip. What have you done to him? He was fine till he left home!” “Mrs Young… in all his time at Sun Hill, Philip never let anybody down, in any situation. You can both be very proud of him.” This colossal fib may be true as far as Brownlow is aware, but it does little for the parents. In one of those telling, throwaway moments that Christopher Russell did better than any other writer on the show, the buttoned-up Mr Young tries feebly to comfort his wife and she turns away in scorn. Of all the dramatic ways in which characters came to a terminal end on The Bill, suicide was a means rarely explored, and with good reason, given the strictures on how it is depicted on television. It refocuses the drama inwards, away from the colourful escapism of robberies and car chases, and in this case asks disturbing questions about the long-term effects of police work on some people. The horrors of the job may warp some people’s minds, but as far as Phil is concerned they also bring out something inside him that was warped to begin with.
The final two scenes are mini-masterpieces in their own right. In the locker room Steve asks Dave, “Why there? Why on our ground? So we’d find him? The ultimate wind-up, the ultimate revenge for all the times we wound him up?” It recalls the suicide in Russell’s earlier hour-long episode ‘Sun Hill Karma’, where a woman clinging to the railings of a high-storey car park hangs on long enough for Viv to get to her, then slips away with the words, “I’m sorry”: wanting a witness to her death, and turning them into an accomplice at the same time. “He was cracked Steve, all right?” says the angst-ridden Dave, and in another gesture that speak volumes, Tony pushes past them and leaves, slamming the door behind him. But when he meets Norika in the corridor, he refuses to conform to the liberal idea that lessons must be learnt. “Don’t start any of that ‘we’re all guilty’ crap. It was his decision. He drove himself, parked very neatly, and did it.” In a clever echo of the scene in ‘Losing It’, Norika gets the same lecture she gave Phil: that there was nothing she could do to save someone who wanted to die. She may feel her guilt is deserved, because he wasn’t a total stranger to her but someone she worked alongside for years. Yet this makes a further point about human nature – that people remain total strangers to those around them, no matter how familiar they seem. Tony’s short epitaph for Phil contains no platitudes about how he was lost or misunderstood; instead he reinforces his own view of suicide as the act of people who are morally lacking in some way. “There’s nothing wrong with being different, so long as you’ve got something else to offer. Something in here,” he clarifies, pointing to his chest. “Phil Young didn’t. He should never have been in the job.” “Well he’s not now, is he?” Norika concludes. They walk off and the camera lingers on the swinging doors in a remarkable moment of quietness, before the end theme kicks in with its full power.
However controversial Tony’s opinion may be, he is still given the chance to air it; and one of the things that makes him such a compelling and valuable character, increasingly so with each year that goes by, is his ability to say the unsayable. Whenever you feel like an episode is pushing a particular message, he pops up to play devil’s advocate. In ‘Cause and Effect’, another superb Christopher Russell script, an employee at an animal testing lab is kidnapped by activists and held hostage, her life threatened unless it is shut down. In the midst of a gripping debate on the ethics of animal research, we cut to Tony and Delia’s search for the address where the worker is being held. “It’s the hypocrisy that gets me,” he suddenly declares. “You can’t tell me they’d all refuse antibiotics if they’d got a temperature of a hundred and five, or plastic surgery if they got their faces burnt off.” In ‘Every Mother’s Son’, June helps a woman who has been harassed and attacked on her own estate because her son killed a much-loved resident. “She discovers her son’s a murderer. Can you imagine what that must be like? And she thinks it’s her fault.” “Well, it is her fault – partly,” argues Tony. “Do you think people are born murderers? If you’re a parent you’ve got to take some of the blame.” During a tree-planting ceremony to honour an Asian youth knifed to death, he sits in the car with Reg, moaning, “It’s rubbish, all of this. What good’s that tree gonna do anyone? It’ll have more effect on the ozone layer than anything round here.” “Yeah, well I expect the dogs’ll like it.” In ‘Married to the Job’, the second and final script by Roger Leach, Tony’s long-term fate is settled, when he reveals that his girlfriend Julie has turned down his proposal. “I finally got the courage to ask her and she said no. She didn’t want to be a copper’s wife – end of story. Why? ’Cos everywhere you look, coppers’ marriages are a disaster. Look at Burnside, look at Ted Roach. Family life to them means a monthly phone call out of the little black book. Even Bob Cryer’s not your ideal husband! It’s not me she doesn’t want, it’s the job. It frightens her. Do you know what really made up her mind for her? Talking to other coppers’ wives. I suggested she go along to a wives’ group and they helped talk her out of it.” Tony is left with only one mistress, just as Graham Cole wanted.
