27 years. 2,400 episodes. 19,000 actors. 400 chase sequences. 30 Police characters killed on duty. Three explosions at Sun Hill Police Station. Two live episodes -finally The Bill, leaves our screens this Saturday night.
ITV’s police drama has been a staple of ABC broadcasting for longer than we care to remember.
For most of its run it aired twice a week until it shifted to double episodes on Saturdays and finally single episodes.
But after ITV was hit hard by the Global Financial Crisis (with losses of $AU300m), the writing was on the wall.
As the United Kingdom’s longest-running police drama, the show began life in 1983 as a one-off, Woodentop (a colloquial name for helmeted bobbies). At the time other police / detective dramas in the UK included Minder, Bergerac and Taggart.
But The Bill zeroed in on cops on the front line. In the midst of Thatcherism and the bleak 1980s, it held a mirror up to society.
With its raw, documentary shooting style it gave a sense of what cops faced on the backstreets and estates of an inner metropolis. While New York had “Let’s be careful out there” from Hill Street Blues, London had the “Right, you’re nicked!” from The Bill. Both were fearless in portraying their heroes as flawless characters.
Using actual police uniforms and cars gave the show authenticity. It favoured real sounds from the street over music (although many identify with the theme song, “Overkill”).
Its use of action scenes, and especially chase scenes, is memorable. They gave a sense of what Metropolitan Police risk every day on the front line.
For many of its years The Bill was purely procedural, drawing a line between the crime and the personal. But possibly as evidence of its longevity, it wasn’t afraid to reinvent itself.
In 2002 it shifted to a serial format, as a single shift of police officers. It also looked at the personal lives of its central characters -a risky move that was heavily criticised at the time. Many accused it of dumbing down into a soap. But after a soapie Sun Hill fire erased several characters, ratings steadily improved.
Last year another revamp saw the show trimmed to an hour a week, promising “grittier” storylines, a new theme, and the addition of “younger and sexier” actors seeing veterans such as Graham Cole (PC Tony Stamp) sacked after 22 years.
Other notable characters included Sgt. June Ackland (Trudie Goodwin), Sgt Bob Cryer (Eric Richard), DCI Frank Burnside (Christopher Ellison), DS Jim Carver (Mark Wingett), Inspector Gina Gold (Roberta Taylor), Jack Meadows (Simon Rouse), Inspector Dale “Smithy” Smith (Alex Walkinshaw) and DS Don Beech (Billy Murray) who was even in a boat explosion filmed on Sydney Harbour.
Guest cast has included Robert Carlyle, Martine McCutcheon, Russell Brand, Edward Woodward, Roger Daltrey, Ray Winstone, Hugh Laurie, Michelle Collins, Alex Kingston, David Walliams, John Hannah, and a young Emma Bunton, Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.
Australia’s Daniel MacPherson also played PC Cameron Tait for 12 months in 2003, with his very first scene starkers.
Across its life The Bill also reflected the changing face of crime in the UK. While early crimes depicted armed robbery and domestic violence, it later included football hooliganism, people smuggling, attacks on police, race riots, biological warfare.
Its 2-part finale “Respect” has veered away from explosions and grand send-offs, preferring to focus on what the show has done for all of its 27 years: upheld the law, protected society, dramatised the real world. It centres on a story about girls as the victims of gang culture.
But it ends with an emotional speech from Superintendent Jack Meadows (Simon Rouse) that symbolises the end of the show.
Watch for another ground-breaking moment as it features all 17 cast members in a single tracking shot.
Farewell The Bill, which shows the making of the finale plus retrospective moments will air on ABC1 on October 23rd.
The Bill finale Part 2 airs 8:30pm Saturday on ABC1.