10 June 2011

It was acceptable in the 80s... (Review: 'The Bill' The Complete First Series)

(Yes, I know this was released in 2005...)

One of the most unwittingly prescient things that I've ever written was part of the TV Tropes entry on a British cop show called The Bill, where I stated that the show's long-term future had to be considered uncertain. This was in 2009; it ended within a year.

For those of you not familiar with the show (something rather hard to be if you were British); The Bill was a police procedural that ran from 1983 (in a pilot one-hour drama called "Woodentop", part of the Storyboard strand), to 2010, pretty much on a weekly or bi-weekly basis from 1987. Set in the fictional London area of Sun Hill, it focussed on the coppers of one relief at the local police station; very much one of the "cops and docs" type of shows, but (mostly) with less angst. The show got a bit silly c. 2005 under a certain Paul Marquess' tenure as Executive Producer and started to improve after his departure, but a controversial move to a 9pm timeslot and elimination of the classic "Overkill" theme music dropped ratings to the extent that ITV pulled the plug.

During its time, it was very much a household name and attracted a large number of well-known guest stars, including a number of famous actors at the beginning of their careers (including Sean Bean - who appears in this season and doesn't die horribly - and Keira Knightley). There's a joke that if three members of Equity meet in a pub, two of them will have appeared in The Bill... Even today, you can still run into actors who used to play starring roles on British TV and even in American shows.

Anyway, back to the beginning. I arrived in the show in late 2000 (the conclusion of the Don Beech arc); the first season is well before my time.

The four-disc DVD set does not come with any extras. It doesn't even have subtitles. What we get are the original masters complete with title cards and the scrolling thing in the top right that informs you when an ad break is approaching. No modern show would ship like this.

That complaint over, let's look at the episodes themselves. We get "Woodentop" and the eleven episodes of the 1984-5 first series. Each of these episodes is memorable and most of them are actually rather good. "A Friend in Need" provides an inventive, if very illegal, way to get a free lunch. "It's Not Such a Bad Job After All" is a story of the dangers of the big city. "Burning the Books" is an ultimately farcical story about the hunt for some porn.

The first thing that you notice from watching these episodes is that a long-standing "rule" of the show; that every scene must feature a copper and scenes of villains going "muh-ha-ha" (or the equivalent) among themselves should not occur, isn't around at this time. There are numerous scenes, particular in "Death of a Cracksman" where three crooks discuss how they're going to break into a safe they've stolen, where villains are the only characters in the scene. There's also areas where civilians are, say, finding a body, the common starting point for many a cop show.

You'll also find that the theme tune is different from the "classic" one; nearly entirely different. 

At times, this looks and sounds very 80s. On one estate we encounter kids who look like they've just escaped from a David Bowie video. There's an "Early Air Raid Warning" light in the Sun Hill front office. One particular villain is singing "Karma Chameleon" (an 80s song if there ever was one) just before he's arrested.

Which brings me onto policing methodology and general behaviour. In a police force on the cusp of PACE, you get characters behaving in manners that you wouldn't get away with today. PC Jim Carver clips a boy around the ear in the pilot and no further action is ultimately taken when his father says he would have done the same thing. DI Roy Galloway (of whom more later) actually uses borderline ethnic slurs on suspects and gets physical with others.. Another villain actively comes onto WPC (now there's a term that's long gone) June Ackland and actually puts his arm around her on more than one occasion. The local criminals are on fairly friendly terms with Galloway and officers in general; we also get a fair share of Cockney geezers in this. Also, there are no ethnic minority officers present at all.

In addition, CID and uniform do not get on well at all. Stand up shouting matches between Sergeant Bob Cryer and Galloway do occur.

Then, there's the results of life in an age before the Internet and mobile phones; which I only vaguely remember. Galloway has to leave a number he can be contacted at when he goes to lunch. DS Ted Roach and DC Mike Dashwood have to literally travel to a Benefits Office to find a suspect's last known address. Reports have to done on typewriter (there's only one computer in the whole nick). You'd love to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

Speaking of living in places; Sun Hill is located in the East End of London. For the early years of the show, filming was done in and around the Wapping area; which shows here (Whitechapel Market is recognisable in at least two scenes). It only later moved to the Merton area after the News International strike in 1985/6 (there were concerns the actors would be mistaken for real police officers).

The stories are strong, with good plots that generally justify the 50 minute running times that shows had back then. There are some great moments of humour: "The Sweet Smell of Failure" in particular as well as the ending of "Death of a Cracksman". Mind you, there are some dragging moments, particularly in "A Friend in Need".

OK, have I forgotten anything?

Yes, you have, sunshine! Me!

Ah, Mr Galloway, sorry - the characters. A number of long-term stalwarts appear for the first time here (Carver, Ackland, Cryer, PC Reg Hollis and also PC Tony Stamp as an extra), but some less remembered characters also turn up. Most notably, Sun Hill's first DI, Roy Galloway. He's played by Robert Pugh in the pilot, but John Salthouse took over the role for the series proper. Galloway puts the fiery in "fiery redhead". A man with a permanent short fuse (yes, sir, I know that you have some very annoying people to deal with), a brusque attitude and some marital problems clearly looming, he's certainly memorable in any scene he's in.

So summing, this is an excellent DVD providing a great look back at how the UK's highest episode count cop show began, although it arguably has very little rewatch value due to the lack of extras. Recommended for fans of a show that will be missed by many - but best to borrow or rent if you can't find it for less than £15.


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