Settling The Bill

London cop drama, The Bill, has been on my TV longer than the fruit bowl. First appearing in 1983, in the guise of a one-off drama called Woodentop, it became a weekly series a year later and has passed through various formats up to and including its current one hour slot every Wednesday and Thursday, football fixtures permitting. (To be honest, it’s only 42 minutes if you don’t count the recap of what’s already happened, the ads and very annoying parodies plugging the sponsorship product).

There’s no doubt that, during its 25 year run, The Bill has had its moments. Sad that most of them occurred during the golden years when Burnside, “Tosh” Lines, and Sergeant Bob Cryer ran the roost in the late-1980s to mid-’90s. Although, to be fair, the later stories featuring Bill Murray as Don Beech did set the pulses racing.

In later years, The Bill turned into something of a soap opera in uniform, sharing a small pool of actors with BBC undercover rival, Eastenders. A seeming shortage of actors who can pretend to be vaguely comfortable in an east London setting, means that the same ones keep turning up in different roles. Roberta Taylor, one of the Walford exiles, appeared as three separate Bill characters, before surfacing in 2002 as Inspector Gina Gold. And she’s not alone.

Bruce Byron, who plays cocky cockney DC Terry Perkins, had previously appeared on the other side of the Thin Blue Line, as Mr Smee in October 1994, Paul Archer in 1997 and John Shaw in 1998. Then, in 2000, he was introduced as Detective Inspector Lomax before being demoted and reappearing as Terry. Then, blow me, if in the interim he didn’t turn up in Eastenders as Gary Bolton. And there are dozens more.

Imagine my confusion a while back, when watching a rerun on UK Gold – as it was then. Superintendent Adam Okaro appeared in the undercover role of an African war criminal. Any minute now, he’s going to whip out his warrant-card and nick everybody, I thought. We reached the end of the episode and his deportation before I realised that actor Cyril Nri was there merely as a representative of the approved actor’s pool.

You can’t really blame the producers and casting directors. After all, there are only 200 living actors in the whole of Britain. I’ll check online: no, it appears that there are estimated to be 10,000 British actors, 95% of whom are said to be regularly out of professional work at any one time. They must be pretty crappy if the ones who appear on The Bill and Eastenders are the pick of the crop. Or perhaps the casting directors find it easier just to keep calling the same couple of agents over and over again. Surely, that can’t be true…

I’ve been off The Bill for a while. A period of melodrama and totally unlikely domestic plot lines made me look elsewhere for my TV thrills. Plus the cops unrealistically referring to witnesses and criminals alike by their first names (as in, “So, looks like Terry killed Carla in a fit of rage and Mick, Colin and Darren all lied when they said they were with Mel and Kim?”) grated. It had all got so fantastic – in the unreal sense. A while ago, I dreamt that Star Trek Deep Space Nine type aliens were scattered among the cast and I woke up believing it had actually happened.

Although Sun Hill is supposed to be somewhere around Tower Hamlets in East London, most of the filming takes place in south-west London, as near to the studios in the old Triang factory in Morden as they can get. A thesp who worked on The Bill in its early years told me in confidence that, because actors tend to be significantly smaller than real-life policemen, Thames TV had constructed scaled-down sets, with reduced sized doors, filing cabinets and chairs to make the characters appear “proper sized” and suitably imposing.

For some unfathomable reason, last night I drifted into the first episode of a new Bill story, “Forgotten Child”. Despite the predictability an 8pm ITV drama demands, it was far better than I was expecting and I got to the end without feeling I’d been cheated. I even wanted to find out what happens next. Praise indeed…

The story centred around an underage girl runaway from Leeds, whose drug-scarred body had been found behind a strip-pub in Sun Hill. Investigations pointed to a nationwide ring trapping underage girls and luring them into prostitution and drug-dependency. Just another story of life in the present-day version of Dock Green, you’d think.

Although the story was multi-dimensional, a couple of aspects of “Forgotten Child” were mildly annoying, including a character who was supposed to be from Leeds having a definite Liverpool accent. You can almost hear the assistant chief producer saying: “But it still says ‘Northern’, dahling”  – assuming anyone on-set even noticed. Then there’s the clever but unrealistic plot device by which minor characters impart important information (“We’ve found the pub landlord’s DNA all over the dead girl’s body”) as the investigating DC and Superintendent amble down the corridor, recapping the main points of the plot for slower viewers. In my limited experience of the real Bill, Superintendents and DCs don’t tend to mix too much, never mind stroll down corridors, practically arm-in-arm.

To be fair, it isn’t meant to be real life, it’s The Bill. And when one of your main characters attempts to commit suicide in his dressing room because he’s been axed from the programme as Reg Hollis, er actor Jeff Stewart did in 2007, it’s possible to regard aliens showing up on screen as quite normal. Even in a dream.

Note: The Bill finally came to an end on ITV-1 in August 2010.