By Edward Kellett
Series 5 of The Bill, the first to be made and broadcast across an entire year, sees the show continue to expand on the potential of the half-hour format. There is more experimentation in the way stories are told and the tone of individual episodes. Moreover, in the uniform branch there is a large overhaul that sees the replacement of many of the Barlby Road regulars with their long-running successors, who would become lynchpins of the series over the next decade. The most important change in personnel, however, comes halfway through the year when the show’s original executive producer Michael Chapman returns to take over the reins from Peter Cregeen. Chapman remained in charge – and from all accounts, that is very much the way to put it – for virtually all of the 1990s, overseeing the shift from twice to thrice-weekly episodes, and there’s no doubt that the continuing stability of the programme in this period is down to his firm control of the format. What The Bill was in 1989 is still basically what it was in early 1998, when the reins were handed on once more.
In contrast to the upheavals in uniform, there’s only one change to the CID line-up and it comes right out of the blocks in the opening episode, ‘Getting it Right’. Nevertheless it’s a significant one, as Burnside and Roach enter the office to find the boyish DS Greig with his feet on a desk, practising his clarinet. If I were to compile a list of the ten best things about The Bill, not simply the ten best characters, then Alistair Greig would figure highly on it. He sums up not only the virtues of the programme as a whole, in depicting ordinary people trying to do an impossible job, but more specifically the virtues of the half-hour format that coincided with Andrew Mackintosh’s time in the role. Direct and efficient, always probing for the truth and never making waves about it, Greig is an unchanging man – and that is far from a criticism. His introduction comes at an important time, diluting the runaway testosterone levels in CID with his refreshingly light persona. Having declared that his real priority is the Met Band, with whom he has just returned from a gig in Hamburg – “A gig… a gig!” says a disbelieving Burnside – he is taken into the governor’s office to receive a rant about how he’s going to be worked hard. But unlike others in his place, this dressing down doesn’t raise his hackles at all; it simply bounces off him. Where Burnside and Roach see the job as a war, against both the slags on the street and the uncaring top brass, Greig views it as a piece of work that should be done neatly and put away at the end of the day. In that sense, he is an ideal character to represent the transition of the police towards a more managerial style, in the year that they were rebranded from the force to the service. Crucially, he’s not some humourless plodder either. When Ramsey, seconded to CID and still hoping to return there, speaks admiringly of Burnside’s devious tactics, Greig reminds him sagely that “Goebbels was a hero worshipper too!”
The incredibly specific brief that landed Mackintosh the part – clarinet-playing Scottish actors being hard to come by – is another sign of how long-running characters became that way by happy accident, not by design. He has spoken of being a poor fit for the burly red-haired character described on the page, and one wonders how long Greig was intended to remain in the series beyond his comedic entrance. It’s more than a dozen episodes before he shows up again, allowing time to scrape together the new scripts that are required when a fresh face appears, and a while after that before he becomes a proper regular. The clarinet fades swiftly into the background as the realisation dawns that there are more interesting facets to Greig than his musical talent. When let loose on the public his interviewing skills come rapidly to the fore. In ‘Silver Lining’, the discovery of a stolen Rolls Royce with a boot full of silver ingots leads to an awkward conversation with a bullion dealer about how his stock got there. Instead of putting the heavies on, Greig absorbs his anger with calmness and an apologetic air, explaining that they just need to get to the truth, until he manages to extract it. After a blind man is assaulted and robbed in ‘Chinese Whispers’, Greig talks to him in hospital and doesn’t allow the awful nature of the crime to enrage him, as it would some of his colleagues. Instead he sticks to the facts and draws out memories of touch and smell that prove invaluable. While investigating an allegedly stolen car that ran down a girl on a crossing, he takes a measured approach with the owner, played by Leslie Ash, keeping his tone reasonable as long as he can– until he discovers that she’s lied to help her disqualified partner avoid justice and his disgust spills out.
The episode that puts him centre stage for the first time, ‘Greig Versus Taylor’, gives him the job of breaking down a legendarily unflappable armed robber. “Alistair’s subjecting him to mild stress,” Dashwood jokes to Burnside over the phone. “Still, he’s never coughed for you, has he?” he adds unwisely, and has to hold the receiver away from his ear. “Uniform’s easy, nicking people,” Penny tells Turnham in a rare moment of candour. “CID have got to make it stick, so people like Burnside cut corners. That’s why I rate Greig – he doesn’t.” The podcast discussion about this episode was fascinating, author Christopher Russell observing that the police at this time were in the hard position of extracting confessions while abiding by the new rules of PACE. Andrew Mackintosh added that their interview courses were couched in terms of sales, discussing hooks and buy-signs, and we see Greig using all these techniques. He suddenly asks Taylor about his fishing bait, trying to build empathy in the way that real-life officers use any and every topic to get a silent suspect talking. Then he points out traits in his body language, suggesting that these are signs of lying. Over the course of the story his quiet, insistent line of questioning becomes more unbearable to Taylor than someone deploying threats or fists. All the time Greig is working on flimsy evidence, but if successful interrogation is a confidence trick then in the end you have to win that confidence, and we see this when Taylor finally cracks. Hunched in despair in the corner, he is informed that he can’t be guaranteed a deal, only lighter treatment if he owns up. He asks hopefully if it will be single figures, and Greig declares, “In your own time, Eric. Chapter and verse.” Unusually the policeman is depicted as confidante and confessor, not the heavy-handed bully that we saw many times before this episode – and indeed, many times after. It’s telling that Greig’s colleagues recognise but don’t always appreciate the different skills he brings to the party. When Burnside pulls his familiar trick of bringing in a snout for questioning, camouflaged among other arrests, he lets Greig know in advance and tells him exactly why: “You’re a clever dick. You’d suss out something was wrong. Then you’d go nagging on about it until you put it in everybody else’s mind.”
Burnside himself remains the dangerous and edgy character that he was when he became governor. There are signs of a thaw in the antagonism between him and Roach as they get used to each other’s methods, but his dodgy reputation is ever-present in the background, making it impossible for his staff to completely trust him. ‘In the Frame’ by Barry Appleton cleverly picks up the threads created by Geoff McQueen of Burnside’s history with anti-corruption probes. We have been told that far from being under suspicion by Operation Countryman he was working undercover for it, but there remains an ambiguity over which side of the law he was treading – and he has made enemies on both. When he visits a pub to meet an informer, a seemingly innocent exchange with a woman turns out to be a sting by undercover officers working for Operation Backwoods, an initiative to weed out corruption in the Met. The paranoia this has generated among their colleagues is shown when Tosh makes some calls to find out what has happened and Brownlow tells him this was ill-advised, given the “sweeping powers” of Operation Backwoods. Picking up the phone in the CID office, Tosh declares, “If this phone is tapped and there’s somebody listening… get stuffed!” Taken away in a car, Burnside is dragged to a disused office to hear a recording of his conversation, which implies that he demanded a bribe from the woman in question. However, he knows the chief super heading the ‘enquiry’ from their younger days when the man was a DC under him, and realises the whole thing is not just a fit-up but an act of revenge. The episode plays out like one of those budget-saving ‘interrogation’ episodes of 60s ITC shows such as The Champions, Man in a Suitcase and Captain Scarlet, where our hero is placed in solitary confinement and ordered to confess to supposed crimes, when his captors are not what they seem. Breaking out long enough to make a call to Tosh, Burnside gets the evidence to clear his name. “They’ll get you one day,” the defiant super tells him in Brownlow’s office. “They’ll have to be a damn sight cleverer than you, pal,” Burnside hits back.
But it isn’t long before the finger is pointed at him from within his own team. In ‘Suspicious Minds’ an elaborate joint operation has been planned with division to bust a gang of pornographers, involving co-ordinated dawn raids. As the troops are about to leave, Dashwood sees Burnside making a phone call in his office at 5.30 am. Half an hour later, the raids produce nothing because all the villains have fled in the nick of time. Mike does the right thing and confides in his immediate superior, Roach, who typically is no use at all: “How can I back you up? I didn’t see him make that call. You’ve got to do something – I don’t.” When Mike goes to Conway, and Burnside is hauled in to be questioned, he gives the somewhat unconvincing excuse of leaving a message on his travel agent’s answering machine about an upcoming holiday. Nevertheless, it turns out to be true. Burnside warns the DI from division that he needs to get his house in order, as the leak came from their end – not out of kindness, but because he is once more eyeing a potential transfer and wants to smooth the ground in preparation. Unsurprisingly, when trying to work out who grassed on him he has only one man in mind, and calls Roach into his office to point out that someone’s been telling tales on him. Faced with his bland innocence, he delivers the immortal putdown, “Stop it, Ted. It’s only when you look clever you know sod all.”
The accusations are made to his face in a later episode, ‘In the Cold’. When the body of a half-naked woman is found near train tracks, Burnside immediately ‘fancies’ the shifty security guard who was supposed to be keeping watch and tries to put the screws on him. He’s unimpressed with Jim’s statement about the man’s interest in nightlife: “I do not want to hear about owls and foxes. You’re supposed to be investigating a death, not doing research for Walt Disney!” The post-mortem suggests that the woman, who was known to wander, died from the paradoxical effects of hypothermia, which induced a feeling of heat that made her take off her clothes. Burnside takes it as a personal affront that his time has been wasted by an accidental death, but the scrupulous Carver won’t leave it there. “Seeing as we haven’t got a crime, it’s a good job he didn’t put his hands up, eh guv? If you’d have kept on at that poor pillock, you’d have got the confession of an innocent man… You carry on like that and you’re going to end up breaking the law.” “Now you listen! I do not fit people up, and I do not break the law!” yells Burnside, with the air of someone who’s had to make this clear many times before. “If detective work is too much for your sensitive soul, I suggest you retrain as a ballet dancer!” As is so often the case in the show, it’s the little details that make all the difference; what you really notice during this argument is the silent figure of Greig in the background, praying for the earth to swallow him up. “I don’t think that outburst has done any of us any good, Jim,” he notes drily, to which Carver delivers this wonderful riposte: “Do you want to be Burnside when you grow up? It’s up to you.” This public service announcement to the kids in the audience is met with a little nod of agreement from Greig as the drums kick in.
While Burnside remains the man in charge (for now), the figure at the heart of CID who sums up its power struggles is Ted Roach – still the closest thing the show has to a central character. There is an enduring fascination in seeing him cope with the slow unravelling of his hopes and dreams; he wears his heart on his sleeve to such an extent that he can lose control at any moment. In ‘The Price You Pay’, he visits an assault victim in hospital who turns out to be an old school friend of Viv’s, now on the game. The perpetrator, a Middle Eastern diplomat, turns up in reception totally unconcerned by what he’s done. Ordered to his feet, he shrugs off the whole affair as a business dispute. “Bit one sided, this dispute – how many broken ribs have you got?” asks Roach. His diplomatic immunity means the case has to be dropped, but the girl’s father swears revenge and Roach is ordered to go and warn him off. The next day the father turns up in the cells on an assault charge and Roach’s humble act about arriving too late to catch him doesn’t fool Burnside for a second, nor Viv. She suggests that he followed him to make sure he did the job properly: “How does it feel, standing there watching someone get hurt? Make you feel like a man?” But Roach is giving nothing away. We’ve already seen his taste for vigilantism, and it returns later before his exit. That same ambiguous edge is seen in ‘Only a Bit of Thieving’, where he convinces Brownlow to authorise a surveillance job and drags Melvin along as part of his CID attachment. Confronting some teenage burglars, he gets into a struggle with one who falls off a roof and is taken to hospital. This puts Melvin in the awkward position of being grilled by CIB over an incident he didn’t see, and Cryer fears this could put his future career in jeopardy. Roach himself remains defiant and unconcerned about the trouble he could be in, but at the end he learns that the kid has died. “What are you looking at me for? …It wasn’t my fault,” he adds feebly, the note of regret clear in Tony Scannell’s performance.
We are given a brilliant character study of Roach in ‘Intuition’, when he tries to nail an armed blagger played by Del Henney who mocks him over his lack of evidence. Sgt. Peters reminds him that “this is not the old days” and he needs to find something soon as the custody clock is ticking, showing the continuing burden of PACE. He realises that Roach has another inspector’s board coming up and wants a big arrest he can show off to them. Roach sits with Tosh and gives him the usual maverick’s speech about being unorthodox but still getting results, only for the latter to unburden what’s on his mind: “Have you finished with that bun?” Tosh is anxious to get home to his wife and kids who he has hardly seen for days, but Roach is so wedded to the job that this means nothing to him. Having tried to cajole him into staying, he resorts to begging with promises of overtime that he can’t fulfil. Finally he lashes out in a shameless display of self-pity, telling Tosh to “go home to your boiled eggs and soldiers” and adding, “What have I got to go home for?” It’s only when Tosh meets Peters, who tells him he’s better off out of it – “Anything for a quiet life, eh?” – that something in him snaps; even though he’s a family man, he cares too much to be a nine to five timeserver like Peters. Reluctantly he goes back to help and ends up chauffeuring Roach all over London in the dead of night on a wild goose chase. A rival villain tells them to check a property in Canning Town for a money launderer; finding it’s a laundry, Roach asks, “What better place to launder money…?” and realises he’s been had. It transpires that the stolen loot they are after has been re-stolen by the other crook while their attention was diverted elsewhere. Seeing the funny side, Roach lets Henney’s character go with an elaborate bowing and scraping act, only to casually inform him that some property he had in his basement has now gone. Underneath his relish, there’s a hollow feeling at the end as we see that this is the best Roach can hope for – winding up villains who he can’t put away.
A further insight into Roach’s psyche, and his life outside the job, comes in ‘No Strings’, the second of author Kevin Clarke’s trilogy featuring the hard-drinking DS and his transvestite snout and confidante, Roxanne. Roach is already in a bad mood, stuck in a car listening to her swapping make-up tips with Viv while they wait for a group of bag-snatchers to arrive at a nightclub. The theft goes down but as he tries to grab one of the gang, a member of the public intervenes. “I’m a police officer!” Roach snaps, to which the law-abiding citizen replies, “Oh, that’s different,” and promptly punches him. The arrest turns into a mass brawl that leaves him and Viv nursing cuts and bruises. Needing more info, he goes round in the middle of the night to Roxanne’s flat and we see her putting on her wig and ‘face’ before she’s willing to open the door to him. It’s obvious that despite their differences, what binds them together is that they are both lonely and trapped people, with no-one else who understands what it’s like to be in their place. “One of those days?” she asks, after he’s raged about being attacked by the very same public he’s supposed to protect. “One of those lives.” Roach reveals that he’s seeing a respectable woman who wants him to give up the job and start going steady with her. “It’s gonna end then, isn’t it?” Roxanne comments of their relationship, and the sadness is visible on his face. But he is too committed to the police to give it up. He gets a name from her and she is badly beaten up as a result. Roach goes to see her in hospital and discovers that she put his name down as her next of kin, leaving him stricken with guilt as the credits roll.
When Roach’s big day at the inspector’s board finally arrives, in ‘Taken for a Ride’, we see he is willing to play the game. Hair smoothed and suit pressed, he is far more confident than the other beaten-down candidates, smiling at the terrifying secretary who corrals them in the waiting room. He ignores her command not to speak to any of the candidates after interview and gets advance warning about the tough questions he is in for. But by now it’s inevitable that he will sabotage his chances, consciously or unconsciously. He goes for a lunchtime drink and gets into another fight, albeit in self-defence, that leaves him covered in blood. His nose is still bleeding as he enters the interview room, which has obviously been set up to reinforce the difference in status. The dazzling light shining through the blinds puts the candidates on the spot, belittling them while turning the board into godlike figures in silhouette. In a perfect piece of casting the lead interviewer is played by Michael Cochrane, who more than anyone embodies ‘The Establishment’ in the role of upper-class swine that he made his own. Roach tries valiantly to give the required corporate spiel, but disintegrates as his nose gets worse. The panel reminds him that his six commendations are outnumbered by three times as many complaints. When they ask him for his views on police accountability to the community, his patience has finally worn out and the classic sark returns: “You mean every time I want to search premises in a sensitive racial area, I have to notify everyone down to the local road-sweeper?” He storms out, declaring that they had made up their minds before he even entered.
In the next episode Roach asks why he keeps getting put up for these boards if he has no chance, and Burnside gives him the home truth we have already heard from Conway: that with Brownlow in charge, Roach has no hope of ever being promoted. This goes back to the oldest lore established by Geoff McQueen in Series 1, which Roach is still paying for years later. He announces that he’s going to pack in the job, but after he has caught a robber via a shrewd bluff, Burnside says cheerfully, “You’re not a detective Ted, you’re a conman,” and tells him he can forget about ever resigning. The enmity between Roach and his chief super is made clear in ‘The One That Got Away’, when Brownlow pursues a car thief and apprehends him, only for him to escape in Brownlow’s own car. He is Roach’s inside man on an armed robbery that afternoon, and the operation Ted was authorised to lead in Burnside’s absence seems to be off. Brownlow is none too disappointed: “In normal circumstances I wouldn’t authorise him to run his own bath. Too much his own man. Just isn’t management material.” But the cocksure thief tells Roach that the job is still on, and they make their plans: he will escape the scene by stealing Roach’s car, which will have the keys left in the ignition. Unaware of this, Brownlow insists on accompanying Roach on the operation, hovering patronisingly over his shoulder. “He doesn’t trust Ted to do the job properly,” Dashwood tells Carver. “And Ted knows it.” Brownlow’s interference gets worse when he helpfully hands Ted the keys from his car. “We don’t want it happening twice in one day, do we?” Roach then pulls off the most desperate of all his stunts: intercepting the thief, he hands him the keys and gets him to land a punch to make it convincing. The car is found abandoned, but Brownlow isn’t a total fool: “Must have been a real pro, breaking into your car like that and starting it.” Towards the end of this series, Roach arrives from abroad to find that Greig has been made Acting DI while Burnside is away. It’s telling that when he storms into Conway’s office to demand an explanation, he’s despairing rather than angry: “Why have you done this to me?” Conway reveals that it was Brownlow’s order, and that Roach has had his chance in the inspector’s seat. “You have to step aside for a younger man. It’s life, Ted. It doesn’t matter if it’s the police force or any other industry.”
These glimpses of Roach’s thwarted ambition are seeded so well over the course of his time in the show that you really feel as though you know him outside and in. By contrast there are characters who get the spotlight shone on their personal demons only briefly, but in memorably disturbing ways. ‘Getting it Right’ ends the storyline about Cryer’s son Patrick and the death he caused by dangerous driving. On the way to court, Cryer is reunited with a teenage girl he found abandoned in a phone box as a young officer, who was christened ‘Bobby’ in his honour. Subsequently adopted, she wants his help to trace her birth mother and they seem to be getting on well. But Cryer then discovers that the judge has thrown out his son’s case on a procedural error, and gets a rant about double standards from the grieving father. For him it’s the worst possible outcome, leaving him to mull unanswered questions about his failures as a parent. With one broken family on his mind he is in no mood to deal with another, and snaps at Bobby to go home to her stepmother. Only at the end does he see missing posters of her being put up in the canteen and realise that she could be on the streets somewhere, rejected by the one man she was counting on for support. Cryer was never seen to be this fallible again, not once he became embedded as the wise counsel for each new recruit. Even his rigorous approach to the law has terrible consequences in ‘In the Frame’, when he orders an American serviceman to move his car off a pavement and the man is incinerated by a bomb. Badly bruised and shaken, Cryer raids Ted’s whisky to calm his nerves and is grilled by an anti-terrorist officer and a CIA agent. It’s revealed that a warning message for the pilot had been left at his sister’s house, which he was about to return to when Cryer insisted that he move the car first. “You cannot know that!” shouts Bob despairingly. “Through your bloody-mindedness, he’s no longer with us,” the agent declares. “I hope his death is engraved on your conscience for the rest of your life.”
Worse is to come, however, for the seemingly unshakeable Frank Burnside. In ‘Saturday Blues’ he discovers that his goddaughter is in a coma in hospital and brings in her shady drug-dealing boyfriend for questioning. This event seems to be a crucial step in drawing him closer to both Cryer and Roach, who is instantly on side when he finds out what has happened. But when the two of them harangue the boyfriend about what kind of gear he forced on her, he paints a very different picture: of a woman in mental turmoil, who tried to approach Burnside for help and was rebuffed because he was too absorbed in his work. It turns out that she overdosed on anti-depressants, which prove to be fatal. Still in shock, Burnside tells the boyfriend that he’s charging him with dealing anyway. It’s a telling demonstration that catching criminals is the one thing he understands and the only thing that keeps him going. “She always said you were a bastard,” the boyfriend snarls, and for a moment Burnside is visibly wounded beneath his hard exterior. “Where were you, eh?” the man screams as he is led out. “Where were you?” It has all the more impact because Burnside, unlike Cryer, is no family man. He is responsible for just one distant relative – that he loses her with the ultimate statement of rejection speaks volumes. When he phones the parents in Australia to break the news and is dragged into feeble small talk, delaying the awful truth, we get the sense of a man who knows his inadequacies but not how to change them. Such ‘close to home’ storylines were extremely rare at this point, and for a good reason: they take the show deeper into the parallel universe of TV crime, in which a police officer is allowed to investigate their nearest and dearest without anyone batting an eyelid. But the self-contained storytelling of this era makes these kinds of liberties less glaring, since we’re not asked to watch a character defying procedure over a period of weeks or months as would happen in later times. Moreover, it concentrates the emotional power of the story in one episode, giving it maximum effect. At this stage we are not meant to view The Bill as a huge ongoing saga but as individual plays, each with their own take on the characters and the world they inhabit. If Burnside is a different person the next time we see him, as though the deeply scarring events of this episode never happened, it doesn’t dilute the strength of what we have witnessed over these particular twenty-five minutes.
This self-contained approach also explains the sometimes dismissive attitude towards physical harm. After Ken Melvin tries to tackle armed robbers and gets a severe blow to the head, he is admitted to hospital. The doctor examining him observes that this is the second such injury he’s sustained – he was tied up and left unconscious after a run-in with an arms dealer and his client, played by a pre-EastEnders Steve McFadden. There is a determination to catch the robbers after what they’ve done, but there are no lingering effects on Ken, who the next time we see him is carrying on as usual, without showing worries about his safety given what has befallen him twice. Such ideas would be difficult to dwell on in the plot-driven half-hours, but even when Tom Penny is shot and on the brink of death in the last hourly episode, ‘Not Without Cause’, there’s no sense that the entire station is turned upside down as a result. Once he has been found panic subsides, and only his wife is there waiting anxiously by his bedside as he recovers, not his colleagues. But we do see the long-term effects on Penny, mentally more than physically, and the theme of vulnerability on the front line is always there, bubbling away. One of the most effective episodes is Edwin Pearce’s ‘Provocation’, which depicts the simple but frightening idea of someone taking against an officer and pursuing a vendetta. When Dashwood questions a teenager about the theft of a bike, his father gets so enraged that he has to be restrained and removed. Later, Mike sees the man following him in a car and stops to confront him. Feigning innocence, the father then spits at his feet and declares chillingly, “I’ll have you, you tosser.” After Mike is done over with a crowbar, we are encouraged to think that this man was responsible when it turns out to be the work of an organised gang he is investigating over stolen tools. The father is brought in and no chances are taken: three PCs manhandle him into a hedge, leaving him with cuts and bruises, and it’s only his wife who dissuades him from making a complaint. In some respects it is a pity that it doesn’t turn out to be an act of revenge, as it vividly illustrates what must be a lurking fear for so many police officers.
