The Bill: Britain's most famous television police drama is almost an industry in its own right

A young copper is brandishing a piece of police equipment, as he reasons with a heavily-armed adversary, sporting a bandana to obscure his face. Given today's crime statistics, it's probably not an unfamiliar sight for residents of the tougher estates in south London.

But this is not a Metropolitan Police crackdown on the Aylesbury Estate in Walworth, but a rehearsal for a scene in The Bill, TalkbackThames' serialised drama, which celebrates 25 years since its first episode this month. The fact that it is hard to tell the difference between fact and fiction is a telling tribute to the programme makers' obsession with realism.

The implement being brandished by Alex Walkinshaw, who plays Sergeant Dale 'Smithy' Smith, is an extendable baton known as an ASP, currently employed by London's police force. Walkinshaw is also wearing a real Met uniform. Chances are, if it's kit the real boys in blue are using, you will soon see it on your television screens.

The Bill began as a pilot on 16 August 1983, with the first proper episode being transmitted in October 1984. It started with one episode a week with hour-long separate storylines for the first three seasons, but for the last 10 years has been serialised. It is now broadcast twice a week on ITV.

"Everybody felt the audience had to get to know the cast better," says the show's executive producer, Johnathan Young, on the decision to serialise the show. "We are still refining that. The most successful serialised stories blend the personal lives of the characters with their policing. It is fast-paced, like all television nowadays, but it is still true to the original brief of the programme. It is about ordinary people putting on a uniform and being at the front line of dealing with the ills that face society."

Young says he thinks the secret of the programme's success is simply just how real it is. Each of the show's "departments" has its own strong links with the police, whether through the researchers, the scriptwriters, make-up artists or set designers. "The designer will come to us and say, 'Do you know that they've got new radios?' And we will talk about getting them in for the show. We try to keep it as up to the minute as we can." However, he is keen to stress that they are not "editorially bound" to the police force in any way. "We met [head of the Metropolitan Police] Sir Ian Blair two and a half years ago and he said there was no need for us to have a closer editorial relationship than we do. We take the view that we find it a privilege to represent the Metropolitan Police on screen, but we read the papers like everyone else and know the cops are human."

Young says those who watch The Bill identify with its characters in a more "real" way than they do with those of other series. He adds that the scriptwriting team is currently debating how far they can go with a story about post-natal depression. "You'd be really cautious about something directly related to, say, [the disappearance of] Madeleine McCann," he adds. "We have a constant dialogue with people at ITV to make sure there is no cross over. To see such a thing regurgitated in a drama looks cheap and exploitative. It is unnecessary. You would even be cautious telling something where the names were changed."

The secret of the show's success is an in-depth understanding of the relationship between the characters and the target audience. "It is all about the characters; Smithy is a brilliant example. He puts on a uniform and takes on the burden of society to do good. And that makes him heroic. But he is a flawed hero, too, and that is very attractive. What we do best is when we talk to the cops, who see things first, then we get back to our drawing board and put it straight on the screen. That makes what we do exciting to an audience."

When filming around south London, does he ever feel people take offence at their homes being depicted as the kind of place that would attract crime? "It is less problematic than on other shows. Our cast are used to dealing with the public. They are good at talking to people, and will let the public take photographs of them. We generally operate on a low budget and, by and large, use hand-held [cameras], which we use to make the show as real as possible. We filmed on an estate in September for an eight-part series and stayed there for three months. After two weeks, there was a bit of a 'what are you doing here?' incident but by the end of our time there the cast and crew were sorry to leave."

The show's makers are glued to American television screens, where some of the most exciting crime drama is being shown.

"It is a different kind of show," says Young. "In the US they have raised the bar. There are things which we see on those shows that are brilliant. They are brilliantly written. But they are not about what it is like to live in Britain in 2008. When they portray their own worlds they are fantastic. And they inspire us, to be honest."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Printing Trainee / Computer Graphics

£8000 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have an interest in compu...

Recruitment Genius: Content / Copy Writer

£18000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has bec...

Reach Volunteering: Trustee with experience in science communication

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: The Society for Expe...

Day In a Page

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible