Review by Edward Kellett
The first thing to note about ‘Series’ 4, and all others that followed, is that the term is purely a convenience for the sake of DVD boxsets and Wikipedia listings. From 1988 onwards The Bill entered a 22-year period of continuous production and transmission that remains one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of television. The ongoing twice-weekly format was of course nothing new, having been around as long as soap opera itself. Z Cars was broadcast in this way for four of its sixteen years on air, and, like the BBC’s other long-running police procedural, Dixon of Dock Green, experimented with both half-hour and hour-long running times. But given their relatively sedate nature, and indeed that of soap operas before they started focusing on plane and train pile-ups, it’s hard to imagine that any programme to that point had faced the logistical challenges that confronted the makers of The Bill. The sheer number of locations, action sequences and stunts that were required, to say nothing of the turnover of guest actors in each episode, is staggering. The fact that these demands were met stands as a testament to the power and resources of ITV in general, and Thames Television in particular, at this time. With soaring viewing figures and special interest from the young, upwardly mobile demographic, there was a determination to make the new format work. The military operation that was required has been detailed in several behind the scenes books: the creation of two different shooting units (later expanded to three), with their own producer and script editor, under the overall control of executive producer Peter Cregeen. Costume designer Jennie Tate’s revelation on the podcast that several people took the extraordinary step of leaving Thames altogether, to avoid having to work on the programme, is indicative of the fears that many must have had about keeping the treadmill going. In this light it seems surprising, and fortunate, that only one member of the regular cast refused to make the step into the new era.
There is no break with the hour-long period; indeed every effort is made to assure viewers that they are watching a continuation of it. A strong sense of continuity is provided by two hanging plot threads from that era, one intended and one not. The aftermath of Tom Penny’s shooting in ‘Not Without Cause’ runs through several of the early half-hours. Having survived his brush with death he’s confined to light duties within the station, but the psychological effects are taking much longer to heal. These come out dramatically in the second episode, ‘The Three Wise Monkeys’, where Penny is listening to a car pursuit of armed suspects and has a tearful breakdown in the locker room. Cryer finds him and tries to comfort him, but with limited success. It’s interesting to see a storyline about mental health long before anyone had the understanding or the vocabulary to deal with it, especially in a male-dominated environment like the police. Both Bob and Viv, when faced with Penny’s distress, can only offer advice along the lines of ‘pull yourself together’, knowing that his options are bleak if he can’t. We see the paradox for those in incredibly stressful front-line jobs like the police and the army: the work may be damaging but it’s also their safety net, giving them a routine and a sense of purpose. “If I’m not a copper I’m nothing,” Penny declares as he’s driven to his medical appointment to decide whether he is fit to return. When he faces pressure from Conway to shape up or ship out, Cryer points out, “The man is forty-three years old, he’s had one job his entire life and he’s scared you’re going to take it away from him!” Penny observes that retired coppers have a habit of dropping dead before they’re able to collect their pension, showing he’s worried for his future. But once he is passed for duty he begins to return to his old chipper self, dispensing gems over the R/T like, “You want an Italian speaking doctor at this time? I drink water Martella, I don’t walk on it!” He’s also the butt of the humour at times; walking into the collator’s office to find a recovered lectern that was stolen from a church, he declares, “The eagle has landed” and Sgt. Peters immediately collects a fiver from Stamp, having bet him that those would be Penny’s first words.
The other hanging storyline that was forced on the production team but turns out to be an advantage is the absence of a governor in CID. Following the departure of John Salthouse, Series 4 opens with a vacancy for the role of DI and uncertainty over who is going to fill it. In the meantime Roach has been installed as Acting DI and is making sure everyone knows it. The constant air of desperation that accompanies him is never more obvious than here, when the prize he has been after for so long seems tantalisingly close. “I have been a DS for over ten years. That chair in there should be mine!” he rages at Carver and Dashwood. In the process of trying to acquire it, we see the reasons why he never will. He comes down hard on his troops about their paperwork, declaring that he wants everything to be watertight while he is in charge and holding the necessary conferences with Brownlow – but at the same time he is taking risks and cutting corners himself, prompting an outburst from Jim: “When are you going to understand, it’s a lot easier to work with the system than it is to bend it… Surely you must have learnt that through Galloway’s mistakes?” This raises the intriguing possibility that Galloway was moved on because he overstepped the mark at some point during the time off screen, but his fate isn’t addressed and ultimately doesn’t need to be. The key thing we come to realise is that Roach’s dream of being DI was never more than that. He has been temporarily indulged because he’s the senior officer in CID, but the intention was always to appoint someone from outside. When Inspector Frazer suggests that he might make a good DI, she finds out that “his cards are already marked. As long as Chief Superintendent Brownlow’s running this station, Ted Roach will never be recommended for promotion,” Conway declares – little realising that he is writing his own career epitaph at the same time…
Speaking, sadly, of epitaphs, I had no idea that I would be attempting one when I started writing this review, but so it has proved with the passing of Tony Scannell. Ted Roach was, of course, his biggest success in a longer and wider career, but his achievement in the role shouldn’t be underestimated. On paper, at the start of the series Roach is the one figure who is instantly recognisable from other cop shows, a clear descendant of Jack Regan – the maverick, hard-drinking ladies’ man who sails close to the wind but gets results. But the writing by Geoff McQueen in particular gives him some distinctive quirks, showing the odd and shambolic figure he really is, and Scannell imbues him with far more dimensions than just an angry renegade. Whenever Roach is slighted in some way, Scannell is just as likely to raise an eyebrow in silent disdain as he is to lash out with the burning intensity that we remember Ted for. At other times he can spiral off in a completely new direction, for instance when a bag lady who has been hauled off the streets lights a fire in her cell. Unable to contain his delight, Roach stands to one side laughing hysterically at the chaos around him. He never becomes unbearable though, because unlike a lot of charismatic figures in TV drama who are always on top of proceedings, his self-assurance doesn’t last long; he is never more than five minutes away from disaster or ignominy. In ‘Personal Imports’, Carver is on surveillance and the lady of the house shows more than a friendly interest in him. Roach urges him to take what’s on offer, then stops off to use the gent’s – only to stumble on a cottaging session and get shoved into a urinal by one of the men as he flees. His suit ruined, he puts the other man through some hard questioning at the nick while wearing a sleeveless T-shirt that declares, ‘I’ve Done it in Corfu.’ The fact that we never find out who donated this shirt, and that no-one comments on it, makes it even funnier. This, too, is the episode that begins one of the oddest but most enduring storylines in The Bill: the relationship between the grizzled tough guy Roach and his transvestite informer Roxanne, played by the up and coming ‘Paul Savage’. It’s an alliance that is already well established when they meet here, and it ended up producing some touching moments that say a lot about Roach the man, as opposed to the hardened cop.
Roach’s main antagonist takes a little longer to arrive. The spectre of Frank, née Tommy Burnside, manifests itself in the first episode, when Melvin throws in his name to add to the book on Galloway’s successor. The idea is greeted with disbelief, and as it is thrown around in subsequent episodes there is astonishment that this “bent bastard” could possibly end up in charge. When he eventually appears in ‘Just Call Me Guv’nor”, the character has been slightly massaged to fit the role of a leading man, as opposed to the lurid comic relief he was before. He’s no less devious, but Geoff McQueen makes the conscious decision to go back to the history that was established between him and Cryer in Series 1, Episode 1, ‘Funny Ol’ Business…’ in order to amend it. Cryer is less than delighted at the prospect of Burnside taking up residence at Sun Hill (“Has Pinocchio got a wooden wotsit?”), but when he openly discusses his hatred of bent coppers he is challenged by Frazer. He tells her that he knows Burnside was under investigation by Operation Countryman back in the Seventies and doesn’t understand how he survived. Knowing the truth, Frazer reveals that Burnside was part of the enquiry and helped to put away a lot of those bent coppers himself. Cryer reluctantly accepts a drink from Burnside in the pub afterwards, still distrusting him but realising he’s lost the moral high ground. Of course, this plot device of Burnside trumping his colleagues by revealing secret undercover work had been used before, and appears repeatedly afterwards. He’s a con artist who keeps pulling the same trick. When Roach is in trouble for nutting a prisoner who spat in his face, Burnside reveals that the man was his fellow undercover officer, neatly letting Roach off the hook and putting him in his debt at the same time. Later, the rookie WPC Claire Brind has brought in her first collar but the woman turns out to be Burnside’s snout and Carver and Dashwood hint to the furious Cryer that she’s going to be let off, in a direct echo of Carver losing his first arrest in the same circumstances back in 1984.
There is an ever-present air of menace surrounding Burnside; if he takes against someone, he’ll use any method possible to make their life hell. This is vividly illustrated in ‘The Trap’, where he has video recorders planted in the back of an open van as a lure for a bent solicitor, Pembridge, who he has history with. He even sounds a car horn to warn off a passing crook who’s not the target. When the wonderfully slimy, yuppie-ish Pembridge is brought in, he points out the flimsiness of their case and there is a debate on the ethics of entrapment: specifically, the difficulty of establishing intent. The furious Brownlow tells Burnside to drop the case, suggesting that such operations will be untenable in future, but Burnside implies that it’s because Pembridge is a golf-club acquaintance of the super who might make life embarrassing for him. Burnside later admits that he knew he had no hope of making the charge stick, but wanted to make the man sweat a little, in revenge for a court case where he cleared someone who should have gone down. We see, however, that he’s prepared to abuse his powers for good as well as ill. In ‘Spook Stuff’, he finds out that Roach is in trouble with a finance company and about to be served a court order. Having been reunited with a former Special Branch acquaintance, who was more of an adversary, he gets him to pull some strings with the director of the company, “who owns a company, who owns that company…”, and Roach is again saved from ruin. Burnside always looks after his own, but that doesn’t make him a generous soul. He also wants a good word put in with Special Branch because he’ll be “ready for your mob in a couple of years”, and uses Roach to set up his informant without letting him know the full truth. Over a drink, he gives his sergeant the score: “If there’s any brownie points on offer, I want them – all of them. Perk of the job.” Roach is left muttering, “One of these days Burnside, one of these days…” As I noted about his stormy relationship with Galloway, he seems to have a permanent longing to deck an inspector at some point – he just thought it would be someone from his own team.
Having taken a few episodes to arrive, Burnside is built up gradually, perhaps because some scripts had already been written without the knowledge that he would be present. The other good reason is that he’s preceded by no less than four new members of the uniform branch who all need their roles established too. The biggest initial impact is made by the show’s second PC Nasty, Pete Ramsey, seen roaring into the yard in his Porsche and taking the chief super’s parking bay. Ramsey is a variation on Muswell in that he’s more of a crook than a bigot. He has been taken on as a favour by Sun Hill because he was kicked out of Barton Street after cheating in an off-duty card game, and Conway makes it perfectly clear to him that he doesn’t want him there. In that same episode Ramsey tries to put the squeeze on members of the public not once but twice, and is physically threatened by Cryer as a result. But this aspect of his character gradually recedes into the background; Nick Reding revealed in his podcast interview that Ramsey’s corruption was ultimately soft-pedalled by the writers, out of concern for how badly it would go down with the real-life Met, which shows that their goodwill remained an important consideration. Indeed, while the show would go on to depict corrupt officers now and then for the next few years, they were always one-offs who were not part of the main cast. It’s surprising to realise that the first regular, bona fide bent copper did not appear for over a decade, in the form of The Don – and even then his crooked activities were gradually built up through hints and innuendo, rather than being spelt out instantly.
Ramsey is given a notable redeeming feature early on when he’s established as being very anti-violence against women – hardly an exceptional quality, one would hope, but he does make a point of stressing it in two different episodes when the subject arises. Still, he is hardly whiter than white. With his slicked-back hair and permanent sneer, he comes across as a black market spiv, distrusted by his colleagues because he has been busted down from CID and views uniform as a second-rate job. Like Eddie Santini a decade later, he’s constantly on the lookout for the big break that will get him back there. After he and Haynes catch a pair of drug dealers who escaped from Roach’s grasp, he wants to use this to get one over on “those CID wallies”, but only so he might become a candidate to rejoin them. When he later comes to them with a lead on forged tickets – a lead obtained because he passed a dodgy set on to Taff, in true Walker Dad’s Army style – they are uninterested. “We found out via detective work,” explains Taff, to which Burnside scoffs, “Don’t make me laugh. You couldn’t detect a fart in a hot water bottle.” The PCs investigate themselves and ruin an ongoing UK-US surveillance job, prompting a sardonic round of applause from a Treasury agent. Ramsey’s ambitions are also hindered by his interview technique, which consists of screaming in the face of suspects until he gets frustrated and storms out. Little wonder that after mocking the feeble efforts of Peters and Conway in their physical exams, he turns out to have high blood pressure and is advised by the examiner to see his doctor, much to his fury.
Ramsey is a useful character as the pairing of him with any other officer makes for a good episode, contrasting their reasonable outlook with his angry worldview. ‘Witness’ is an interesting study of what it takes to be a police officer. Ramsey and Yorkie are babysitting a man who is due to give evidence and Ramsey is so fed up with staying in his flat that he convinces him to go out for a jolly to the dog track, much to Yorkie’s disgust. Ramsey discovers that the man has written an application letter to the police to become a Special Constable and can’t hide his contempt, calling him a “grade one divvy” for wanting to do a job that he himself would never do without pay. At the track they find an unconscious punter in the toilets and Ramsey kicks him awake, which leads the witness to threaten to report him: “I don’t think all our police are wonderful, especially arrogant pigs like you!” Yorkie has to separate them before they come to blows. However, the interested parties who are after the witness then catch up with him, and in the fight that ensues he stands by helplessly, frozen to the spot, while the two officers gradually subdue the thugs. After they drop him home with all grievances apparently forgotten, Ramsey finds out that he has left his application letter behind – and promptly shreds it and throws it out of the car in a final act of vengeance. While we may not like his actions, the show hints that he is doing both the police and the witness a favour; that while the latter is well-intentioned, he doesn’t have the bottle required for the job, whereas as Ramsey himself says to Yorkie, “When it comes to feeling collars, I’m there, none better.” Whether we should have to rely on people like him for protection, simply because they’re the kind who like to get stuck in, is a bigger question that’s left unanswered.
