The Bill

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
WPC Ackland and PC Carver, out on their beat.

"Sierra One from Sierra Oscar"...


Britain's longest running police drama (1983 pilot called "Woodentop", then a regular series which ran from 1984 until 2010), The Bill told the story of A-Relief, one of the regular shifts in the divisional police station of Sun Hill, located in the fictional borough of Canley, East London. The series followed both uniform and plain clothes officers -- though the storylines were usually skewed more towards the uniform branch -- as they investigated crimes around "the manor". These crimes could be anything from high-end drug deals and gun running, right down to petty shoplifting, or relatively minor domestic squabbles between neighbors.

Originally a Police Procedural whose strict aim was to show the dull minutiae of policing, its modus operandi was not unlike that of Hill Street Blues. The use of long single camera takes, shooting the series on raw videotape rather than glossy film, and the ubiquitous use of Steadicam gave viewers a genuine insight into what it must be like to work inside a real police station. The series became widely seen as a Crime-Time Soap as the years went on, however, especially after Paul Marquess took over as Executive Producer in 2002. Marquess left the series in 2005, after which the show moved considerably back towards being a Police Procedural.

It began as a series of twelve Dramatic Hour Long teleplays in the literal sense of the word - the original pilot episode was written as a one-off televised "play for today", and there was no immediate intention of creating a series out of it. It switched to half hour long episodes in 1988 following network pressure, and it was in this format that it became widely known. However, in 1998 it changed back to hour long episodes again, whereafter it reformatted itself to become a Television Serial. Its this kind of flexibility to change and adapt with the times that had been largely attributed to its long term success. From 1988 to 2009 it ran throughout the year with approximately 90 episodes per annum (mostly two per week, but other major TV events, i.e. football, Britains Got Talent or award shows meant that many weeks had just one), a rate of production matched in the UK only by the major soaps. This might be a large reason why it eventually came to be regarded as a soap opera, even before the more soap orientated plotlines started to come into effect later in its life.

For most of its life the show went out at 8pm, before the Watershed - which had affected specific on-screen content. However, in 2009 it was moved to a once weekly 9pm slot, which meant a cut in episode numbers per year to about 50, and an increase in the amount of violence it may show on-screen. It also ditched the classic Theme Tune, added a "film effect" filter over the action (as part of a move to broadcast it in high definition for the first time), and acquired regular background incidental music, although Narmish examples had occasionally appeared in some past episodes. The overall effect was described by some as making things feel a little too CSI-like.

The series had been suffering a gradual decline in its viewing figures (especially after the time-slot change), and its long-term future was seen as uncertain, especially after it was dropped from terrestrial TV in Scotland as part of a broader problem with STV, the Scottish version of ITV. Its cancellation was announced on 26 March 2010, and the show ended in September of that year. In the same year, The BBC's equivalent Long Runner, the sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (actually a decade older than The Bill) was also announced to be ending, bringing the end of an era of British television to many (and, if you count in the end of the American Long Runner Law and Order, this gets global).

This show is notable for:

  • Predating The West Wing in using the Walk and Talk.
  • The "plodding feet" closing sequence, used between 1984 and 1998.
  • Virtually every British TV actor having appeared in it at some point, before or after reaching the big time (this list includes a pre-fame Keira Knightley, Sean Bean, James McAvoy, David Tennant, and Catherine Tate).
  • Its stupendously high rate of major character death, especially by murder, and even more so after 2002 (31+ deaths in 23 years, including six in a fire at Sun Hill police station in 2002 and another three when a van filled with petrol plowed into the front office in 2005 -- Sun Hill is one Dangerous Workplace). See the Character Sheet for the series for a complete list of Sun Hill's fatal casualties, and the way in which they were killed off.