One of the best writers of these early half-hours, Julian Jones, contributes three episodes that explore what it’s like for officers to face danger and death in the course of a normal day. In ‘No Shelter’, the early turn PCs are forced out onto the streets in the middle of a downpour. There is some beautiful photography of the early morning skies as the rain clears, and the usual litany of grumbles about the wet and cold. But when Viv and Malcolm are called to a break-in at a factory, Viv sneaks up on the intruder and is punched in a vicious struggle. Then, as she tries to stop his escaping van, he fires a bullet that clips her in the face. In shock and bleeding from her lip, she is driven to hospital by Sgt. Penny, who listens to her dazed recollection and is instantly taken back to his own brush with death. “And they say the chance of being in that situation again is unlikely…” he muses with a shake of the head. Later they get stuck into a disturbance involving rowdy partygoers and Viv is scratched on the cheek, adding to her catalogue of injuries. Back at the nick she stares into the mirror at the warzone that her face has become, clearly hurt by the attack on her femininity as well as the wounds. While she wonders whether or not to apply lipstick, the question is etched in her brain: why do I have to go through this to earn a living? Claire Brind tries to comfort her and she denies that she’s a heroine: “Today was a day like any other day. It was a Sunday, and it was raining… I just grabbed hold of this bloke, and then suddenly… I’m staring at a gun.” Informed that the prisoner wants to apologise, she goes to his cell and listens to his rambling excuses. When he opines that “they shouldn’t use women to patrol the street at night”, she has had enough, and slams the grille in his face. He’s hit the same nerve that was touched back in Series 3, when Viv began to doubt that she could do the job as well as the men. It’s to the show’s credit that it doesn’t provide an easy, reassuring answer; her fears might not hit the right note of equality but they are well-founded.
The same kind of escalating chaos is seen in the next episode, ‘Out to Lunch’, when CID hitch a lift back to the station from Ramsey and are sidetracked by his old friends: everyone’s dream couple, the Mancinis. He has been cheating on her in the back of a car, but when the other woman’s husband finds out, he pushes her out of a window and there is a full-scale battle involving his relatives and the police at the foot of a housing block. The situation gets worse when it shifts to the hospital, turning into a massive chase through corridors and boiler rooms to catch the knife-wielding husband who has slashed Mancini’s face. The show demonstrates its ability to blend hectic action and disturbing acts of violence with a wry, comedic tone that never seems jarring. As well as emphasising the craziness of a policeman’s life, it proves that The Bill had lost little of its edge in moving to a ‘safer’ timeslot. Asked for a status update on Mancini, Tosh comments, “He’ll live, but he’ll look like a hot cross bun for the rest of his life.” More than anything it’s a great portrait of Burnside, forced to take charge of a situation that has been thrust on him out of nowhere. We may think of him as the rough and tough DI who likes feeling collars, but like anyone of inspector rank, he’s a manager who wants to palm off dirty jobs on his subordinates whenever he can. Trapped between the warring Mancinis, he catches her spit and yells, “Hey, do you mind, not on my suit!” When a hospital porter points him in the direction of the attacker “down there”, he realises that he’ll have to be the first man in pursuit and replies drily, “Thanks.” After the fugitive is finally taken down by Claire, Burnside turns to Melvin and delivers the putdown that stuck in Chris Ellison’s memory above all others: “If you don’t keep your eye on the ball, old son, Jesus will not be your friend, he’ll be your neighbour!”
Possibly the boldest experiment so far is ‘FAT’AC’. For the first half the onscreen cast numbers one, as Yorkie responds to a bloody pile-up round the corner from his beat. With a major incident going on elsewhere all the roads are blocked and the rescue services nowhere to be seen. Completely alone, he rushes around in panic trying to marshal the crowd while treating an injured woman. The moment when he glances into the crushed car and immediately looks away, wincing in horror, is a perfect example of the show’s less-is-more philosophy. In a few memorable minutes the show points out the expectations on the police as first responders to instantly take charge of a tough situation. Everyone watching thinks Yorkie should have all the answers, and when he unsurprisingly doesn’t he faces criticism from all sides. In a perfect example of ‘emotional mirroring’ he reflects the anger around him, especially that of the lorry driver, who stomps round in shock insisting that he’s never had an accident in his life. When a bus stops and the driver stares transfixed at the scene, Yorkie screams at him, “Get out of here you bloodthirsty bastard, what do you want, tickets?” – only for the man to reply, “That’s my wife’s car.” Once help does arrive, he is condemned for failing to secure the scene and hold onto witnesses. “Your lad’s made a pig’s ear out of this,” a traffic officer tells Sgt. Penny, but Yorkie has other things on his mind. “You just want to cut your eyes out,” he muses to himself. “Get a razor blade inside and… cut it out.” Back at Sun Hill he wanders around in a daze, only coming angrily to life when Ken brings God into proceedings. It’s an incredibly macabre coincidence that Robert Hudson filmed these scenes the day after the events at his home ground of Hillsborough. Typically, after Penny has expounded on Yorkie’s failures, it’s Cryer who tries to deal with him as a human being: “I’ve gone home to the wife after something like this and just clung onto her… I don’t know if you’ll ever lose it. Death is something you get to know. Sometimes it’s a smell, a sudden noise, a sound. And it comes back.” In the corridor, Yorkie tells Viv that he wants to get out of the job while he’s still young. He hears a screeching of tyres and a car horn outside, and the close-up of his terrified face shows that the trauma is already engrained.