No discussion of compelling characters, however, would be complete without Steve Loxton, the finest ‘PC Nasty’ of them all. The term itself was coined behind the scenes, when Tom Butcher saw it written beneath a photo of him. The lean, mean Loxton is the kind of part that every long-running show needs, an intense presence that you’re never on safe ground with, and that intensity is enhanced by the constraints of the half-hour era. With no time for an exploration of where Steve’s outspoken views come from, as with Smithy and even at times with the openly racist Muswell, they are simply there, emerging to surprise his colleagues in the same random, disconcerting way that people reveal unpleasant traits in real life. When many TV characters who hail from what Don Beech would call “the frozen north” are still painted as whimsical or downtrodden, it’s refreshing to watch a man who is neither. He has his own agenda and ambitions, which are hinted at in his first episode, ‘Police Powers’. Returning from duty at a football match with George, who has sustained a head injury from a hooligan, Steve reassures him cheerfully, “I got stuck into a couple of them on your behalf.” Urged to listen to the advice of Bob Cryer, he replies with trademark contempt, “Oh, Bob’s your uncle, is that it? Well unlike the rest of you, I don’t intend to spend the rest of my life as a Sun Hill plod.” At one point he introduces himself to a pub landlord as his new beat copper, “the man you’ll be seeing more of” – and we know what he is hinting at, despite the word ‘protection’ never being used. The landlord turns up at the front desk to complain that he won’t put up with coppers trying to intimidate him. In ‘Up the Steps’, Steve gives evidence on the arrest of a man who relieved himself in public. He is accused of meting out justice in kind when he paid an unauthorised visit to the prisoner, which Peters strongly denies when he is in the witness box. Although the case goes to trial, he later tells Steve in private, “Didn’t have to pee in his cell, did you?” and there is a deliberate vagueness over whether he is berating him for something he just learnt, or knew all along.
Steve is back in court in ‘Crown vs Cooper’, the trial of a man who slashed him with a knife after he was told to tend to his crying child, left sealed in a car on a hot day. Dismissing Cooper as “rubbish”, he hardly bothers to check notes with the anxious George, who arrived as back-up later. “Lying little turd,” he sneers as he watches Cooper protest his innocence. On the stand, he is lured into expressing his vitriol: “I thought he was pathetic, sir. Well he’s got to be hasn’t he, treat a kid like that. I mean a man like that isn’t fit to be a father in my opinion!” The defence reads out the catalogue of injuries sustained by Cooper in the arrest, convincing the jury that they’re looking at a thug in uniform. Steve’s account begins to crumble, and George’s evidence of where the knife was left contradicts his. Outside he is challenged over what he said when the latter got to the scene: “For all I know you might be fitting him up. You might have knocked him about just a bit too much, and then planted the knife on him to cover yourself.” This unleashes a rant on one of Steve’s pet obsessions – loyalty. “Shall I tell you what happens to coppers who don’t stick by their mates? Very soon they find they don’t have any mates, that’s what. Who’s gonna come to his rescue in a tight corner? Who’s gonna back him up? No-one. And a copper with no back-up, you know what he is? Dead meat!” When the not guilty verdict is read out, Steve hurries from the courtroom in advance of Cooper’s cheering relatives. He walks past the defence and prosecution barristers as they have a friendly chit-chat, agreeing to meet for dinner that night. Then, as he is about to get in his car, he sees Cooper’s boy crying his head off, locked in a car just as before, while his family celebrate in the pub opposite. He eyes them for a moment, straightens up and puts on his hat – and the episode ends on the perfect note of ambiguity. Is he about to go after his target again, or walk away in frustration, knowing he can’t touch him? The show manages to keeps Steve balanced on a fine edge, shady but not without sympathy: he may not be the right man for the job, but he’s still going after the right people.