The author of this episode, Christopher Russell, produces an even better examination of Ramsey in ‘Community Relations’, when he is cooped up in a shed on a surveillance job with Ken Melvin. The latter has recently revealed that he’s a man of faith, indeed a born-again Christian. What ensues is a fascinating capsule discussion on theology, angel and demon going head to head – which is doubly compelling when you consider the shared fate that awaits them. Fed up of trying to gather evidence on their target, Ramsey suggests they should fit him up because he’s a criminal anyway, declaring that “truth and justice don’t have a lot in common, mate.” Melvin’s unflappable nature gets to him, as does Ken’s choice of the Bible as reading material (when Ramsey gets out a copy of The Sun to while away the next four hours, Melvin asks, “What are you going to do for the other three hours and fifty nine minutes?”). In disbelief he asks Ken how he can be a Christian and a copper, to which Melvin poses the opposite question: “How can anyone cope with the job without God’s help?” Ramsey jokes that his faith is like a pair of rubber gloves, stopping him from being infected. Melvin says he does believe in the power of evil, if not Satan himself, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we’re seeing it in front of him. Ramsey isn’t the only one to be perturbed by Melvin ‘getting’ religion, and the apparent certainties that come with it. When he informs Taff that they still ask questions in their Bible study group, Taff refers to a situation Ramsey has just dealt with: “You mean, ‘If there’s a God, what’s he doing letting people chuck babies down rubbish chutes?’, that sort of thing?”
Ramsey’s main foil is the other new PC introduced at this time, Malcolm Haynes. It’s no coincidence that this pairing echoes the Muswell-Lyttelton relationship of Series 2. Both Nick Reding and Eamonn Walker observed on the podcast that they recognised the attempt to produce tension between the bad boy and the black copper, and did their best to play against it in their interaction on screen. Haynes’ main grievance against Ramsey is to do with his methods, rather than his views, as he observes when they are thrown together to try and bring down a drug dealer in ‘Chasing the Dragon.’ Most of the time they have a natural chemistry which suggests that their outlooks aren’t so different underneath. The racism that Haynes has to battle comes mainly from the public, not his colleagues. In one scene he deals with a building site manager who makes the goading observation that this used to be a good country, “before the boats came.” Later, when the station is evacuated, he brings out a prisoner who can’t hide his disgust at being handcuffed to him. Breaking the sad news that, “Yes, it’s that man with a tan,” Haynes is happy to mind the suspect in the back of a car while Dashwood continues questioning him, against regulations. Moreover, when the man gets physical Haynes is able to take revenge for his racist behaviour by landing a discreet punch in the ribs, showing that he’s not a boy scout when it comes to bending the rules.
But while Haynes may not be getting abuse from his own side, they don’t allow him to forget his race either. In ‘Intruder’, he tackles a man with a knife and brings him to the ground in a struggle. He is happy to get a good result, but Inspector Frazer wants to put out a press release to counter the “thump first and ask questions later” image of the police. Haynes is uncomfortable, knowing that in the confusion an assault charge is a stretch, and his discomfort increases as the man’s history of mental illness is revealed. When he scorns the idea of a commendation, Cryer observes, “Not good for recruitment, Malc”, putting a burden on him to support the whole of the Met as well as his own community, while simply trying to do his job. Frazer gives him a lecture on his responsibility to improve the image of the force with the public, “especially with the black public”, but Haynes has the last word: “I may be the only black you’ve got – I can live with that – but I’m not going to be a pawn in anyone’s game.” The tension between them over this issue is returned to in the following series.
The arrival of Christine Frazer, the first female governor in the show, reflects moves towards greater inclusivity in the real police, as well as a slight improvement in the heavily skewed gender of the cast. Four years in, June and Viv remained the only female characters, apart from the increasing role given to Suzanne Ford, another example of a walk-on part that developed into a regular one. Frazer is filling the vacancy left by the much-unloved Inspector Kite; at one point she is introduced to a stall owner who mentions that she’s an improvement on “that toffee-nosed sod.” But though she is a lot more reasonable, her role remains similar to his: to be the meddler, the obstructive presence getting in the way of the sergeants doing their jobs. While they handle the day to day work, and the chief inspector has the final say in disputes, she is caught somewhere in the middle – and much like Kite, it’s suggested that power has gone to her head. When Jim confides in Cryer that he’s worried about watching his own back after his outburst to Roach, Cryer reassures him that Ted is the first to know that “rank doesn’t equal right.” Then in the next scene, Frazer ends a dispute with Roach by pointing to the pips on her shoulder and declaring that “these tell me my way is best!” We do see the difficult environment she is entering when the sergeants mock her demeanour behind her back. “I love it when she talks dirty,” Peters comments after she has a furious outburst, and even Cryer chucks in the odd sexist remark. Possibly the most illuminating scene, demonstrating her tough position as a trailblazer, comes in ‘Trespasses’ when Viv and Claire Brind are having a candid conversation in the ladies. Frazer suddenly appears from a cubicle and leaves – and Viv mutters under her breath, “They should give her her own loos”, showing that to her fellow women she’s still a boss first.
No sooner is Frazer introduced than she is given not one but two relationships, neither of which are particularly believable to me. She and Burnside are supposedly old flames, but he seems much too crude to take her fancy – and conversely, he would probably think of her as too uptight. Even more far-fetched is the attachment between her and Roach, which feels like something that was planned as a bigger storyline and then aborted before it even got going. After nothing more than a couple of dinners – and you wonder what they talked about, given that Roach’s line in heavy, unsubtle charm doesn’t seem likely to appeal to her – the involvement is abruptly ended by Frazer, once top brass have started to notice what is going on. Conway suggests to Brownlow that it’s the rank, not the woman that’s attracting Ted; in other words, he’s trying to sleep his way to the top. Perhaps he hopes that whatever magic dust it takes to be an inspector will rub off on him in the process. The difficulties Frazer has to contend with as a woman in power are expanded on the following year, but overall I get the sense that she’s not really portrayed as a sympathetic figure. There’s no automatic reason why she should be, of course, but I suspect that had the character appeared even a few years later we would have been expected to be on her side a little more. When a number of characters are introduced at once, there’s no guarantee that one will turn out to be any more significant than the others. But in hindsight, it’s interesting to note that the longest-running of the quartet is not given an introduction at all but is simply there from episode two: the legend that is Derek Conway. Simply put, Conway was the whinging heart of The Bill. Many other characters lasted longer and may be remembered more fondly, but no-one else best sums up the show’s commitment to the grinding reality of police work, in that Conway is hacked off about most of the things he has to do most of the time. However, he really came into his own when the show began to focus more on life in the upper ranks, and the political manoeuvring necessary to get ahead. At this early stage he’s playing the role of the angry precinct captain in US cop shows: stuck behind a desk, hauling people in and raging at them for not going by the book. That said, the events he’s called on to adjudicate are hardly run of the mill. Best of all is the scene in ‘Good Will Visit’ where Sgt. Peters deals with an accusation of sailors trashing a bar by bringing in an entire company of naval ratings for questioning. Having watched them parade through custody, feet thundering in unison, Peters is informed that Conway is “screaming” for him, and soon finds out why. “How can you board one of Her Majesty’s frigates in sight of Traitor’s Gate without permission? It’s a wonder you and Haynes weren’t shot as spies! They’re sailing tomorrow to take part in NATO exercises… how can they do that when you’ve nicked half the damn crew?” Peters’ humiliation is complete when he finally sees the Navy off and the relief line up to pipe him back into the station.