Tropes used in The Bill include:
  • Absentee Actor: A side-effect of having Loads and Loads of Characters. Sometimes a character who you'd expect to be seeing all the time could go missing for dozens of episodes at a time before turning up again.
  • And The Beat Continues: It ends this way, following Smithy and Callum as they leave the station, passing (amongst the rest of the cast either leaving for the day or staying late at Sun Hill) Jo Masters and Leon Taylor being called to some trouble and other officers bringing some arrested drunks into the station.
  • Armed Blag
  • Artifact Title: 'The Old Bill' was a common slang term for the police, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. But its not heard so much anymore.
  • Boot Camp Episode: several times, mostly involving one or two of the regular characters going back to Hendon academy for further training (an advanced driving course, a firearms refresher course, a crowd control course, etc, etc).
  • The Bridge: The various incarnations of Sun Hill's Computer Aided Dispatch/Integrated Borough Operations room serve the same function as this trope, complete with an equivalent to The Captain (the duty Sergeant), as well as various Bridge Bunnies (of either gender) using headsets to answer emergency calls and to direct the officers who are out and about on the beat to go to the scene of a crime. One episode from the early 1990s even took place entirely within the confides of the C.A.D. room, with all the "action" taking place entirely off-screen (or only heard over the radio system). It was much better than it sounds.
  • Bring Out Your Gay Dead: Most of the gay regulars have left via death or serious injury. DC Jo Masters survives by not being prominently lesbian.
    • However, to be fair, many of the regulars in general have left via death or serious injury.
  • British Coppers: Obviously. In an interesting subversion, the show was initially considered by the Metropolitan Police Service to be very anti-police, as some of its characters were shown to be less than squeaky clean on screen, and it also openly showed racism within the force. As the years went on this antagonism eventually mellowed, to the point where the Met now allows the production team to use genuine Police uniforms made for them by the same company who produce the uniforms for actual officers in Real Life and regularly takes cast members out on patrol with real officers to help them with their roles. It remains the only British television cop show to feature 100% accurate police uniforms, rather than the stylised "faked" versions seen on nearly every other TV show.
  • Bunny Ears Lawyer / The Lab Rat / Gentle Giant: Eddie the crime scene examiner.
  • But for Me It Was Tuesday: Good guys example, they deal with too many people to remember everyone they checked was alright after a robbery. Most of those people remember it a lot better.
  • Call Sign: All uniform officers have a radio call sign beginning "Sierra Oscar" followed by the number on their epaulettes, except for the Inspector (who is Sierra Oscar One) and the Superintendent (Sierra Oscar Five-Two).
  • Car Meets House: In the 1986 episode "The Chief Super's Party". DS Ted Roach was behind the wheel (and under the influence).
  • Chase Scene: Given its supposed depiction of "genuine police work", the series often avoids doing over-the-top car chases, with officers often stopping a chase if things look dangerous. However, one noteable episode from 1995 titled "Instant Response" is, effectively, a car chase which lasts for an entire episode, shown mainly in one-take scenes shot from the back seat of the police vehicle. It remains to this day one of the series' crowning moments of awesome.
    • That said, foot chases are ubiquitous in this show, as in Once an Episode. Officer will walk towards suspect, who will then try to leg it, with varying results.
  • The City Narrows: The (fictional) setting of the series is based on London's poorest borough. How much the episode in question portrays this on screen Depends on the writer, to the extent where Sun Hill can be relatively middle class at times; and nothing short of a lawless Wretched Hive at others.
  • Cliff Hanger: At the end of every single episode broadcast between 2002 and 2007, the period in its history when it was very heavily serialised.
  • Clumsy Copyright Censorship: Sadly, the Region 2 (UK) DVD releases of older episodes appear to suffer from this. The episode "Snout", for example, originally opened with DI Burnside listening to "Every Breath You Take" by The Police, on his car radio while driving to work. He even sings along (badly) to the chorus of the song. Both the licensed song, and the overlay of Burnside's singing it, are missing on the Region 2 DVD, re-dubbed with generic music.
  • Compilation Movie: The earliest commercial releases of the half-hour episodes on VHS videotape were almost exclusively made up of compilations of two or three episodes edited into a single "movie". Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.
  • Council Estate: And how!
  • Crime-Time Soap: For much of the Paul Marquess era.
  • Crossover: For the 25th anniversary, the show did a crossover with German cop show SOKO Leipzig.
  • Da Chief: Several characters have this role. DCI Superintendent Jack Meadows and DI Manson in particular.
  • Dangerous Workplace: One non-fiction work dryly commented that "Sun Hill has a hearse permanently parked in the station carpark", due to the high instances of character deaths in the Crime-Time Soap era.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Jo Masters.
    • Of course, the legendary DCI Frank Burnside was the original deadpan snarker in the series. Just look at the quotes on this fansite to see what I mean.

DCI Burnside Charge her with being in possession of an offensive mouth.