Always on the lookout for ‘action’ of one sort or another, Steve’s primary goal is a transfer into a firearms unit, something noted early on by top brass. “If he’s unstable in any way, he’s not getting anywhere near a pink card,” warns Conway. He evidently has a change of heart. When Steve turns up for his basic firearms training a year later in ‘Shots’, it’s with the approval of Conway, who is also there for his refresher course with Cryer. The latter is astonished to see Steve, and is told that he has applied for the Diplomatic Protection Group. “They want him, but they’d prefer him with a pink card.” “So that means Mr Monroe, and Mr Brownlow, have supported his application?” “So have I, as a matter of fact. There’s nothing on his record to say he shouldn’t carry a firearm.” “I wouldn’t give him a sparkler on Guy Fawkes Night – but that’s not down to me.” Cryer’s judgement on which officers should be trusted with a gun is, as we see a decade later, not foolproof – but on this occasion his lack of faith is entirely justified. JC Wilsher’s ‘behind the scenes’ episodes were always some of the show’s greatest, and this may be the best of them. In parallel plotlines, senior officers learn about the changes to firearm use while the new recruits who have to implement them are put through their paces. Steve takes part in a simulation where he guns down a fleeing suspect in the back, and defends his choice with the same blithe machismo he applies to all situations. “I was firing to protect a member of the public and prevent the suspect escaping.” “That’s what you’ll tell the coroner’s court, is it?” “That’s enough to square it, staff.” When he’s told that the inquest will hear that the man’s shotgun was unloaded, it doesn’t throw him, even when challenged by his fellow trainees. Pointing out Cryer nearby, he brings up his recent experiences with the delicacy they deserve: “See that geezer over there? The one with the big hooter? One of our skippers. He blew away a slag who had an empty shotgun – and walked. Morning, skip!”
The early Nineties marked a turning point in the police’s use of firearms, when they were taken away from regular officers and assigned to specialist units, and this episode acknowledges the impending change. Cryer and Conway are shown a diagram of the existing back-and-forth command structure for the deployment of weapons. “This is a situation where speed of response is of the essence; where there may be lives at stake. Is this structure doing the business for us?” The instructor, McKenna, unveils the new procedure, in which a patrolling Armed Response Vehicle is immediately assigned to a shout. In the live demonstration that follows, the gunmen in a house surrender with one challenge. “Easy peasy if everyone sticks to the script,” remarks a doubtful Cryer. His fears are increased when he has to listen to Steve raving about the ARVs over lunch: “Pack a tasty bit of firepower, don’t they? Those H and K self-loading carbines are the business.” “Well I’ll say this about having Armed Response Vehicles: at least it reduces the chance of giving pink cards to cowboys.” Steve brings up “your situation”, i.e. shooting dead an unarmed man, and dismisses it as nothing to lose sleep over; simply their bad luck. “It’s that all right,” notes Cryer drily. “Look Loxton, we’ll compare notes on losing sleep when you’ve done the job for real.” In the pub, he gives Conway and McKenna his straight opinion: “I’ve never been impressed by Loxton ever since he come to Sun Hill. I don’t trust his honesty or his judgement as a beat copper. I think it’s Loxton first, the public, his mates, nowhere. I wouldn’t give him a whistle, let alone a gun.” Conway suggests that Cryer is somewhat out of touch with events on the relief, and McKenna insists that he can only go on Steve’s performance. The next day the officers handle the ARV’s weaponry themselves, leading to the bizarre sight of Derek Conway wielding a Heckler and Koch. On the shooting range he does well at first but then takes out a woman and child, and not to make a point about vigilantism, a la Harry Callahan in Magnum Force. When it’s Cryer’s turn he politely declines, saying he’s learnt his lessons already.
The senior officers are asked for their views on the new procedure, and Conway is all in favour: “I’ve had it drummed into my skull over the last few years that the police are a social service. We play politics with the local council, we have multi-agency initiatives with education and social workers, and we’re also supposed to go on dealing with everyday crime and public order. Well that’s quite enough for my lads to be getting on with, without tooling up and playing the SAS.” But as Cryer listens to this argument, he is preparing his own, and it’s delivered with all the wisdom and nuance we would expect from such a seasoned veteran. “I’m not knocking the new system; I hope it gets results. But it is one more step down a particular road. Now each step is a good move in itself, but we could end up going somewhere we don’t want to go. That road leads to two separate forces: social workers in uniforms, and tooled-up paramilitaries – and that’s where ARVs are taking us.” Watched in 2021, the predictions of 1991 seem remarkably, and worryingly accurate. It would be another decade before the police were remodelled with stab vests and utility belts in the wake of September 11th, a change depicted on the show, which was always furnished with the most up to date clothing and equipment from the real Met. But there could hardly be a better summary of what the police mean to most people nowadays than the two kinds of officer described by Cryer. Unsurprisingly, his views are not popular with his colleagues. “You’re not saying we should put our lives and the public’s at risk so some slag can be shot by a home beat constable?” another inspector challenges him. It’s pointed out that ARVs are still under the control of the senior officer at the scene, and Conway brings up the hostage situation from ‘Cold Turkey’: “Or did we get that wrong according to you?” “I’m not claiming to have all the answers to this. I’m talking about what worries me, after a long time at the sharp end.” Conway suggests that ARVs will help take away a psychological burden from frontline officers, which Cryer recognises as a dig at him. It’s the standard response of those in power to an unpalatable idea: if you can’t attack the message, attack the messenger.
