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
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
News
people
Life and Style
tech
News
Justin Bieber performing in Paris earlier this year
people
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Lauren O'Neil in Jamie Lloyd's Richard III
theatreReview: The monarch's malign magnetism and diabolic effrontery aren’t felt
Arts and Entertainment
'Molecular Man +1+1+1' by Jonathan Borofsky at Yorkshire Sculpture park
tv
News
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
Extras
indybest
News
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Sport
Alexis Sanchez and apparently his barber Carlos Moles in Barcelona today
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Social Media Director (Global) - London Bridge/Southwark

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Social Media Director (Gl...

ERP Business/ Implementation Analyst

£40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This is an e...

Business Intelligence Program Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: BI Project / Program Manager BI Project...

Radian6/Social Media/Digital Analyst

£250 - £300 per day: Progressive Recruitment: LEAD DIGITAL ANALYST - CONTRACT ...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil