And the Beat Goes on…

Jack Kibble-White on The Bill and police ensemble dramas

First published October 2002

In 1983, Thames Television transmitted a one-off drama called Woodentop. Written by Geoff McQueen (who had previously worked on LWT’s hard hitting police series The Gentle Touch) and broadcast as part of Thames Television’s Storyboard anthology series, Woodentop followed newly recruited police constable Jim Carver on his first day on the beat. The production was innovative for a number of reasons; hand-held cameras, natural lighting and colloquial dialogue all added up to create a sense of an authentic representation of modern-day policing. Thames recognised Woodentop‘s potential and commissioned 12 further episodes for transmission in 1984. At the time, there was nothing else on British television that offered as realistic portrayal of bobbies on the beat and The Bill looked set to exploit this gap in the market.

Almost 20 years on, and not only has The Bill (as Woodentop was re-named) changed fundamentally, but so have its reference points. The Bill exists within a newly formed hybrid genre, constructed from a fusion of standard crime and soap opera narratives. It is not alone though. The BBC’s Casualty (1986 – present) and LWT’s London’s Burning (1988 – present) have followed a similar path (albeit dealing with different kinds of emergencies), and more recently, the decision to screen Holby City (1999 – present) all year around has inflicted upon that programme the narrative demands that The Bill has contended with since 1988.

Whilst such a hybrid genre might at first seem to throw up conflicting expectations, the basic desire to see justice being served (be it of the judicial, or natural variety) is central to both. Yet, throughout it’s 19 year run The Bill has vacillated between plot-led and character-led narratives, indicating that the balance between the demands of the crime story and soap opera are not always complimentary. Such indecision is now central to our understanding of British police dramas. Whilst dramas focussing on individual law enforcers such as A Touch of Frost, Midsomer Murders, Touching Evil and Cracker are still asked to conform rigidly to the classical structure of crime stories any new ensemble police drama has to define where it sits along the crime/soap barometer. Indeed recent dramas such as The Cops and City Central have explicitly defined themselves in terms of their adherence or non-adherence to the soap opera genre.

The development of conventional detective dramas on British television is worthy of an article in itself. However, here we will consider how police dramas such as Merseybeat, The Cops, City Central, Out of the Blue and The Bill have attempted to capture a sustainable audience within a market crowded with soap operas and crime shows. We will, in particular focus on The Bill, which thanks to it’s longevity and continuing importance as part of ITV’s drive for audience share, has endured numerous format changes in an attempt to gain ratings.

The first series proper of The Bill adhered to the format established some years earlier by Z Cars and perfected by the American cop series Hill Street Blues (1981 – 1989). Each episode consisted of multiple storylines, highlighting the diversity of police work. Geoff McQueen stipulated that every scene had to shot from the viewpoint of the police, meaning that the viewer seldom saw crimes being committed, and would only ever learn as much about a perpetrator as that yielded within the Sun Hill interview room. The emphasis was on producing a drama series that, whilst delivering traditional crime stories and some degree of character development for the regular cast, focussed foursquare on creating an authentic fictional depiction of the police force.

The Bill‘s early years were, in part, influenced by a gradual move towards more politicised popular drama within the British television industry. The series could be viewed as similar in tone to the new ’80s soap operas Brookside (1982 – present) and EastEnders (1985 – present) as well as the BBC’s hospital drama Casualty (1986 – present), and indeed it did not seem too far-fetched to imagine these series coexisting in the same fictional landscape.

The Bill carried on in this manner for three years. Along the way it attracted excellent ratings (peaking at 15.2 million viewers in December 1987). However, at the beginning of 1988, Thames Television made the decision to change The Bill into a twice-weekly series of half hour episodes, running all year round. Reasoning that the series had a large cast to draw upon, as well as a readily available source of storylines (after all there are few genres better disposed to offering up a stream of endless dramatic plots), the move seemed a logical way to capitalise on the series’ burgeoning audience. Besides, with the recent failure of Granada Television’s twice-weekly soap opera Albion Market (1985 – 1986) as well as the impending demise of Crossroads (1964 – 1988) ITV needed a new regular source of ratings.