This kind of innovation was, of course, one of the great strengths of the half-hour format. Instead of balancing two, three or even more plot strands at once, an episode could scale down the number of characters and settings and still make for gripping drama. The show’s two stalwart writers, Barry Appleton and Christopher Russell, both deliver interesting versions of the classic two-hander. In Russell’s ‘One to One’, June is trapped in a flat with a drug addict played by a young Arabella Weir, threatening to torch herself. It’s typical of June’s dedication that she gets herself locked in deliberately so she can try and talk the woman out of it, and ends up relating her own genuine feelings of guilt about her father’s death to find some common ground. However, it’s not an exercise in pure minimalism; while they are saved their surroundings go up in flames, resulting in a literally explosive finale in which onlookers have to duck from a fireball. On the other hand, Appleton’s ‘Conscience’, a personal favourite of mine, is so tightly focused it could easily be a theatrical play. It opens with Roach in familiar surroundings: at a pub, chancing it with a married woman who fell for his flattery earlier that day but now has cold feet. She ditches him and he bumps into a former murder squad commander at the yard, Hopwood, who he served under as a young detective back in the 70s. But far from reliving happy times, Roach begins to berate him about the case they worked on, accusing him of putting away the wrong man. What unfolds is effectively An Inspector Calls in reverse, the former copper slowly falling apart as he realises his terrible mistake. The story is another vehicle for Roach’s bitterness about his failed career, noting that as a mere DC all his theories and evidence were ignored at the time. But it also draws on his experience as a ladies’ man. The murdered woman was having an affair, and Roach comments, “I’ve been ducking and diving with women all my life. I know the score. She got serious… told him she was going to tell all to her husband. He went to the hall, got the gun and shot her.” Determined to get the case reopened, he calls Greig and asks him to contact the prison where the convicted husband is finishing a twenty-year sentence, but it turns out that he has committed suicide. “You’re off the hook,” Roach announces coldly, and Hopwood, who was on the brink of hysteria, walks out of the pub calmly with his reputation intact.
Appleton was, by this point, the longest-serving writer on the show, but was still capable of delivering surprises. Another of his episodes, ‘The Visit’, is notable for running two plots side by side that seem to take place in different timeframes. One involves a fatal shooting in a mall, using the combined resources of uniform and CID. Over what must be a period of several hours, Burnside and Dashwood learn that the murdered man was on his way to a luggage storeroom to pick up a sniper’s rifle, deposited there by a South African. Fitting the pieces together, Dashwood realises that the two black killers described by witnesses were from the other side, the African National Congress, and they got to him first. Meanwhile Viv arrives at Wormwood Scrubs to talk to an informer who is on remand and he takes her hostage, dragging her into the toilets with a knife at her throat. She manages to distract him long enough for prison officers to rush in and overpower him. Hostage storylines would take up some future episodes all on their own, usually unfolding in real time, and the events of this one seem to take place over about half an hour. But when Viv returns to the car the oblivious Ramsey has clearly been waiting longer than that. “What took you so long?” he moans, as she hides her tearful, traumatised face. Appleton deploys the same balancing act in ‘Somewhere by Chance’. Again there is a large set-piece in a shopping mall, this time involving a disturbed Falklands War veteran who has planted a bomb. Between scenes of mass evacuation, chases and countdowns, there’s an apparently mundane sub-plot involving Claire Brind attending a burglary. But when she tries to leave, the owner stands in front of the door and suggests she might be up for “some fun”. Disabling him with a knee to the groin, she makes her escape and sits in the car, breathing heavily. At Sun Hill she tries to get a check done while everyone rushes around ignoring her, too wrapped up in the unfolding bomb scare. It’s only at the end that Sgt. Penny dumps the info in her hand, casually revealing that her would-be attacker “has been a suspect in two unsolved murder enquiries up north, where the female victims have been lured to premises on some pretext.” Claire looks at it in horror as she realises what a narrow escape she’s had, and we realise what we were supposed to be focusing on all along. The greatest dangers are not always the most obvious.
One type of story that didn’t work so well when compacted into twenty-five minutes was the undercover job. Notably, when the series returned to the hour-long slot in 1998 it dived straight in with an undercover episode and piled them on with increasing regularity, until almost everyone was getting in on the act during 2000 (the biggest of all, of course, taking place within CID itself). It’s understandable given that the idea is perfectly suited not only to more elaborate plotting, but to the greater examination of character that came with the longer format. By contrast, it takes the original show four and a half years to deploy an undercover officer, when Malcolm Haynes is tasked with infiltrating a Yardie gang in ‘Duty Elsewhere’. It’s not hard to see why they had been avoided to this point, because they didn’t fit Geoff McQueen’s vision of the show; a sustained focus on one character would be hard to reconcile with the day in the life approach of those first few years, where multiple stories are being juggled at once. ‘Duty Elsewhere’ hits all the familiar beats of the undercover genre: the introduction, the suspicious henchman who probes the mole’s story, the kept woman he gets too close to, and so on. But without the necessary screen time to flesh out these tropes, Haynes’ sudden entry into the world of organised crime comes over as far-fetched and hard to invest in. The problem is compounded by some guest performances that, it’s fair to say, are not going to win awards. Nevertheless the story does deliver a memorable finale, when Malcolm discovers that he’s been couriering the severed hands of a rival gang leader around London and can barely contain his nausea.
More successful is the next undercover episode, ‘A Good Result’, in which footballer Yorkie gathers info from a gang of hooligans planning their next ruck. The crucial difference is that we are deposited in the middle of the story, with Yorkie already in situ and trusted by the thugs around him. One is struck by the similarities with the four-part ‘Britanniamania’ storyline over a decade later, when Mickey Webb is the wannabe thug, and how well this episode covers the same ground in condensed form. There is less violence but plenty of graphic content, especially the vicious collection of knives and cudgels that the gang unveils for Yorkie to choose his ‘protection.’ The episode also foreshadows the later storyline in its discussion of what motivates the hooligan, and how their clashes with the police have become a tribal war in its own right. We cut between operational briefings on the two sides, showing their mutual military view of football. It’s not hard to see why the police develop such a dislike of the beautiful game. “Fences, barbed wire, dogs, TSG, all for a football match,” bemoans Ramsey. He pines for the lost days of the 50s, which of course he never experienced, when people came for enjoyment and you only needed two coppers, not an army, to keep an eye on them. “I wouldn’t mind if they were football fanatics, but they’re not. It’s just organised violence for fun.” This was a contentious enough issue at the start of 1989, several years into the ban on English football in Europe in the wake of the Heysel disaster, before Hillsborough showed the extent of the chasm between police and supporters. The episode really excels when it gets out of living rooms and onto the streets themselves. The raw, visceral quality of the show’s camerawork is seldom better than here, running with the gang over bleak waste ground as the setting sun frames the skyline. After Yorkie has been exposed as a grass, he is slashed on the arm and endures a terrifying chase to freedom. The episode ends with him hobbling back to his room at the section house, arm in a sling. As he listens to the match result being read out on the radio he closes his eyes, and we get the sense that the job has poisoned what used to be his lifelong passion.