Conway’s wrath is, however, evenly directed. At one point he debriefs Roach on a CID obbo that has gone badly wrong and is furious with him for calling him ‘guv’, insisting that he addresses him as sir. He also comes down hard on Tom Penny when he is struggling, repeatedly declaring that they can’t carry passengers. When Penny has to be ushered out after going for an annoying electrician, Cryer asks Conway, “Got what you wanted now?” But we get the sense that Conway is firm but fair, knowing he needs to run a tight ship because the responsibility in terms of day to day operations lies with him. Moreover, he’s one of those people who are never happy with their current lot, whatever it happens to be. During these early episodes we see the beginning of the two specialisms he became known for – and neither of them appeals to him much. When an armed siege develops in ‘The Silent Gun’, Brownlow observes that Conway has taken the negotiator’s course, to which he gripes, “Unfortunately.” He doesn’t enjoy being at the sharp end, standing by the gunman’s door and trying to persuade him to come out, and is only too grateful to get back-up from the heavy mob. Likewise, when he attends the first of many community liaison meetings at the town hall, he’s deputising for the absent Brownlow who is “boozing his way up the Loire Valley, lucky man.” He has the breezy attitude of someone who thinks he can bluff his way through the mire of local politics and get back to more interesting work. In these early days he seems to have bigger hopes for the future, before they are crushed by a decade of working under Brownlow.
For all the talk about new characters, though, the most important debut is the half-hour time slot itself. It seems extraordinary that a show could cut its running time in half without affecting the quality of the work in any way. But this is where we see the true genius of the format Geoff McQueen devised: it is infinitely elastic. Because we see events only from the viewpoint of the police, it’s possible to join a crime at any stage of the investigation – from the callout to the arrival on scene, questioning of witnesses, interviews, all the way through to trial and appeal. The exposition takes care of itself since it is built into the very fabric of police procedure, and there is little chance of it becoming repetitive or drawn-out in this condensed form. More importantly, it’s possible to end the story at any stage, which averts the main drawback of exploring a complex plot in twenty-five minutes. Some episodes finish with the regulars waiting for their target, or chasing a suspect, or having to drop a case in the knowledge that they’re letting someone go scot free. Far from being a cop out (pun unintended), these abrupt conclusions only add to the realistic feel, reminding us that we are seeing a snapshot of life in the police. It’s a remarkable achievement given that, while the first of the hour-long series was slightly leaden in its pacing, the same couldn’t be said of Series 2 and 3; by the end of the 1987 run each episode was densely packed with character and incident. But when you are dealing with the full spectrum of crime, not just the eye-catching end, it’s an easier task to shrink or expand different storylines and run them alongside each other. Some offences are so petty that they only take up one throwaway scene while a more serious crime is being investigated. Potential plot strands can even be reduced to a single moment, and are all the more powerful for it: after Ramsey has found the abandoned baby in ‘Trespasses’ and raced off to the hospital, we see a glimpse of the mother who left her watching from a balcony, hoping she will be all right. It’s not possible to watch an early half-hour episode of The Bill and take it for granted that the structure will be the same each time.
That said, while this ‘knee-capping’ of the plot works well for uniform stories, it’s less effective when it comes to CID as the crimes they investigate are more long-term and intricate. Cutting off the story is more inclined to make the viewer feel cheated of a proper resolution. Perhaps for this reason (and, more importantly, the general commitment to realism), the early half-hour episodes don’t feature as many large-scale investigations of drug dealing, terrorism etc. as there were later on. When the show does ‘think big’, it occasionally requires some narrative leaps forward. In the first episode, ‘Light Duties’, a supergrass found floating in the Thames and an old man fallen over in a shopping precinct turn out to be related, the son having given his father a Krugerrand from a stolen consignment that he was holding. Once the connection is made, the bust of the son’s house and the recovery of the loot happen off screen, and we cut to the triumphant Roach in the pub afterwards. This dovetailing of plotlines became a characteristic feature of the show and one of its biggest strengths, particularly when it involves the mundane being connected to something bigger. ‘Spook Stuff’ sees the arrest of a woman for shoplifting three pounds’ worth of goods, despite being an American tourist with wodges of cash on her. Furious that she is about to be bailed, she assaults Conway in the hope that it’s enough for them to call in her husband – which was her aim all along, to prevent him from handing over government documents to the other side. In ‘They Say We’re Rough’, Reg deals with an irate pair of motorists refusing to budge and predictably makes the situation worse (“Why is it that every job you’re on turns into a carnival?” asks Cryer). Having found out that half the nick saw the incident and ignored it, Conway summons Roach to his office to explain himself. This gives an opportunity for the two redcaps having a word in the cells with Roach’s prisoner, an army deserter, to hand out a beating and then leave, hoping the police will take the blame. At other times the link is made purely by chance, as in ‘Personal Imports’, when Roach drops his notebook in the canteen and Viv helps pick it up. She sees a name he is investigating over pimping and realises to her horror that the teenage boy she visited earlier is not just bunking off school but is being sexually exploited.
It was inevitable that with the changed format there would be a certain reduction in the social commentary of the first few seasons. However, some themes from that time are carried forward and concentrated effectively, given that they have only twenty-five minutes to leave their mark. The tensions between police and the black community recur in ‘Bad Faith’, where Carver and Dashwood are pursuing a suspect down a high-rise staircase and he slips and cuts his head. They manhandle him to the bottom and are confronted by a group that refuses to let them pass, seeing an injured black man who has ‘fallen down the stairs’, a classic explanation for deaths in police custody. It’s only the arrival of two PCs that allows them to get clear, and of course one of them is Haynes, who is viewed as a race traitor by the locals in the same way Lyttelton was back in Series 2. This episode marks the first discussion of sink estates, the no-go areas where the police fear to tread. Retaining some of his liberal outlook, Jim complains that they are cut off from the people who live there and aren’t doing them any good by demonising the place. Dashwood’s lack of sympathy is magnified when he discovers that the wheels have been nicked from his car (for the second time) and is almost killed by a fridge being dropped on it from the flats above. The show’s depiction of these crime-ridden estates was later criticised in some quarters for doing precisely what Jim is angry about, i.e. demonising the problem. In ‘Community Relations’, the problem is given a name when the infamous words Jasmine Allen are first uttered. This time the tension is upped to maximum: a black youth is hauled in, drugged up to the eyeballs, and dies from a heart attack. The station is besieged by a mob from the estate and the officers are petrified about how to explain the sudden death of one of their number. Frazer brings in the boy’s grieving father and stresses to him that it was an accident caused by drug abuse – and even as he weeps, her first concern is that he passes it on to the mob outside, to get the police off the hook. Their desperation to defend themselves is unflattering but believable, showing how far the trust between the two sides has fallen.
At the same time this is going on, Christopher Russell presents the latest instalment of Happy Committees in local government. When a suggestion is made to publish crime prevention advice in Bengali and Gujarati, another committee member objects, pointing out that there are plenty of other nationalities in London who don’t get the same benefit. “They’ll be turning St Paul’s into a mosque next,” he mutters. Every subject exposes divisions in all forms, not just in ethnicity but gender and age too: a young black woman asks why the men can’t “be mother” for a change when the tea arrives, instead of leaving it to the nice old lady, and dismisses a petition on the drug problem in the Jasmine Allen as having been signed by “two hundred WASPs”. A representative from the estate derides the police’s efforts to give themselves a PR makeover, saying that they know what they’re really like. The final schism occurs when one member jokes that all the police should be given guns, causing the black woman to storm out. When the former is reprimanded for expressing such views, she makes a furious exit too. Having watched the circus unfold, Conway declares with trademark sensitivity: “Well, that’s got rid of the moderates.” As he’s leaving he comments to the chairman that they finished in record time, and perhaps people should walk out more often. It’s notable that from his viewpoint these political squabbles are something that the police sit above, impartial, whereas to the radical wing he and the force are very much the embodiment of the system. These regular studies of dysfunctional government make for an interesting show in itself, hidden within the framework of traditional crime drama. More than anything they provide a window onto the polarised society of the 1980s and the police’s role within it. Post-Thatcher, this remained an important talking point in the real world but was tackled within the series less frequently, and in a more oblique way.