Typical of serial dramas asked to increase their output, The Bill responded by adding extra characters to help spread the workload. However, apart from this, little changed. Stories remained focussed purely on the procedural side of police work, ensuring that whilst now being scheduled much like a soap opera, the series remained resolutely within the crime genre. The Bill remained consistently popular for the next few years (going thrice weekly from 1993).

During this period, competition in the form of other police dramas was few and far between. The BBC produced two series of Rockcliffe’s Babies (1987 – 1988) and one of a follow-up series Rockliffe’s Folly (1988). Whilst Rockcliffe’s Babies produced a number of memorable episodes involving tough, urban stories of an experienced detective sergeant working with seven rookie trainee detectives, the follow up series eschewed the ensemble format and relocated the central character – Alan Rockliffe – to a rural environment. The series had a world-weary air to it, and considering the burgeoning success of Inspector Morse (1987 – 2000) it is surprising that Rockliffe’s Folly failed to take off. Perhaps it was a little ahead of its time.

Waterfront Beat (1990 – 1991) ran for two series and was the brainchild of Brookside creator Phil Redmond. The series, focussed on cases of the Inner City and Waterfront Division police department in London’s dockland, and featured amongst its cast Philip Middlemiss (now ex of Coronation Street). The BBC’s drama catalogue for 1990 – 1991 asserted that the series would look at “the way one non metropolitan, urban police force comes to terms with economic regeneration by reorganising its City Division creating a separate Inner City Waterfront Division”. The series’ focussed on two central characters – Chief Superintendent Don Henderson (John Ashton) and PC Ronnie Barker (Brian McCardie), and through their eyes attempted to portray the new unit’s developing relationships and bureaucratic frustrations. Waterfront Beat was to explore “aspects of police work not normally featured and disabuse us of the notion that TV crime is always cracked in 50 minutes”. Yet the series still found time to explore the emotional plight of the central characters. Two key storylines focussed on how policing impacted upon people’s personal lives, with Henderson struggling to cope as a single parent, whilst an accusation of serious misconduct had serious repercussions for Barker’s home life.

Between the Lines (1992 – 94) represented a very different attempt at a standard ensemble cop drama. This was “cop drama” with a twist. JC Wilsher had written numerous episodes of The Bill before heading to the BBC to create his own series. On a number of occasions, police corruption had been explored by The Bill, however, Wilsher constructed an entire series out of the matter, and in the process created a morally complex and enthralling piece of work, drawing upon many of the conventions of the thriller genre. That Between the Lines was praised so highly is in part testament to the quality of writers working on The Bill in the early 1990s. Inevitably the demands of producing in excess of 150 episodes per year meant the series relied on a large pool of writers. Although a number of established television writers (besides from Wilsher, the likes of Chris Boucher, Peter J Hammond and Dick Sharples all contributed episodes during this period), The Bill was also renowned for being one of the few programmes on television upon which new talent could furnish a big break.

Although The Bill was regularly attaining 12 million viewers throughout the early ’90s, the notion of realistic representation was becoming dated. Brookside was stealing headlines and building audiences by focussing less on authentic representations of real life and more on dramatic storylines. In 1993, ITV’s Emmerdale Farm (1972 – present) was radically reinterpreted to follow a similar path. The result, in terms of ratings, was exceptional with the newly renamed Emmerdale establishing itself as an important component in ITV’s rating arsenal. Seemingly audiences no longer wanted mundane realism from their favourite programmes. In 1995, The Bill found itself caught up in what Jimmy McGovern described as dramatic “inflation”. “Writers are losing faith in actors, and the actors are losing faith in the characters” he commented. “So people have to place great faith in the stories. But that’s when inflation sets in because one story has to top another.”

Evidently, the format of The Bill did not lend itself well to the kind of emotionally charged storylines that were attracting large audiences elsewhere. Whilst occasionally it proved possible to inflict life-changing events on long-running characters, by and large, The Bill‘s commitment to realism meant that, like their real-life counterparts, the residents of Sun Hill would remain emotionally detached from their investigations. Crucially then, the episodes which would mark The Bill‘s transition from pure crime drama to a programme with soap opera credentials would require one of the series’ most important characters to become personally involved in a criminal investigation.

Broadcast on 6 October 1995, “Fire” kicked off the three-part story in which WPC June Ackland became the target of an attempted murder. Written by Edward Canfor-Dumas (who would later pen the Granada cop drama Tough Love in 2000), and directed by John Stickland, it proved to be the first significant departure from the rigid template McQueen had laid down some 11 years earlier. Crucially Ackland’s emotional reaction to the threat formed the centrepiece of the drama and not the investigation itself. The decision to screen the story across multiple episodes ensured that events took on the pivotal status required to justify a shift in The Bill‘s emphasis. Undoubtedly the move proved a success, with the three-parter capturing some of The Bill‘s highest-ever viewing figures.

Neatly, the death of WDS Jo Morgan at the story’s conclusion (“Bait” broadcast on 12 October) provided a legitimate reason to introduce an ongoing thread into The Bill‘s previously self-contained episodic format. “Damage Limitation” (the episode that immediately followed) dealt, in part, with the aftershock of Morgan’s death, and in so doing indicated to the viewer that from now on The Bill was to embrace the kind of long running character and plot developments previously avoided. Yet, as we shall see the perpetuation of long running character development would remain – at best – inconsistent.

Changing The Bill‘s format was not a reflection on how the programme had performed to date (indeed it had achieved consistently high ratings right up until the format change), but rather a strong indication that ITV, in recognising the potential for increasing the audience of one of it’s flagship programmes, was prepared to disaffect long-term fans in order to accrue greater commercial success.

1995 represented a significant year for the BBC’s police drama aspirations too. In many ways Out of The Blue (1995 – 1996) appeared to be a deliberately up market version of The Bill. There was the same mix of plot driven and character driven drama, but the BBC series was afforded a greater budget allowing for a wider variety of location shoots, and crucially, letting actors and directors spend more time on perfecting scenes. Adopting The Bill‘s old format of 50 minute episodes as well as finding a place in the schedules post-watershed, also meant that Out of the Blue was able to tell complicated stories, less constricted by what television critic John Foster refers to as “the ameliorating paranoia of the need not to cause offence”.

Series script editor, Claire Elliot was keen to ensure that the differences between the two programmes were clearly understood. Whereas The Bill was still most commonly regarded as a drama that dealt with the business of policing, Elliot commented that “What the writers (of Out of the Blue) are trying to do is write about contemporary, gritty, urban reality; they’re not writing about the police. Out of the Blue is a kind of useful, dramatic vehicle to tell stories about society today.”

The dividing line between soap operas and “stories about society today” is at best, blurred. These days the BBC is comfortable to acknowledge the soap opera elements inherent in many of their ensemble dramas – and indeed often use them to market a particular programme; however back in 1995 the Corporation generally distanced itself from the moniker. However Out of the Blue had more than its fair share of storylines driven by the emotional drives of the series’ characters. In particular, the illicit relationship between PC Alex Holder (Stephen Billington) and DS Rebecca Bennett (Orla Brady) dominated much of the first six episodes, and ensured that there was an ever-present emotional charge underpinning the series.

The first series concluded with DI Frank Drinkall (John Hannah) being murdered by a drug addict. Throughout the previous six episodes, the viewer had grown close to Drinkall, who when we first met him was diagnosed with epilepsy. His downward spiral and final dénouement, relied little on the conventions of crime drama, instead focussed on how Drinkall’s condition affected his mental well-being. Whilst it might not have been a soap, Out of the Blue was certainly anything but a standard crime drama. This genre positioning was further affirmed in the second series with the introduction of DS Jim Llewyn (David Morrissey), a similarly troubled figure.

Although featuring a very strong cast, excellent production values and scripts described by one overseas newspaper critic as “tautly written, with the sort of crisp, colloquial dialogue you expect from the Brits, it’s clammy, a kitchen-sink sort of drama”, Out of the Blue failed to establish and sustain a sizeable enough audience. Perhaps the brevity of the programme’s two series prevented the characters from gaining the kind of audience familiarity central to soap operas. Regardless, series creator Peter Bowker would later find greater acclaim in the police drama genre with 1998′s Undercover Heart.