Meanwhile, Steve’s group learns about the firepower it will be up against. There is a demonstration of various types of shotgun rounds, and he blanches as he sees their pulverising effect. “The last round is a rifle slug: a single, solid projectile. That would take out your breastbone, your heart and a section of your spine – effectively ending your interest in the proceedings,” adds the sergeant, with the droll understated humour that feels drawn from Wilsher’s research with the police. In another exercise, Steve guns down a man pointing what turns out to be a folded umbrella. The other recruits are sympathetic, observing that it was a split-second decision. Then, watching a video of a gunman ambushing officers, he fires too late and seems to have frozen under pressure. Meeting McKenna in private, he admits that he screwed up, and that there’s more to the job than the ability to handle a gun: “I’m a good shot, I can do the business on the ranges. It’s just I’ve had to think about real-life situations: about shooting at people. I thought if a scrote needs taking out I can do it, no problem. I don’t feel that way now. I’m just not confident I won’t freeze and panic out there.” He withdraws from the course and Conway and McKenna suggest that Cryer has misjudged the man. “You know my definition of real courage? Not going around firing guns, but knowing when you’re not right for a job and speaking up about it.” “You got him down as a bastard and you just won’t change your mind,” says Conway. “Oh, I’ve changed my mind,” admits Cryer. “I’ve decided he’s a cunning bastard.” Sue enough, on the bus back Steve’s true motivation is revealed. “I started thinking about gunshot wounds. I don’t want to get wasted, or spend the rest of me life in a wheelchair, for getting between some wog politician and his voters. If I hear a rumour of armed suspects from now on, I’m taking deep cover and shouting for an Armed Response Vehicle. I gave McKenna the sob story about how I was too nice to shoot people; came out smelling of roses.”
Conway’s mention of the SAS brings to mind the sudden surge of applications they received in the early Eighties, following the publicity of the Iranian Embassy siege and the cash-in movie Who Dares Wins. They found themselves turning away a lot of psyched-up men wanting to get stuck in, and one can imagine the police was an acceptable back-up for Steve. Likewise, if armed work comes with too big a risk attached, he’s happy to ditch it and search for another high. Here the show proves its ability to take the same issue and twist it through the lens of a different character – the principled view of June in ‘Cold Turkey’ gives way to the complete lack of principle of Steve, but both help to enrich the subject. He is in the spotlight again in the debut of an author whose name rings a bell with viewers – Matthew Wingett, brother of Mark, who sent in his script under a pen name because of concerns about nepotism. The title, ‘Thicker Than Water’, seems ironically to highlight this link, but whatever his connection to the show, Wingett was a good call. The story displays a familiarity with its subject matter that far exceeds what one might expect from a brand new writer. Barry and Steve are called to a domestic that takes a different turn when Steve recognises the husband as a mate of his from Stafford Row, and they head into the kitchen for a chat. “Go on, sort it out!” the wife yells after them, her mouth bleeding. “You still want a special badge for black eyes, do you?” On the assurance that things are now OK, Steve departs with the reluctant Barry trailing after him. “We watch each other’s backs, you know that,” he lectures him, proving his point when they’re dispatched to a snooker hall and he leaves Barry to cope with two unwelcome guests on his own, before popping up to scare them off. But they are called straight back to the address of the PC, Gibbs, whose wife is lying injured on the stairs. “If you’re worried about Nancy talking she won’t, she’ll keep schtum, she’s all right like that,” he pleads with Steve. When told he has to come down the nick, he turns nasty, threatening Steve with a bottle before sense prevails.
At Sun Hill, Steve faces the prospect of giving evidence against a fellow officer and a friend. “Don’t worry,” Dave assures him, “you know as well as I do that the wife usually bottles out in these cases. Without that, the CPS haven’t got a thing.” This ugly spectacle of the police joining ranks continues right the way up the chain as Brownlow calls in his opposite number at Stafford Row. “As far as I knew, Gibbs was a reliable officer,” his chief super declares. “Nothing on his yearly assessment to indicate psychological problems. I’m absolutely sure the enquiry will find no quarrel with the senior ranks at Stafford Row.” This is the same mantra that Brownlow and Conway agreed on after the death of Phil Young, and it seems no coincidence that around this time there are other stories focusing on individual officers and the psychological toll that their work has taken on them. In ‘Bending the Rules’, a yob brought in for trashing a corner shop turns out to be a former colleague of Burnside’s, an undercover officer who has spent so long running with a gang of Millwall hooligans that he’s gone native. “I saw more of them than I did my own family. We even did over a copper once,” he reveals, more in boast than in shame. Monroe goes to see the shopkeeper to explain the special circumstances of the case. The latter points out that when he objected to a police eviction of his neighbours earlier that day, he was told firmly that “the law is the law. Only it isn’t as black and white as that, is it?” Likewise, Steve is desperate to make excuses for Gibbs, suggesting that this must be a one-off, when all their experience of domestics tells them the exact opposite. “Do you want to see his face all over the papers?” he asks Barry. “See the courts nail him up ’cos he’s the job, that’s what’ll happen!” In the interview room, Gibbs’ mental struggles trickle out as he talks to Dave. “I couldn’t hold onto it… it’s like my mum, my dad, before they got divorced, all that shouting, screaming… I promised myself when I was a kid I’d never do anything like that. I hated my dad. Suddenly I’m just like him.” Dave suggests that he get professional help. “See a shrink, you mean? I thought that was for nutters?” “I didn’t say that.” “Yeah, but we all think it though, don’t we?”
The other half of the story emerges as Norika talks to his wife, Nancy. “It started a couple of years back… You just sort of adapt. You learn to expect it. Mike was always touchy; he couldn’t unwind. The first time it happened, he didn’t get home till God knows when. I launched at him and he just went berserk. I read about it in the papers the next day; there was a kid killed on a bike. Very messy. He wouldn’t admit anything was wrong! You don’t believe it’s happening, you try and tell yourself all sorts of things like, ‘He’s laying into the villain, the one that got away with the community service or a stupid fine.’” This harks back to Cathy Marshall’s descriptions of the abuse she took from her CID husband after a bad day at work, and illustrates a worrying truth: that ‘the job’ is a constant presence in the lives of everyone around an officer, even if they want no part of it. Nancy comes in to make a statement, only to back down in front of the suits from MS15. “She decided she’d been assaulted by a staircase,” Norika informs the lads drily. “Dave Quinnan was right,” says a triumphant Steve. “Blood is thicker than water.” “Oh yeah? Whose blood?” “Nancy’s not stupid. Where’s she headed if Mike gets sent down? A single parent family on a Council waiting list? She knows what she’s doing.” But her change of heart is no obstacle to MS15: “A crime’s been committed. Mrs Gibbs’ statement would have been the icing on the cake, that’s all.” Dave informs Steve of “the new policy. The DVU can take it to court regardless.” “They’re gonna have him? Even without Nancy’s statement?” Here the episode reveals an extra layer of commentary. The double standard of the police to the crimes of their own is understandable, because they are themselves subject to a double standard from above: the threshold of evidence needed to send an officer down is far lower than for any member of the public. But in Steve’s black and white world, there’s job and slag, and no room for anything in between. “It can’t be much fun, going up against a mate,” says Dave. “Mate?” Steve queries, closing his notebook. “Got it wrong. He’s no mate of mine.”
Great as he is, Steve is but one asset in a show that is right at the top of its game. At this stage it has one foot in the gritty past of the Eighties episodes, and one in the variety of the half-hour era, taking the best of both. It has the confidence to explore dramatic, violent scenarios and also to send them up, as witnessed in Kevin Clarke’s ‘Skeletons’, where a collection of human remains in a flat turns out to be the work of Ken Campbell’s sleazy lab technician, importing them cheap from the Philippines so he can flog them to medical students. “Elvis,” he declares when asked for his name. “I know everything about Elvis. You see, I get the girls to call me Elvis and then I, uh, do the songs for them,” he growls in his nasal, cloying voice while a baffled Reid stares at him. In many episodes the crime is incidental, such as ‘Skint’, where the real focus is on George’s birthday party and the money troubles he’s having as a result. The scenes of officers eyeing the talent and getting into punch-ups are reminiscent of the first few series, where there was a sense of putting life on the screen and watching it unfold. Conversely, ‘They Also Serve’ could have been a small, twenty-four minute piece of theatre; it’s a touch of genius to end it with ninety seconds of chaos as the PCs are plunged into a riot, windscreens kicked in and petrol bombs bursting, that is every bit as terrifying for them as the past twenty two and a half minutes have been tedious. It captures the often-quoted ratio of ninety nine per cent boredom to one per cent utter terror that is the life of a police officer. And even in an episode focused on people we know well, there is time for a brief moment where an unknown WPC emerges from a toilet in tears, saying she can’t go on any more and wants to go home. She is never seen or mentioned again, but is merely a hint of another story going on off-screen that we are not privy to. This is a world with depth and texture, something that British TV needs more of. We can only hope that something resembling The Bill returns to our screens, even by another name.