By Edward Kellett
After close to a decade on air, it could be argued that The Bill began to repeat itself in storytelling terms. But at the start of Series 8, the repetition is rather more literal. Only three episodes in and Duncan Gould has contributed two back to back, ‘A Friend in Need’ and ‘Whose Side Are You On?’, the titles of which had already been used in the hour-long era. The show had archivists to make sure the same plot didn’t appear twice in the space of a few months, but after seven years it would be safe to assume that no one remembered, let alone cared, about the reuse of a caption card. It demonstrates, however, that the seemingly bottomless well of proverbs from which The Bill drew its episode titles did have a limit. Most series, especially in the age of streamed TV and running season arcs, can take or leave naming their episodes individually. But in a show made up of self-contained plays, each with their own identity, they are rather more important; and more important still when that show has to find 104 of them, then 156, per year. Scroll through lists of episodes credited to the show’s most prolific authors, and you realise that they each tend towards a pattern in their titles, just as their content does. Barry Appleton’s are to the point, reflecting the action of the piece, and can be very snappy indeed, as in the case of Series 2’s ‘Suspects’, ‘Hostage’ and ‘Ringer’. Christopher Russell’s are typically elegant plays on words that hold both symbolic and literal meaning, like ‘Brownie Points’, ‘Cause and Effect’ and ‘Vital Statistics’ (which must be watched to the very end to fully appreciate the gag…). JC Wilsher’s have a flavour of police lingo about them, which is fitting from a man whose stories were more directly about the police than anyone else’s: ‘Powers of Exclusion’, ‘Effective Persuaders’, ‘Up Behind’, ‘Crime Management’ and so forth. And then there is the hard to quantify PJ Hammond, whose titles are every bit as gnomic as the stories contained therein. ‘Climate’, ‘Downtime’, ‘Talk Out’, ‘Echo’, ‘Mischief’ and many more give no clue whatsoever as to what they are about – just the way he intended.
After a while the show started to use episode titles to underline a significant change. It seems little coincidence that the half-hour era began with ‘Light Duties’, even if you take it at face value as Tom Penny’s new working pattern. It seems even less of a coincidence that ten years later, that era bowed out with the self-critical title, ‘Too Little, Too Late’ – or that it embarked on a new age of longer storytelling with the ominous ‘Deep End’, a reflection of how the writers felt at the time. The final proof comes with the episode early in Paul Marquess’s tenure that ended what was now seen as the outdated practice of onscreen titles: ‘Set in Stone.’ But not only did they return five years later, much to the relief of some cast members who probably didn’t enjoy the treadmill effect of seeing ‘Episode 468’ drop through the letterbox, the intervening years have now had their own episode titles assigned by fandom. Perhaps there really is no limit to proverbs and sayings – although look closely and some, like ‘Chasing the Dragon’, ‘Requiem’ and ‘Fool’s Gold’, again seem a wee bit familiar…. The solution is to devise titles that are so distinctive they cannot be used again. In this regard we should bring up the main man himself, Geoff McQueen. He might only have written a dozen episodes, but anyone who chooses to open his brand new project with the title ‘Funny Ol’ Business – Cops and Robbers’ is at least making sure it will never be confused with something else. Likewise his Series 2 opener, ‘Snouts and Red Herrings’, which sticks in the mind more readily than the episodes that use its constituent parts, ‘Snout’ (1988) and ‘Red Herrings’ (1998). Even Julian Jones, another of the show’s greats, began with the meandering ‘Stealing Cars and Nursery Rhymes.’ In a genre that so often tries to impress with sleek, efficient titles like ‘Killer’ or ‘Secrets’, I have a fondness for the elaborate and bizarre ones. Speaking of scripts through the letterbox, imagine being that fine character actor Charles Kay and seeing ‘Plato for Policemen’, ‘I’ve Never Been to Harrogate’ and ‘Dial M for Marmalade’ land on your mat. I’m not saying it’s the only reason why those episodes are his sole Bill credits, but it couldn’t have hurt. The latter in particular would be the greatest title in the show’s history, were it not for another from the same year, 1997, which perfectly captures the anxiety of our heroes as they look into the disappearance of a snout: ‘Has Anyone Here Seen Bigmouth?’ Now there’s a title that deserves to be blazoned across primetime TV.