1998 was something of a high watermark in the recent history of British police dramas. Not only would the BBC broadcast two brand new dramas, but also The Bill would again attempt a change in tone and format. The decision to drop the famous “plodding feet” title sequence caused consternation again amongst long term viewers, but – more crucially – represented a further shift in The Bill‘s focus. Drab and downbeat, the old title sequence seemed now very out of kilter with The Bill‘s gaudy and sensationalist storylines. Since the series’ 1995 re-launch there had been a continual erosion in the series’ viewing figures. Could it be that in trying to satisfy lovers of both cop shows and soap operas, The Bill had ended up pleasing neither? The remedy appeared to be to revert back to 50 minute episodes.

However this was no return to the series’ dramatic roots of yore. The focus would remain on producing exciting television, and to that end a number of “event” storylines were planned for broadcast over multiple episodes. It was almost as if the production team decided that the solution to The Bill‘s ailing fortunes was to do what it had done before, but on a larger scale. The format change was able to revitalise the programme, but only for a brief time. Short-term success came at a price though, as The Bill, once highly lauded for its realism and strong storytelling came to be considered “Britain’s most down-market crime drama”.

The continual retooling of The Bill couldn’t help but suggest to the audience that the series had grown stale. For the BBC to launch, not one but two new police dramas in the middle of one of The Bill‘s most turbulent years seemed a telling move. City Central (1998 – 2000) appeared ready to embrace the soap opera genre in a manner that Out of the Blue had been unwilling to accept just three years earlier. Series creator, Tony Holland certainly understood soaps, having worked extensively on EastEnders (where he began his scriptwriting career) as well as the BBC’s ill-fated soap opera Eldorado (1992 – 1993). This experience was used to craft a police drama series that at last appeared entirely comfortable with its emphasis on characterisation above traditional crime storytelling. Producer John Yorke (who would, in 1999 move onto EastEnders to great popular acclaim) brought a similar understanding and the inclusion of actor Paul Nicholls (as PC Terry Sydenham), was a concession to the burgeoning trend of casting ex-soap opera actors in popular drama series.

The BBC Drama brochure for 1997 – 1998 describes the series as “a fast moving, funny and dramatic take on policing in the 1990s” and, labelled City Central “the first police precinct drama series to be commissioned by BBC television since Z Cars.” Set in Christmas Street police station, in the heart of a busy northern city centre, City Central was concerted in its effort to show that the staff were not “all seeing all knowing individuals once they put on uniform, but normal people trying to do an impossible job the best way they can.”

Learning from the mistakes of Out of the Blue, it was recognised that due to the comparatively large number of regular characters, City Central would require a number of episodes before the characters began to assume a level of familiarity with the audience. As such, the first series consisted of 10 episodes (when at the time the standard for most drama series was typically only six). Nevertheless, executive producer Mal Young was of the opinion that the first series could achieve little more than to set the scene. “With all the characters now well established” he remarked in October 1998, “this second series hits the ground running with great stories each week for the whole family to enjoy.”

The second series, indeed looked to build on what had gone before, and in particular the emotional relationships between the staff would become even more of the focus of the drama. Never more was this the case then when – like The Bill and Out of the Blue before it – City Central used the device of the death of a regular character as a way to inject some emotional intensity into the drama.

That the character in question should be PC Terry Sydenham was a particularly cute move (albeit one apparently enforced upon the production team by Paul Nicholl’s decision to leave), allowing City Central to trade off the residual affection that many viewers still felt for the character due to the actor’s previous appearance in EastEnders. In addition, it was through Sydenham’s eyes that we had first been introduced to the staff of Christmas Street Police station, and as such, his character had attained a particularly close relationship with the viewer.

Whereas City Central would mark the occasion of the death of a central character with a sentimental, musical montage, such compassion was markedly absent from the BBC’s second new police drama of 1998 – The Cops (1998 – 2001). Created by Tony Garnett, The Cops has been rightly lauded for its originality and brutal honesty. Whereas both The Bill and City Central would make much of the underlying (albeit often strained) comradeship that existed at Sun Hill or Christmas Street, The Cops attitude was neatly summed up by PC Colin Jellico (Steve Garti): “I joined this job for the camaraderie, but no fucker likes me.”