This is the action-packed end of things, but we see there are many other facets to good police work. Ex-copper Arthur McKenzie quickly homed in on Tosh as a character he wanted to explore, and delivers three scripts that focus on CID’s humble constable. In ‘NFA’, Ramsey brings in a homeless glue sniffer who has leapt down on him and been given a vicious truncheon-whipping as a result. When the man bursts out of his cell and makes a run for it, Tosh tackles him to the floor but insists that the cuffs stay off. Instead he slowly wins the man’s trust, seeing his awful injuries from where people have attacked him in the past. Meanwhile Ramsey, under questioning by Cryer and Frazer, defends his actions and insists, “Scum like that deserve everything they get.” As the questions increase he complains, “I’m getting a kangaroo court vibe here,” causing Frazer to explode in anger. Tosh finds out that Ramsey set off a burglar alarm by mistake as part of a juvenile prank, using it as leverage to get the charges against the homeless man dropped. As Ramsey tries to get his truncheon back, Tosh slams his hand in a desk and declares, “That’s what we in CID call a convincing drawer.” Then in ‘Subsequent Visits’, we see Tosh planning his week away and being convinced by Greig of the benefits of buying rather than hiring a car. He ends up buying a motor that used to belong to a notorious villain, something he only realises when he is tailed and cheered at by yobs – another plotline that feels inspired by McKenzie’s time in the force. The third in the Tosh Trilogy, ‘Black Spot’, reveals his harder side. When a criminal he’s investigating makes threats against his family, Tosh takes it very seriously indeed, to the point of landing one on Burnside so he can go and make sure they are safe. McKenzie’s dialogue is utterly unique, especially for his other favourite character, Burnside, who sounds like a Londoner as devised by a crossword compiler. With Tosh and Mike out on surveillance, he demands, “Where’s Rotunda and the Graduate?” Not to be outdone, when Tosh obtains an imprint of the villain’s false teeth, he passes the details to Cathy Marshall and urges her to “go on a denture adventure.” During the course of a robbery, the balaclava-clad thug foolishly bites a lump out of Ted Roach and the imprint is used to place him at the scene. When Tosh slams him against a wall, pulls his dentures out and warns him never to go near his family, we see that he is, quite literally, all mouth. “Just give me back me teeth and I’ll talk to you,” he whimpers.
The partnership of Tosh and Jim continues to bear fruit, and not just because they are the foot soldiers in CID. Apart from a shared fondness for heart attack cuisine, there’s also an endearing innocence about them that provides moments of utter hilarity. In ‘The Key of the Door’, they investigate a suburban massage parlour posing as customers, only to realise they have to play their role right to the finish. They emerge afterwards looking like shocked children. “I felt quite embarrassed,” admits Tosh. “I hadn’t changed me socks all week!” When they finally bust the joint, they go through the client book and he observes on reading the names, “We should have said we were coppers too. Then we’d have got the discount.” This leads to one of my favourite of all Burnside-isms, when he notes that these houses of ill repute will soon be legit anyway. “Ever been to Amsterdam?” he asks Jim. “Amsterdam, yeah! I went as a kid to visit the bulb fields.” “Never mind. Drive on Carver, I’ll buy you a cherryade.” At other times, Jim’s naïveté and Tosh’s experience fit together like a glove, the pupil learning from his older and wiser colleague. In ‘Life and Death’, Tosh examines a man who has suddenly collapsed after muttering about taking revenge on a woman. He observes from the condition of his fingers that he played a musical instrument and already the search for his identity has been narrowed down. But it’s not these Holmesian powers of deduction that Tosh relies on, rather his instincts about people. Having found a restaurant bill in the man’s pocket, he realises that he was having an affair for the simple reason that, “No married man spends a hundred and twenty quid on a meal for his missus. When you’re married Jim, you’ll understand.” Of course, he couldn’t spend a tenth of that on his own missus and their five kids – with tragic consequences later in the year….
In the expanding pool of authors, one name stands out: PJ Hammond. It would be foolhardy to try and identify the greatest writer on The Bill when so much talent came and went over its three decades on air. But I would make a decent claim for Hammond being the master of the half-hour era, a ten-year period during which he wrote all but the last of his 39 episodes. His writing has a distinctive feel to it, and for a simple reason: while everyone else is producing crime drama, Hammond’s stories are essentially horror without the gore. His work on The Bill is perhaps a synthesis of the two standout entries in his long list of TV credits: firstly, as author and onetime script editor of the BBC’s long-running police procedural Z Cars, in which, in his own words, he explored stories “on the edges of crime”. The other one is his best known work, the ATV fantasy series Sapphire and Steel, in which two mysterious figures are charged with policing time itself. The show explores lonely, abandoned places that have fallen into decay and been invaded by hostile forces. Its guiding concept is that traumatic events of the past have a residual power that can break into the present, and it’s not hard to see how this could be applied to the crime genre. The blending of the real and the supernatural is a feature of all Hammond’s Bill episodes. His first, ‘Requiem’, is not only the first episode set entirely outside the nick but the first to feature no actual crime – at least, not the kind expected when the police find a mummified woman and child inside a boarded-up alcove in a flat. The cobwebbed skeletons are about as explicit as his episodes get, but more unsettling is the observation of the hapless tenant who discovered them: “It’s like she’s taken over. As if she’s got the only right to be here.” It transpires that they succumbed to illness during the war and were sealed up by the man of the house, who left for his ship hoping to return with enough money to give them a proper burial. But he never did return, and it’s taken nearly half a century to put them to rest.
