We've seen this a good few times before on television – a room-full of coppers pulling on their stab-vests and preparing for a raid. I'm guessing that, statistically speaking, dramatised versions of this overture to action far outweigh the documentary ones but fiction and reality were going head-to-head last night, with the very last episode of The Bill going out on ITV1 at the same time as Channel 4 was giving us a film about Operation Pentameter 2, a police attempt to crack down on sex trafficking in Britain. The Hunt for Britain's Sex Traffickers began in Luton, a town that can apparently boast over 30 brothels, many of them staffed by young women who are effectively being held in debt-slavery. The Albanian woman discovered after one of the raids we saw here was fairly typical. She'd fled a forced marriage in Albania because of her husband's violence and unluckily rebounded into the arms of Eddy, a man who promised protection but then stole her passport and forced her into prostitution. Another hoped to earn money as a cleaner in England, but discovered too late that the Estonian employment website that took her money was a cover for a sex-trafficking gang, and that they weren't going to give her a choice about how to pay it back.
The bulk of the film concentrated on a stake-out and raid in Cheltenham, targeting eight addresses that had been identified as connected to the sex trade. The prostitutes, the officer in charge told his team, were to be treated with dignity and accorded victim status. But there seemed to be some confusion about who exactly society holds responsible for victimising them. The brothel owners and managers were squarely in the frame, obviously, but the men who actually make the industry pay, the customers, seemed to be treated far more gently. One well-dressed man, so intent on executive relief that he rang on a brothel door even though it was surrounded by police officers, was taken aside for a quiet word: "We can be discreet about this because we're all men and that's the type of thing we like," said the policeman, "but I would like a statement from you just to say... if you are using it as a brothel that's fine... but how you make contact, how much you pay and so on." Well, not all men like that type of thing and since April of this year it hasn't necessarily been fine either – it's an offence to have sex with a woman who's been trafficked, even if you're unaware of the fact. The flabby, florid-faced man caught with his trousers down in one raid presumably got away with a really nasty fright and nothing more, but he was just as much part of the exploitation as the bullying thugs who'd put a young woman at his disposal. "I envy the dogs in this country," said another woman, "people love them and look after them." She'd been sold on by her importers for £30,000 – a measure of how much she was expected to earn – and her volition had been taken from her with threats of violence. At the very least anyone using her services was guilty of trafficking in stolen goods.
The Bill ended not with a fiery bang (they've done that before) but not with a whimper either, unless you count the weepy moment Simon Rouse had while rehearsing his last big speech as Sun Hill's Superintendent, a backstage moment we saw courtesy of Farewell The Bill. What they went out on was a three-minute unbroken take, wandering through the corridors and out into the car park and passing every member of the cast as it went. Even the producers got in on the act, sitting in at the final press conference as reporters. "I'm proud of my team and what they do" were the lines that made Rouse's voice quiver. They had good reason to be proud of their parting shot.