Reviewer Nancy Banks-Smith described The Cops as “the exception to everything”, whilst Garnett was at pains to distance the series from its more obvious dramatic bedfellows (“This is not really a cop show at all. Perhaps, but incidentally. It is certainly not about solving crimes or catching villains.”); however in truth, conceptually at least The Cops is little different from Geoff McQueen’s original premise for The Bill. Both programmes employed revolutionary hand-held camera techniques in order to attain a sense of authenticity and both featured the police in every scene. The Cops‘ additional authenticity can be largely attributed to the rise of modern day fly-on-the-wall documentaries providing a visual template that audiences have come to recognise as representing real-life. Such programming did not exist in the early days of The Bill, and as such, no matter how realistic the dialogue or the lighting, audiences were unaccustomed to being able to follow televised investigations for real, and so The Bill could never be truly realistic.

Yet a series espousing many of The Bill‘s original virtues was still revolutionary television in 1998. As a piece of crime drama, The Cops seldom invoked notions of justice or traditional narratives of police investigation. “Most of the time not much happens,” explained Garnett. “Just the everyday, rather than the dramatically exceptional.” Whilst obviously and flagrantly disregarding the rules of the crime drama genre, The Cops offered a subversion of standard soap opera genre rules too.

This was a series that offered no sense of community either within the ranks of the police, or on the patch on which they patrolled. Contrived or otherwise communities form the cornerstone of all soap operas. In the case of Casualty, or indeed The Bill or City Central, the working relationships and interdependencies of those who at Holby City or Sun Hill are fostered to create moments of emotional warmth to satiate the viewer. Conversely, Garnett described the setting of The Cops as “urban but in a small enough patch for the audience to get to know and carry in its hearts. We are not fighting crime in an anonymous metropolis. Nor following the bobby in Ruritania. It’s just a town in the middle of an endless conurbation.” Clearly, the emphasis here was on the anonymity of the individuals. This seems a more accurate reflection of a modern society in which people seldom ever learn the name of their next-door neighbour, yet it is a representation that is usually shied away from for fear of destroying a good ensemble drama.

The Cops drew to a close in 2001, outlasting City Central by a year. The series won immense critical acclaim (including two BAFTA awards), and whilst rumour spread that the lack of police co-operation had fatally undermined the series’ ability to remain authentic and thus forced its demise, the truth seemed little more complicated than the fact that Tony Garnett only ever intended to produce three series. In a neat bookend, PC Mel Draper (Katy Cavanagh), who had opened the series, uttered The Cops final words too. Her decision to leave the force was not emotionally traumatic (as other programmes might have portrayed it), but simply a personal decision based on what she wanted to do. If it hadn’t been abundantly clear before, the final scene spelt out what had made The Cops so different – being a policeman was never treated as a vocation in The Cops – it was just a job.

By the tail-end of the 1990s The Bill found itself part of an ITV rearguard action to fend off the ratings revitalisation of BBC1. The rules of the British soap opera were being applied ever more liberally to the series, and as EastEnders, Coronation Street and the rest all inducted young attractive cast members, The Bill was forced to do the same. This had a serious impact as audiences began increasingly to question the credibility of Sun Hill’s staffing demographics. “Joy Brook, who plays WDC Holmes”, wrote The Guardian’s Claire Armitstead in 1999 “is a tall, rather beautiful 29-year-old from Scarborough – as plausible a recruit to the Met as Claudia Schiffer would be in the SAS, as The Sun succinctly puts it.” Brought in at the end of 1998 to help halt a slide in ratings, it was not long before Brook found herself involved in a lesbian shower scene, surely designed purely to attract viewers.

