Long Runners / No 13: The Bill

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The Independent Culture
Age: Nine years and two months.

Frequency: Originally once a week for an hour, then twice a week for half an hour, now three times a week for half an hour. Audience: Unlike many successful TV series, its beginnings were unpromising; its popularity grew with the change to half- hour episodes in 1988. It peaked at 17 million for a Friday last April, but dropped to around 13 million when the slot was changed to Saturday. The programmers saw which way the wind was blowing and changed back last month. Who's responsible? Thames TV.

But didn't Thames lose the ITV franchise for London in 1992? Yes. But it clung to The Bill for all it was worth. The programme generates around pounds 58m a year in advertising revenue for the ITV network. So, unsurprisingly, in October ITV commissioned Thames to carry on producing The Bill until the end of 1996.

Formula: Gritty slice of life in an east London police station, Sun Hill - a misnomer if ever there was one. Soap style but without the soap. It's on as often as Coronation Street, but almost every episode is self-contained, with guest actors playing non-police parts. One main crime per episode, with one or two sub-plots.

Secret of its success: Regular characters - but we know nothing of their private lives. So you don't have to be an addict to follow it. And the programme isn't tied to its stars: it has survived multiple cast changes (although hard-man DI Burnside is missed by many since his disappearance in September).

Distinguishing feature: Events are seen from the police's point of view. The camera never gets to the scene of the crime before the boys in blue.

Aims: Realism. Adding to the pounds 58m.

So how realistic is it? It certainly isn't a flattering portrayal of the police. Heavy drinkers, racists and misogynists have all appeared at the station. In 1991, top policemen attacked an episode in which two male detectives laughed off a prostitute's rape ordeal. The Metropolitan Commissioner spoke of the 'disservice' which Thames was doing to the police as well as rape victims, who could be dissuaded from reporting their cases. After an episode in which a policeman's finances were investigated, a Derbyshire detective sergeant wanted to know just how the character could afford 23 Armani suits and 14 pairs of Gucci shoes. Most hotly contested was Thames's decision to show detectives infiltrating a gang of football hooligans. Police protested that it might prejudice court proceedings in an almost identical real-life case, involving West Midlands police and Birmingham City fans.

Hallmark: Council-house doors being broken down with sledgehammers.

Theme tune: Guitar, bass guitar, drums and synths banging along in time with two pairs of Doc Martens 'on the beat'.

Rivals: In competition for prime-time mid- evening viewing with EastEnders on BBC1. It used to be up against Brookside as well, but in 1988 Michael Grade, the head of Channel 4, moved the soap to Wednesdays. Another move to attract big-spending viewers and impress advertisers that year was the introduction of an attractive inspector, Christine Frazer, whose looks appeared to leave some of her male colleagues reeling.

Little-known facts: Hand-held cameras are used to record everyday street scenes, often unnoticed by those being filmed. The script-writing team has included a former Met officer, Wilf Knight, (once Harold Wilson's bodyguard); two former policemen act as advisers to the programme team. Action scenes are shot on council estates in Wimbledon and Merton. Residents have been known to get fed up, at which point Thames has wooed them with such perks as a free video for the community room.

Graduates: It is a renowned stepping- stone for directors, writers and actors alike. J C Wilsher wrote for it before going on to create Between the Lines for the BBC. For actors, the argument goes that, unlike soap stars, cast members of The Bill are not typecast and can easily move on to non-police parts. Louise Lombard (now in The House of Eliott) and Steven Mackintosh (The Buddha of Suburbia and A Dark Adapted Eye) are just two.

The bottom line - is it good? Yes. Half an hour of gripping and topical television, tightly bound by a balanced and compact storyline which rings true. The inevitable result, though, is that it makes for serious and often quite depressing viewing - even the jokes are usually pretty unfunny. Overall, the good can easily be swamped by the bad if watched three times a week, 52 weeks a year.

(Photograph omitted)