Geoff McQueen himself makes an important contribution in ‘Stop and Search’, which examines the controversial policy that has become ever-more relevant now with the wave of knife crime in London.
A lawyer and activist representing a black client complains that the man has been stopped and searched a dozen times in the past two weeks, including that very morning. It is noted that there was a case in the past where different people gave the same name and address to make it look as though one individual was being serially harassed, and sure enough it turns out to have happened again, taking the wind out of the lawyer’s sails. This is a typical example of how, when tackling divisive issues, the show fundamentally remains on the side of the police while acknowledging their critics. In the countless episodes where police conduct is drawn into question, the story usually absolves them of blame or gives them the benefit of the doubt. In a TV series where police officers are the principal characters this is hardly surprising, but The Bill is unique in that its nose to the grindstone approach gives us a better understanding of the daily pressures that may drive an officer into error. McQueen was always good at showing life from the ground level, the ordinary copper’s point of view. In the same episode we are introduced to two Special Constables who are enjoying the job and about to get married. The woman is thinking of turning it into a full-time career, but during a search of two drug addicts she is stabbed with a needle. She and her partner face an anxious wait for the lab results, which are still unknown as the episode ends, and their confidence about joining the police has suddenly gone. We see what a daunting road people face when they embark on a police career, and how quickly their optimism can be shaken.
The other key episode written by McQueen is ‘The Three Wise Monkeys’, which looks at the rules of engagement in an armed situation – the TV pilot Rules of Engagement being the very script he was working on when he died at the tragically young age of 46. June and Yorkie are forced into a close-quarters pursuit of armed suspects by three macho TSG men. Having cornered them in a car park, their own car is sprayed with bullets and they are both injured. One of the TSG officers takes a pot shot at the fleeing gunman, against regulations, and almost blows Yorkie’s head off. In fury, he strides round the car and punches his lights out. It seems plausible that this episode was made, if not written, around the same time as the events of Operation Flavius: the execution of three IRA terrorists on Gibraltar by the SAS in March 1988, with no challenge apparently being offered and no weapons found on the bodies. The incident would have been particularly relevant to The Bill because of the furore that engulfed its own production company, Thames Television, after the broadcast of the documentary ‘Death on the Rock’. Shown in spite of the government’s best efforts, this film is alleged to have caused the ultimate demise of Thames, via the Broadcasting Act of 1990 in which, against all expectations, they were outbid for their own franchise. The gunplay in ‘The Three Wise Monkeys’ isn’t so one-sided, but we do see the terror of ordinary officers at being caught in a battle for which they are completely unprepared, thanks to their trigger-happy colleagues. The episode ends with June and Yorkie sitting down next to Sgt. Penny and placing their hands over his in a silent gesture of solidarity, knowing what it’s like to be on the wrong end of a gun barrel. It’s an extraordinary symbolic moment that was rarely done again in the show, which usually avoided such visual flourishes in favour of simpler matter-of-fact storytelling. Geoff McQueen’s last, greatest contribution to the show, however, is not a particular storyline but a character: the one and only Alfred ‘Tosh’ Lines, first seen ambling into the car park in ‘Stop and Search’ on his way to CID. “Even my missus calls me Tosh!” he says cheerfully, to which Roach replies, “I can believe that.” “How many ankle-biters have you got now?” asks Burnside. “Five… I’ve only got to tell the old woman a dirty joke and she’s up the duff!” With his free-flowing hair, mutton-chop sideboards and shirt forever hanging over his gut, Tosh is not the best advertisement for the service; the look that Brownlow gives him when they are introduced is the stuff of legend. But he is one of the best advertisements the show ever had. When one thinks of iconic images from The Bill it’s usually the uniform officers: the buttons, the braid, the flashing lights on their cars. Yet Tosh’s profile, the clipped moustache and the grubby raincoat, arguably sums up the essence of the ‘classic’ era better than any other character. In his dress and demeanour he’s also the closest the show gets to the shabby but brilliant detective so familiar from other crime dramas, specifically Colombo. It’s been suggested that one method of relaunching The Bill would be to go down the prequel route, showing the early days of one character in the same way that Endeavour did for Morse. Given the ensemble nature of the show this is of course, fundamentally a bad idea, but I’d make an exception for a Colombo-style format with a young Tosh.* Each week he would wear down a different guest star until at the end, when they think they’ve got away with it, he says breezily, “Just one more thing, squire”, and they finally crack under the pressure. The title is so obvious it doesn’t need another thought – Lines of Duty (yes, I know. The idea came before the name, honest. Don’t write in).
(*For the record, two other prequels leap to mind. First is Taff’s Cafs/Taff’s Gaffes, each week set in a different cafe where the Welsh Whinger is skiving off that particular day. People come to him with problems in the same way they seek out The Equalizer for help, only Taff’s solution involves fewer .44 Magnum shootouts, more discussions over a cup of tea and a bacon butty. The other is Monroe – The Early Years, in which we see the old stickler in his young, not so rebellious days. I can picture it now: as the other probationers huddle together working out what hilarious prank they’re going to play on their sergeant, Andrew stands to one side, arms folded, declaring solemnly, “That’s hardly a matter for you to decide…”)
McQueen himself seemed to have the Colombo analogy in mind, as he pitches Tosh straight into a murder case, albeit an unusual one: a man who’s confessed to having killed his wife back in 1958. Declaring that he needs a thirty-year old murder “like the Aga Khan needs a win on the pools”, Burnside immediately dumps it on Tosh and Jim, establishing a precedent as were they so often paired up in later episodes. Tosh sets out his stall at once, wanting to know the man before he can know the murder. After he’s saddled Jim with a massive list of things to research, the latter complains it will take ages. “Being a good copper does, Jimbo,” he explains patiently. It’s a pity that he doesn’t exhibit the same restraint in the next McQueen script, ‘An Old-Fashioned Term’, his penultimate episode and last for some time, which is not his best work. Here Tosh is investigating another potential murder, of the clichéd, “She was only sixteen years old…” variety, and there’s some rather hackneyed dialogue as he and Jim interrogate the suspect in an aggressive rat-a-tat fashion that doesn’t seem at all believable. If nothing else, over the course of the episode guest star Trevor Peacock gets to rehearse his future catchphrase from The Vicar of Dibley (“No no no no no… yes!”). When he finally does admit it, he refuses to explain his motives, which infuriates Tosh. Bemused by this, Jim talks to Cryer, who corrects him: “Our job is to reason why… if we don’t reason, if we don’t ask the question why, then we’re not doing the job properly.” This, it’s implied, is why Tosh has been a DC for so long instead of rising up the ranks: he wants to be at the sharp end, dealing with criminals and uncovering the thinking that leads them to do what they do, rather than being stuck behind a desk.
The small number of episodes written by McQueen is a reflection of his moving on to other projects, but also his stipulation that new writers should be given a chance to make their break on the show. The best thing about the move to twice-weekly is that it opened up a world of opportunity for writers and directors. The massive increase in scripts made it inevitable that the writing pool would have to be hugely expanded. The early episodes are still dominated by the rock-solid combination of Barry Appleton and Christopher Russell, and the first few attempts by new names are not the best, but very quickly they start to bear fruit. ‘Trouble and Strife’ is the first episode to really stretch the format, an episode set in and around the house of a warring couple, which features no Sun Hill and pares the regular cast down to just two, Haynes and Ramsey. But the biggest and most daring innovation is the tone: domestic violence is presented not just as comedy but as outright farce. The hapless PCs chase the Mancinis round the street, into the house, up the stairs and down again, with the wife alternately screaming vengeance at her husband and begging for his release. This is another example of the possibilities that open up by depicting events entirely from the police perspective. Instead of a straightforward earnest drama about a man beating his wife, we see the bizarre chaotic behaviour that erupts from an abusive relationship and how the police get caught in the crossfire. We also come to understand why they hate domestics more than anything else. Funniest of all is the Mexican stand-off between husband and wife when he threatens to trash her sewing machine while she does likewise to his car, foot braced on the pedal. Sure enough, they both make good on their threats, leaving the police with even more damage to clear up. Kicking the debris on the pavement, Ramsey observes drily, “If Mary Whitehouse came down here, she’d see the biggest danger from television violence is people lobbing them out the window.” After dragging the husband down from his refuge in the attic, Ramsey adopts an old-fashioned approach to marriage counselling by flushing the man’s head down the toilet. He is willing to hold off on arresting the wife, however, while he nips into the lounge to watch a corner being taken on the TV. “What’s the score?” asks Mancini while cuffed to the toilet. The episode ends with the older children returning home and demanding to know where the police are going with their mother, raising the despairing prospect of yet more aggro to come.
Writer Julian Jones pulls off the same trick in ‘Here We Go Loopy Lou’, in which the plight of a mentally ill hospital outpatient becomes a comedy caper through the streets and building sites of London. Having tried to ‘baptise’ a young woman in the river, he is found standing on a canal bridge wearing nothing but a dressing gown. “I am Christ!” he proclaims, to which Taff delivers the only possible riposte: “Yeah, well I’m God, so could you get down please?” Once he has finally been caught and taken to hospital, the officers discover he is missing a little finger, before Stamp holds up the bloodied digit and shouts, “It’s OK Sarge, he had it in his other hand.” But the real focus of the episode is the continuing antagonism between Cryer and Taff: a great example of how the show can run a deft character piece alongside a more action-based storyline. When Taff suddenly turns into Superman and dives into the canal to try and rescue the patient, Cryer takes it as a personal affront: “You do sod all all year, and then you come on like you give a damn!” Insisting angrily that he does care, Taff says the man should be treated properly, not shuffled in and out of hospital. When he asks Cryer, “You do know what schizophrenia is, don’t you? It’s a behaviour somebody invents in order to live in an unliveable situation”, you don’t have to be a genius to realise what he’s venting about. He later warns Brind, who has witnessed this ugly spat between two officers she is supposed to be learning from, “You’ll find out about Captain Bob. He’s got his favourites… His problem is he wants to be everyone’s dad, well he ain’t my dada!” Not for the first or last time, we see that he and Cryer are a rubber and glue pairing: Cryer wants people to be straightforward and decisive, like him, while Taff’s evasiveness is a cover for a hidden well of feelings. In ‘Evacuation’, Ramsey finds a secret journal on life as a police officer that has been submitted to a local newspaper, and reads its earnest contents aloud in the canteen to general hilarity. When the station is cleared, Taff lingers to retrieve some pages and we realise that he is the anonymous author – needing an outlet to express himself that he’s not going to get from the usual round of drinks and banter in the pub.
The show’s portrayal of vulnerable sections of society – the ones that the police are more likely to come into contact with – is important, given the vast reach of mainstream TV at this time. Living as we now do in an era of unlimited broadcasting across all devices at all hours, appointment television is a rare beast, confined to breakthrough hits like Line of Duty. But when you watch a typical Bill episode dealing with homelessness or mental illness and realise that it was seen by about 1 in 5 people in the whole country, sometimes 1 in 4 at the height of its popularity, you realise the huge potential influence of what is being depicted on screen. Two of the early half-hour episodes by Christopher Russell tackle the subject of care in the community and prejudice towards the disabled. Typically, they’re not presented as worthy lectures but have a more interesting slant to them. In ‘Alarms and Embarrassments’, Taff brings in a mugging victim with cerebral palsy played by the very able-bodied Jeff Rawle, in a casting decision that wouldn’t be countenanced nowadays, but still results in a great performance. He roars “Shut up!” at a group of pedestrians jabbering about him, then he is driven to Sun Hill and the ever-helpful Jimmy Carver takes over. While escorting him to the interview room, he learns that the man runs his own business and declares sincerely but condescendingly, “That must take some guts.” Sent on an errand to fetch tea and biscuits “for Mother Teresa”, Taff suggests that the man and his parents are in danger of being patronised to death. Roach finds Carver sitting beside the victim at the typewriter, cooing, “He’s typing out his statement guv, he’s brilliant!” Furious, Roach orders him outside and reminds him he’s supposed to be on another job and shouldn’t be letting people jump the queue: “Being disabled is a misfortune, not a freaking privilege! … If you want to spend the rest of your life helping lame ducks, then get out and join the RSPCA!” Those last sympathetic words are delivered just in time for the man’s parents to hear them as they arrive at the entrance. The episode may criticise Carver’s earnest talking-down approach to the disabled, but the ‘lame ducks’ comment also shows the way in which they are marginalised and treated as an irritant by people who like to think of themselves as fair-minded. As is so often the case in The Bill, no one person gets to hold up the baton of right at the end of the episode.
Similarly, in ‘Homes and Gardens’ the police are faced with the problem of an adult man who has learning difficulties but is dangerous because of his strength. Penny has no room for him in the cells and tells Yorkie that the only alternative is to “section him and bung him off to the Royal”, even though he has no mental illness. Most pertinent, though, are the thoughts of Sun Hill’s trusty collator. We are still a long way from Reg Hollis, care home visitor and community bobby. If anything he’s the voice of the average bigot on the street. Having bemoaned the arrival of a female inspector, he insists that a black inspector will never happen, and is disgusted that someone dangerous can be let out of hospital into his father’s custody. When Yorkie points out that there are plenty of violent thugs at liberty, Reg counters, “They’re predictable, mate”, and declares that “life’s unfortunates” being returned to the community is bad news for the police: “It’s getting to the stage where every other person on the street is a mental defective.” The plot echoes Of Mice and Men: the man’s father urges him not to hang around with youths who will get him into trouble and he becomes so agitated that he knocks Yorkie out, forcing them to go on the run in a police car with him lying unconscious in the back. As the officers in CAD try to work out where they might have gone, the ever-optimistic Reg delivers his verdict: “Straight in the river if you ask me, it’s a kamikaze job!” Banished from the room by a furious Frazer, he pops up at the end when the chase is over to say he knew Yorkie would be all right, to everyone’s disbelief. But for the two men with him it’s a different story. Once they are taken into custody, the father stares out of the car window knowing that the fate he wanted to avoid for his son, being put in an institution and not being able to see him again, is now guaranteed.
The other disadvantaged group that the show returned to time and again through the decades is, of course, the elderly. One of the less appreciated strengths of The Bill was that, in addition to giving young actors their first TV credit, it also provided numerous roles for the old in a television landscape that’s often bereft of faces over fifty, reflecting the ageism of society. I said in a previous review that the depiction of the Asian community gave regular exposure to an under-represented people, but arguably reduced them to a set of clichés, given that the same themes were covered repeatedly. This could have gone double for the treatment of old people, who are so often presented as enfeebled victims of crime. And yet, for all the times we saw nice old dears offering cuppas to grateful PCs, who lectured them on getting a more secure chain on their door, etc. etc., the show manages to avoid reducing the elderly to this single dimension. Most importantly, it recognises that they can fall on the wrong side of the law, as in the episode ‘Old Habits.’ Here a spate of burglaries on old people’s houses, which has caused the death of one woman by an induced heart attack, is blamed on a former juvenile delinquent (played by Lee MacDonald, aka Zammo of “Just Say No!” Grange Hill fame) who volunteers at their day centre. Instead, it transpires that another drug-addled youth has done the break-ins, from inside info supplied by his uncle: not some harmless OAP but a former contemporary of the Krays who wants to prove that he can still do the business. This idea of a veteran villain recapturing former glories was something the series returned to often. At the end Roach and Dashwood find him sitting alone, drunk, in his flat, bemoaning the fact that “you get talked down to like a baby” when you’re old, and none of his own children want to see him. They discover that his nephew is unconscious and overdosed in the next room; but as Dashwood tries to call the ambulance, the old man stops him, asking plaintively, “What’s he got to live for? If he comes round he could be done in the head, or back in the slammer.” He sees life as a prison for both of them, young and old, for different reasons. Tellingly, Mike seems to be convinced by his argument until Roach comes in wanting to know what’s happening, and he gets on with it.
Of the writers new to the show, if not the industry, undoubtedly the most significant is PJ Hammond (of whom much more in the next review). But the fresh name that really stands out is Arthur McKenzie. Many authors got their first writing gig on The Bill, but very few came to it from a career in the police force – in McKenzie’s case, as a DCI in Tyneside Police. This makes the events of his first episode, ‘Snout’, particularly striking. Burnside is seen driving the streets, hunting down his informer while humming appropriately along to ‘Every Breath You Take’ [that is if you’re watching the Australian DVD release – if you’re relying on the UK Network DVDs as I still was at this point, you’re listening to another track and seeing re-edited footage, due to rights complications]. He learns that Jim has a prisoner who is refusing to say anything. We’re then introduced to interrogation the Burnside way, one on one in a cell with a closed door. The man warns him what will happen if he leaves a mark on him, but Burnside is trying a different approach: “This is like Mastermind. I can only accept your first answer.” Getting in his face, he announces that he’s investigating serious sexual offences against children – and outside, a grinning Peters tells Carver, “I know the lines, son. It’s his script, never changes.” Frantically the suspect denies it. Then Burnside checks with him what he’s supposed to be here for, and he duly drops himself in it before realising the trick that’s been pulled. Carver is on hand to swear that he heard him confess to his sexual crimes, but they can be dropped if he co-operates over the bingo hall roof. “You’re all the same,” says the disgusted youth. However true to life this stunt is, unlike other deplorable behaviour seen in the show it couldn’t be dismissed by police spokesmen as the work of someone who knew nothing about the force. The same high standards of professionalism are displayed elsewhere in the episode, as Taff leaves a birthday card jingling ‘Colonel Bogey’ under Burnside’s chair to drive him slowly mad, only for the conniving Reg to relocate it to Brownlow’s office and dob Taff in. “Are you deaf, man?” Brownlow screams at Taff as he tries to leave to get the card back from where he put it.
Notably, the move to an 8pm slot does not bring an instant watering down in the strong content of the early years. The first few episodes are decidedly foul-mouthed, with June being called a “hard-nosed bitch” and Burnside telling Frazer he’s not going to apologise to “those tossers” who think he’s bent. There are also many spectacular and violent set-pieces, notably a bus crash in ‘Country Cousin’ where the claret flows freely as Haynes tries to release the driver from his cab. On more than one occasion people are hauled from flaming cars seconds before they explode, leaving the officers with visible burns such as those on Ken Melvin’s blistered hands. Most dramatic of all is the station’s first firebombing in ‘Evacuation’, which results in a horribly real sequence where a stuntman flails around in a ball of fire. There are no lingering shots of bloody corpses but there remains a nasty, visceral reality to proceedings: when a couple are found overdosed on crack we see the trail of vomit hanging from the woman’s mouth. The show is trying to demonstrate that it’s still the same entity and can pull off the kinetic action sequences that it had become known for. What continues to jar from a modern-day perspective is the brandishing of firearms. They’re not distributed like confetti – Frazer has to sign out weapons and ammunition in a log book and give verbal authorisation – but a number of officers from both uniform and CID are approved to carry them. Jim is disappointed to be missing out on the action; Robin Frank notes that CID has changed him and declares that he himself has a marriage to live for, strangely not adding that he’s already had a hole blown in him once before. Jim ends up staring down the barrel of the suspect’s gun and has to be rescued by Cryer. In ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’, Dashwood has his own weapon fired on him by an enraged husband, but is saved because he doesn’t load it until absolutely necessary. It’s little wonder that Roach decides he’s had enough of having the power to snuff out someone’s life, and deliberately fails his refresher course – “Did he shoot the instructor?” asks Mike. That said, during the armed siege in ‘The Silent Gun’, Roach bemoans the circus that has developed and declares they should have gone in hard, which is perhaps an easier call to make when he’s not in the frontline.
Talking of jarring visuals, this is the episode where we see Cryer and Conway, of all people, scrambling around with revolvers and flak jackets as though they were members of a SWAT team. If it feels like the episode is trying to show off a misplaced machismo, however, this is dispelled when the armed unit itself turns up. It’s led by an inspector in a tweed jacket puffing quietly on his pipe, and when ‘technical support’ arrives to drill into the flat it consists of two chirpy geezers in tracksuits. The tension increases as the team hears movement by the front door, and brace themselves. When the culprit scuttles into view, the inspector turns solemnly to Cryer: “Sergeant – arrest that mouse.” There is no chance of a straightforward action adventure being smuggled onto our screens. That same episode demonstrates the utter tedium of these stand-offs for almost everyone: the furious residents who want to get back into their homes and the bored PCs who have to hold them at bay, despite having no knowledge of what’s going on or when the situation is going to change. After telling Brind the worst joke in the world, Taff is ordered round the back of a house to break in and turn off an old lady’s stove – and being Taff, he gets the wrong house, leaving him with some explaining to do. As in ‘Trouble and Strife’, the football on TV keeps everyone entertained. In another echo of that episode, when the gunman is disarmed and led out, all Roach can ask Carver is, “What’s the score?” The boredom of the job is returned to again and again, as the officers wait for something important to happen. In ‘Save the Last Dance for Me’ they are on permanent standby in the canteen when Frank helpfully suggests they pass the time by playing charades. “Don’t tell me, don’t tell me,” replies Yorkie. “…A berk? You’re doing an impression of a berk. Go on, do another one.”