During 1999 and 2000, other cast changes were made. On 30 May 2000 it was announced that six cast members (including Peter Ellis, who as Chief Superintendent Brownlow who had appeared in The Bill since it began) were to leave. Whilst the move was seen as a much needed “freshening up” of the series, it became apparent that The Bill‘s drive towards ever more sensational storylines was often leaving the production team with no other option then to write certain characters out. Billy Murray, for example (who played DS Don Beech) found his character at the centre of a long-running storyline in which he became increasingly corrupt. Credibility would demand that upon the story’s eventual conclusion, Beech would no longer be able to retain his position at Sun Hill. The manner in which the Beech subplot unfolded was quite different to The Bill‘s previous treatment of police corruption. Whereas the issue of corruption itself had been the key component of earlier stories, here it was a conduit to allow Beech to assume a position of traditional soap opera bad guy (a role that had grown in importance in traditional soap operas over the last few years).

More recently, The Bill has turned to genuine soap opera expertise in order to shape its future. The arrival of Paul Marquess (from Brookside) in February 2002, as well as the infusion of more new characters (including Roberta Taylor and Russell Floyd from EastEnders and Ciaran Griffiths from Coronation Street) is a clear indication of where the series is now headed. “I arrived with a clear brief” he explained, “to turn The Bill into a serial. They’d have serial elements, but they were mixed with stand-alone episodes. So you’d watch the story of Page and Quinnan’s affair for six hours then that six-parter would finish and the next time you saw them in a scene together, there’d be no eye contact, no acknowledgement they’d ever had an affair.” Marquess perceives his job as having to fundamentally change The Bill‘s audience demographic (currently white men over 50).

Whilst it appears that The Bill will at last fully embrace soap opera narrative, it is telling that the series has fallen back on that most tried-and-tested method to bring in the audiences; namely, kill off some policemen. On 18 April 2002 8.6 million viewers (approximately 2.5 million up on average) tuned in as six Sun Hill officers were wiped out in a petrol bomb attack on Sun Hill. Even the most sensational soap opera cannot support such storylines on a regular basis though. Marquess’ solution to the problem of making The Bill look exciting without becoming too incredible is to accelerate the narrative, such that audiences are not asked to dwell on any particular investigation for too long.

The BBC’s latest excursion into police dramas Merseybeat (2001 – present) is billed as “a drama involving police officers” and not a “police drama”. Producer Mal Young (who previously worked on Brookside and Holby City) is fearful of attracting the kind of audience usually associated with crime drama, and so has ensured that Merseybeat is been marketed as another series in the mould of Casualty and EastEnders, rather then the latest in a lineage stretching back to Z Cars. Yet Merseybeat has struggled to attained either critical, or popular success. “What is the point of Merseybeat?” asked Paul Bolt, director of the Broadcasting Standards Commission on 16 August 2002. “It’s not so much that it’s unrealistic, badly written soporific, predictable and merely adequately acted” added one newspaper critic, “- although it is all those things. Rather it’s so exquisitely terrible, it’s as if they were trying to make something this bad on purpose.”

Whilst the first episode was able to attain audiences of 7.8 million, this has since decreased stabilising around the six million mark, with the series unable to break the 30% audience share barrier defined by ITV’s drama controller, Nick Elliot as the target popular drama should be aiming for. That Merseybeat was re-commissioned for 2002, probably says more about the BBC’s current unerring faith in ensemble drama then the performance of Merseybeat itself. As with The Bill, the second series has seen an influx of new, younger characters (including Joanna Taylor from Hollyoaks), and to an extent the series has been able to find its feet (by weekending 28 July 2002, it was second only to Holby City in ratings for drama series).

Mal Young has already announced that a third series is in the offing. “Merseybeat has become a mainstay of BBC1 drama and a huge hit with viewers,” he claims. “The success of the last two series is mainly due to the fantastic acting talent and gripping storylines which keep the audiences hooked week after week.” Whether this is actually the case remains debatable. However the series perfectly occupies the much sought after middle ground between traditional police dramas and soap operas. Unlike Out of the Blue or The Bill there appears no real genre conflict, with the emphasis remaining on the emotional interactions of the staff above criminal investigation. Having, at last been able to crack the formula so long sought after by both the BBC and ITV, it seems that Mal Young is determined to stick with it, regardless of what critical opinion might demand. Whilst drama remains British television’s most uncertain property, conservatism seems to dictate that police dramas will require a healthy dose of soap opera ratings certainty for the foreseeable future.