Farewell The Bill, south London will miss you

By introducing weekly gangland killings and bent coppers, The Bill thought it could become Croydon’s answer to The Wire.

David Bowden

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Farewell, then, to The Bill. It is gone, it is gone: pack up the moon and dismantle the sun. No more shall I be able to tune in weekly to ITV to see the tramping grounds of my youth – the underpasses of Croydon, the estates of Wallington, the dingy parks of Merton – serve as the fictional backdrop to the Met policing the mean streets of London.

Despite its ripe old age of 27, The Bill didn’t even live to be Britain’s longest-running police drama – it was defeated by the dour ‘murrdahs’ of Glasgow’s Taggart. Still, it did fight off competition from its brash American cousin Law & Order, which was killed off in May. But to be honest, The Bill’s death was a relief: after a drawn-out decline, it went quietly and quickly, with only a few million mourners to gather, inspect the body and awkwardly go their separate ways.

For those who don’t grow tumescent at the thought of outer London suburbs being depicted on screen, the last episode of The Bill may have gone unnoticed. Even if you were once a fan, you probably stopped watching it some years ago, possibly when the copper who used to be Barry Grant in Brookside came on to the show, knocking up one of the Nolan sisters, or maybe when Grange Hill’s Tucker graduated from dying of AIDS on Eastenders to shagging his mum on The Bill. Or perhaps you deserted the show during the Late Gay Period, when that nice, young, black Christian armed response officer left his husband and ended up being killed in an S&M orgy. If so, you would hardly have recognised its final incarnation. Not only did the show producers dispense with the iconic theme song, ‘Overkill’, they had also tried to turn the series into Croydon’s answer to The Wire. Yes, really.

Only British Eighties television producers could’ve come up with something as curious as The Bill, and we shall probably never see anything like it again. Following self-consciously in the footsteps of gentle British cop dramas such as Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars, rather than emulating the rough-and-tumble style of The Sweeney, The Bill was meant to have a realistic and gritty feel to it, following the relatively mundane lives of British bobbies. The pilot episode was called ‘Woodentop’, after bobbies’ distinctive helmets, and the show’s closing credits for many years showed only the feet of two bobbies on the beat.

In the early years of the show, detectives were treated with a degree of suspicion, and even contempt. One was called Tosh Lines. The detective characters always had a villainous, maverick whiff to them, with their suits and willingness to bend the rules to get a conviction. The star detectives, such as Frank Burnside, Don Beech and Rod Skase, were anti-heroes, unafraid to give a suspect a clip round the ear or plant a bit of evidence if it meant getting a result. They mostly met unhappy ends. By contrast, the uniformed coppers were presented as salt of the Earth law enforcers, sat around the canteen, setting the world to rights over a cup of tea.

For all of its kitchen sink drama pretensions and unquestioning faith in the uniform, at its peak The Bill was a masterpiece of British TV drama, offering up perfectly formed half-hour playlets several times a week. Like its hospital-themed counterpart Casualty, it prided itself on its research and meticulous attention to detail.

Unlike the intensive psychological games and intimidation of other cop shows, in The Bill officers respected the boundaries of the law, always offering suspects in the interview room access to legal advice and reminding them of their right to remain silent. The series may have idealised the police profession – we almost never saw the coppers’ personal lives outside the nick – but it also never shied away from criticising the more flawed individuals, drawing the ire of the Police Federation in the early days for implying that some coppers might have been a bit racist.

From the late Nineties, The Bill became more of a soap opera, with increasingly outlandish plotlines. I can still remember the absolute shock in our household when DS Jo Morgan was gunned down by gangland thugs, because back then the idea of a police officer being killed – let alone a beloved character on a TV series – was deeply shocking. In 2002, it managed to shock again, by killing off six officers in one go, after a bent copper (the one knobbing the Nolan) blew up the police station. I think one cop was killed off every week for the remainder of the show’s run.

More painfully, for a series built around the premise that every crime was a story in itself – indeed, that such incidents were fascinating because they marked the rare collision of the individual citizen with the custodians of the state – lately, it has turned out that every crime had something to do with child abuse, racism or domestic violence. Such sordidness was taking place several times a day on the fictional Jasmine Allen estate (although it occasionally happened in nice middle-class suburbs, too).

Touchingly, while it dispensed with everything else that made it special, The Bill managed to keep its humble loyalty to servicing the state to the bitter end. It came as little surprise that the man leading the laments for its eventual demise was none other than Ian Blair, former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

Tuesday night’s finale bore little resemblance to the show that used to provoke football fans to chant ‘The Bill…it’s just like watching The Bill‘ at increasingly heavily policed matches throughout the Eighties and Nineties. And the loss will be felt most sharply in the acting community, where slots as ‘bag-thief #2’ or ‘estate oik #2542′ kept the cream of RADA in pocket money during quiet periods.

Oh, I could tell you such stories: of seeing actor Graham Cole performing a citizens’ arrest while in the guise of PC Tony Stamp, of my mate who knows someone who knows someone who played one of the pairs of feet in the sequence… But it matters no more. South Londoners will miss you, The Bill – but nobody else will.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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