Hammond’s second episode, ‘Guessing Game’, takes a familiar subject matter and applies the Hitchockian maxim of the power of suggestion, to brilliant effect. Countless crime dramas have featured serial abductors and torturers of women, but not in the odd, happenstance way it is revealed here. When an elderly man named Ian John Kessel is found dead of a heart attack in his flat, June discovers that every wall has artwork on it with the same theme: restraint and imprisonment of women. One in particular, a Gothic image of someone clinging to prison bars as she screams out of the darkness, brings to mind the woman trapped in a photograph in the most memorable instalment of Sapphire and Steel, who is burnt alive when the picture is torched. Kessel turns out to have a history of kidnapping women and leaving them tied up and helpless, returning now and then to look at his handiwork. Fearful that another victim is out there, Roach, Carver and Dashwood gain entry to a second flat he owned at the top of a high-storey building. At this height they can see clear skies all around them and hear the wind howling through the structure, evoking a feeling of desolation right in the heart of the city. Inside the flat is a darkened room with a chair and rope, ready for the next guest. They track down a woman living nearby who had befriended Kessel and been invited up to the flat, when “the day of the treat” came round. She reveals that she couldn’t go the week before because she was getting treatment for her terrible asthma, adding, “I can’t breathe some days”, and Roach and Dashwood look at each other in horror. As they leave her house, the episode ends with a slow pan up to that top floor – and we are left to fill in the blanks with our imagination alone, creating a far more potent fear than if we saw all the gruesome details. Having invoked Hitchcock, it’s worth noting that when censorship laws had relaxed enough to accept a graphic rape and murder scene in Frenzy, he had to be dissuaded from shooting another one, and observed that he would have made all his films without the prior restrictions if he could. In the same way we should be grateful for the time that he operated in, it’s a positive that Hammond’s work on The Bill took place in the pre-watershed time slot, where the series had to be more circumspect about what it showed. In a reversal of received wisdom, ‘tell don’t show’ turns out to be the best policy.
This trend goes even further in his next episode and first from Series 5, the brilliantly creepy ‘Climate’. Once again the subject matter has been well traversed in other cop shows. Roach is trying to find out who is behind a series of assaults on schoolgirls in parks, and brings in as a witness the vile John James Bright, played superbly by Robin Soans with a shell suit and a combover that reeks of futile vanity. The sneering Bright is incapable of talking to anyone without belittling them. He describes June as nothing special and old before her time, leading her to conclude that, “He’s a wrong ’un. Something about him.” When Roach starts grilling him, he objects to being questioned by “the town drunk” and offers him spare change for a wash and brush up. Roach is stopped from punching his lights out by Tosh – who, as the good cop in the hot and cold routine, receives the most contempt from Bright: “That’s right son, you try to be what you’re not and never will be, you try and be clever!” When he sizes him up as a family man and pities his sad existence – “Nothing left to do except bang away at some old dog of a wife” – even the composed Lines has had enough and slams him into a wall. But more unpleasant than any of Bright’s insults is his grudging admission of how he came to witness the attacks. Revealing that he likes going to parks to listen to “courting couples”, he wheedles in embarrassment, “I got it wrong. I was listening to the wrong sound… Different kinds of screams, right?” He then reveals that the attacker went past him as he left and had a smile on his face: “That smile told me, ‘You’re not going to talk, old son, ’cos I know what you’re doing here.’” Bright proudly declares that he is now talking, and can identify the man as a neighbour of his so it’s not too late – to which Roach counters scathingly that it’s a couple of little girls too late.
The episode’s pithy title is far from random. Not only is there an eerie atmosphere throughout the conversations with Bright, but it extends beyond the interview room and into the station at large. The story opens with June being dumped by a married man she has been seeing – not for the last time – and shouting angrily after his car as he drives off. Sgt Peters too is irritable and short-tempered with everyone, and the implication is that there’s a poisonous feel in the air; that the nastiness of the crime itself seeps into surrounding life. It’s a fascinating way of going beyond the bounds of naturalism into something metaphysical, without disturbing the show’s surface reality. The physical world is the one we recognise, but in Hammond’s work it’s populated by spooks and ghouls: just because they’re in people’s heads, it doesn’t make them any less real. He has a strong sense of place, using each setting not just as a backdrop to the story but as a way of interpreting it. In ‘Tom Tiddler’s Ground’, a CID operation is disrupted by the bizarre, chaotic behaviour going on in the local park, where a woman has locked herself in a shed; the park itself seems to act as a focus for strangeness. “Do you know what today is?” Burnside asks Viv and June. “Ding-a-ling day. On ding-a-ling day all the local ding-a-lings come out, they can’t help it. Can’t stay in.” ‘Zigzag’ sees Tosh and Mike trying to unearth a private detective who has gone to ground in a seedy quarter of London, holding vital information on a sex-trafficking gang. Tosh observes that the labyrinthine alleys and car parks are a perfect place for someone to lose themselves, and tries to think like the private eye in order to retrace his steps. But not only are they too being followed by one of his former clients, there is also a black Mercedes cruising the streets, imbued with the sinister, otherworldly feel that permeates Hammond’s work. When the detective is finally tracked down and led away at the end, the car rolls smoothly past them and drives off – and we realise that he has been clocked, undoubtedly by the same gang he was trying to hide from in the first place.
Besides the unique tone of Hammond’s episodes, his plotting also uses the half-hour format superbly. In ‘Free Wheel’, CID surveillance on an arms dealer at a swanky hotel is contrasted with an annoying couple at the station front desk, pestering Yorkie for news of their stolen car. This comedic sub-plot is presented as the mundane kind of work that uniform have to deal with, in contrast to the glamour boys upstairs; I certainly thought so the first time I watched it. But then the couple report that they have seen their car parked at a hotel, drop by to collect it and are ordered by the irate doorman to move it from its badly parked position. Rushing after his fleeing target, Greig shouts a warning as they turn the key in the ignition, but it’s too late. The car that has been “so good to us over the years” becomes their tomb, going up in flames, while the arms dealer who the bomb was meant for sidles off in the confusion. Hammond pulls the opposite trick in ‘Suffocation Job’, an episode you think you know from the title but which unfolds in a much odder and more disturbing way. June visits a woman who has complained about death threats from her husband, only to discover that she lives as a total recluse in a sealed house, making cushions that give off an overpowering perfume. Meanwhile other PCs are dealing with a burglar whose bizarre MO is not to take anything but to open every single door and window in the properties that he breaks into, to let in fresh air. We are encouraged to think that the two storylines are connected and the husband and burglar are the same man, but they turn out not to be – and while one plot ends on a hopeful note, the other results in tragedy.