A sense of the routine even filters into episodes with a very un-routine premise such as ‘Duplicates’, where Claire Brind takes centre stage. There were many probationers throughout the life of The Bill, from Slater and Keane in the mid-90s to Hayward and Clarke in 2000, but Brind has a uniquely downtrodden, put-upon quality that endears her to the viewer. At one point she is said to be only a couple of years older than a teenager being investigated in that episode, and it’s obvious she is dealing with situations that are beyond her maturity. Forced into a long skirt and high heels that are killing her feet, she takes part in a TV reconstruction of a missing girl’s last whereabouts, while the other officers crack jokes at her expense. Whereas she doesn’t want to be a star, the allure of the camera does get to Mike, who is asked to do an interview and suddenly wants Claire’s approval for his tie. Meanwhile the remaining PCs have to do legwork of another kind, blocking off the street and interviewing passers-by who either don’t know or don’t care about the girl’s disappearance. But at the very end, after the relief have watched Claire’s big break and jeered Dashwood off the screen, he gets a telephone call from someone who has seen the broadcast and has information to give. The tone of the episode may have been cynical up to that point, but it refuses to leave on that note; we see that the hard work the police do is for a good reason and that it does bring rewards, even if it takes time. This is why some of the early, negative reviews quoted in the book The First Ten Years of The Bill are unfair. There were complaints about “warts and all copperdom” and the police being depicted as “neo-Nazi jobsworths”, which go to show how much critics had been conditioned by previous crime dramas into a certain view of how the police should appear. To see officers moaning about their job and discussing the trivialities of life doesn’t diminish what they are doing; if anything, it makes their achievements more satisfying when they do occur. When Claire is fed up of pounding the streets, she suddenly meets the girl’s parents and is reminded what this is all in aid of. She is struck by how nice they are and clearly worried about failing them, as any decent person would be in that situation.
The sitcom feel that began to seep into the hour-long episodes, with the greater emphasis on humour, comes through even more strongly now that the format is tailored to it. The ongoing saga of Reg’s Fed Rep duties is a source of pain for everyone around him, bombarded with lectures about stress and the disruption to the body’s “Circadian rhythms” caused by shift work. The realisation has hit that while he talks a good game he can never actually achieve anything; when he is supposed to get Dashwood a paid day’s leave, as is his right, he begins making excuses to Mike even before he’s asked Burnside. His colleagues are only too aware that despite his drawbacks they are dependent on him, due to his role as collator. This is another feature of the show that is something of a culture shock, looking back from our computerised age. In an era before digital records, the whole station relied on the skill and efficiency of the collator in maintaining card indexes and being able to produce the right information on demand. When Reg turns up the right address for a suspect who has recently moved, Burnside is so overjoyed that he plants a kiss on him, for the first and undoubtedly last time. The other sitcom-esque character is the wonderfully dynamic Alec Peters. Here is a man of action who’s never happier than when out on observation, so he can have a kip or read the paper. The rest of the time he is content to sit back in the CAD room, passing round his wife’s date slab cake. When Stamp tries to confiscate it for his own health, Peters has this rebuttal: “If God had meant us to live on celery, he’d have given us mechanical teeth!” This comes right after his fitness test, where he is dismayed to be presumed fifty when in fact he’s forty-three. It speaks volumes of him that he’s pleased to be rated ‘below average’, reasoning that it could have been worse. On the rare occasions that we see Peters out on enquiries, having to knock on doors or attend crimes, Larry Dann gives him a brilliant awkward quality: there’s a hesitancy to his movement, as though trying to recall a long-forgotten procedure and worried that he’s about to be found out. As Taff observes scathingly, he’s fine in a car, but “anything decent goes off and suddenly it’s all, ‘Don’t forget I’m a grandfather’, all that cobblers.” This is from the episode ‘The Coop’, in which Peters does get a taste of life at the sharp end when a shotgun blast narrowly misses him.
This half-hour run does, however, create personal problems for the officers too, in a tentative step towards soap opera. Most eye-catching is the storyline from ‘Tigers’, in which a young woman arrives at the front desk with a baby, asking that they contact Jim because he will know all about it. She puts it down and then scarpers the moment that Stamp’s back is turned, leaving Jim with a worrying question to answer. Had this reached our screens in the mid-Noughties, the show would have wrung at least six months’ angst out of it – culminating in a nail-biting live episode where half a dozen women turn up all giving the same story, and Jim has to work out which one he really impregnated before they’re blown up by bombs strapped to their necks. Here the issue is resolved quickly and we find out that his former girlfriend is making a sad cry for help – although it’s interesting to note the antagonism between Jim and Tony, a decade before the drinking storyline where we see the full extent of the latter’s contempt for the former. The character who gets the first extended focus on their private life, however, is the man who’s still the star of the show: Honest Bob himself. As I noted in a review of the hour-long era, pride of place in the closing credits was divided between Cryer and Galloway, but here he has top billing in any episode he’s a part of, even if it’s only a couple of lines. It’s easy to forget that the most soapy plotline of the early days is floated right at the end of the ‘originals’, when Penny’s wife confides in Brownlow about her past affair with Cryer and suggests that Tom may have found out. Whether this was meant to be a one-off reference or would have been returned to in future series is open to question, given that the change of format must have forced a general rethink about storylines. I shudder to think of Cryer, of all people, delivering the dreaded words, “We need to talk” or having a punch-up with his fellow sergeant, but I think the show at this time would have handled it in a more circumspect and interesting way.
We get more insight into Cryer’s background in ‘They Say We’re Rough’, when two redcaps arrive to deal with an army deserter. Excited to be in the presence of his old mob, Cryer introduces himself in the hope of establishing a bond. The corporal, however, is less than impressed: “Cryer, eh? I’d have had that changed meself.” Disillusioned, Cryer goes on his way. Peters asks him if it brings back memories, to which he responds, “Terrifying – and don’t ask me why”, raising the possibility that he may have been a bad lad in his squaddie days. Such is the extent of his feeling that he gets revenge on the MPs by letting down their tyres in the yard, which enables Roach to catch them after they have assaulted their prisoner. But it’s right at the end of the 1988 run that we get a more in-depth plot about his family, which breaks boundaries by running across two episodes. A car is fished out of the river with a girl’s body inside, the driver having lost control and escaped, leaving her there. To Cryer’s disbelief, he learns that his son Patrick was at the wheel. Roach promises that he’ll give him a fair deal, “no strokes”, but the damage has been done already. At the start of the next episode Cryer refuses to attend while his wife and son are at the station, or to drive them back afterwards. Conway asks him how long he’s going to turn his back on them. “Why are you making so much more of it? Is it because it’s Bob Cryer’s son?” It’s clear that this is the root of the problem: Cryer is aware that he’s known for his impeccable standards, and when his own son has failed to meet them, it casts doubt on everything he stands for. Notably, he backs down not through the words of a friend, but because of the choice remarks of his mortal enemy Burnside: “There are hundreds of people out there whose sons get nicked every day of the week. They don’t go around like you, treating their families like something they picked off the bottom of their shoe!”
Cryer finally calls home and does indeed say, in as many words, “We need to talk” – but there the story ends. It’s an intriguing point at which to wrap up this series, showing the way forward in some aspects, not in others. Seeing Cryer’s domestic situation get on top of him was not, it turned out, a prelude to every officer’s home life being dragged into the spotlight. However, it did signal a move towards serialised stories, which the show would dabble in over the next couple of years with increasing confidence. For my money this led to some of the best storytelling in the history of The Bill, as the full potential of the half-hour format was unlocked. These episodes from 1988 laid a solid groundwork, but even better was to come…