  • Desk Jockey: The entire purpose of the various Superintendents and Chief Inspectors seen in the series. Only seldom do they leave the office and "get involved" in cases, and usually a big fuss is made out of it when they do. The decision to kill off the character of Chief Inspector Conway after 14 years was made when a new producer came in and decided that Conway didn't really have a dramatic function to play in the series... his role was too desk bound.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Matt Hinckley, Emma Keane's ex. Will Fletcher was the Only Sane Man to spot him.
  • Dirty Harriet: Not counting Cathy Bradford, some of the females spend a suspicious amount of time pretending to be streetwalkers for surveillance reasons.
  • Downer Ending: A particular trope that the series used to be fond of back when it started. The key thing was to show that the police don't always win, and more often than not an episode would end with two officers drowning their sorrows in the local pub, after a case they've been working on has gone belly-up. Later seasons still kept downer endings in play for certain storylines, but usually opted for slightly more uplifting bittersweet endings instead.
  • Embarrassing Middle Name: Emma Winifred Keane, Reginald Percival Hollis.
  • Fair Cop: A good portion of the cast, but especially Louisa Lytton, who was about 18 and looked closer to 15. Somewhat ironically, one of things which was originally lauded about the series by the critics was that it didn't cast "good looking actors" as the cops.
  • Fake Defector
  • Faking the Dead
  • Flash Back: Generally averted until the 2009 retool.
  • Football Hooligans: Most recently in the episode "Great Power".
  • Genre Shift
  • Geographic Flexibility: It's not unknown for two scenes showing the area car racing through the streets to be filmed in two entirely different locations, miles from each other, but edited together in a way which clearly implies them as being right next to each other.
  • Ghost Extras: A particularly conspicuous offender (see trope page).
  • Girls Behind Bars: More than one occasion.
  • The Great British Copper Capture: Frequently played straight.
  • Hello Again, Officer: In the episode "Killer On The Run", the episode begins this way.
  • IC Number: "Sierra Oscar, we're looking for an IC-3, medium build, wearing a red baseball cap and grey sweatshirt..."
  • Jittercam: An early user.
  • Leave the Camera Running: Not so much these days, but in its earliest incarnation the series used cuts and inserts very sparingly indeed, and it wasn't uncommon for a single scene to last for upwards of three or four minutes without any kind of cutaway or edit.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: "Bouncy Bouncy" Jo Masters.
  • Living Prop: A lot of the background extras at the police station, who mostly exist to maintain a credibility to the setting (you will always see the same faces in every episode, even if they are only in the background). The production team even coined a phrase to describe these background actors: "TREV", which stands for 'Truly Reliable Extra Veteran'. Occasionally, a TREV would even be given a line of dialogue in an episode, allowing them to be the Spear Carrier for a day.
    • One of the most noteable TREV's was Karen England, who "played" the female set of feet in the iconic title sequence from 1984 onwards, and who was still being seen in the background of episodes as late as 2000.
  • London Gangster: Long-running crime drama set in London? Masses and masses of them. The 1995 episode including actor Ray Winstone is a classic example.
  • Long Runner
  • Mad Bomber
  • My Local: The Canley Arms.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: The first three seasons very explicitly took place in Tower Hamlets, and were actually filmed in and around those real-life locations. Industrial disputes at a nearby printing plant in 1986 led to the crew having to move to a location in North London instead, and Sun Hill was then rechristened as being in a fictional borough called 'Canley', where it has remained ever since.
  • Novelization: 6 compilation volumes of the TV scripts were written between 1984 and 1990, by author John Burke.
  • Old-Fashioned Copper: Sergeant Bob Cryer was the Dixon of Dock Green type. DI Frank Burnside was the other kind.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Although it was once established that his given name was actually Alfred, DC Lines was usually referred to on-screen only by his nick-name, "Tosh".
  • Only So Many Equity Members: There's a joke that if three members of the UK actors' union Equity meet in a pub, at least two will have been in The Bill.
    • For the 25th anniversary, there was a documentary called The Bill Made Me Famous.
    • Many of the coppers are played by soap stars.
    • This can result, when watching episodes from the 1980s and 1990s, in a certain amount of Retroactive Recognition.
  • "On the Next..." / "Previously On...": Became a regular part of the format (as in Once an Episode) in 1998. The 2009 revamp stopped doing recaps of previous episodes, but still kept the end-of-episode trailer for "next week".
  • Oop North: Most noteably in the episode "Cast No Shadow", set almost entirely in Manchester and its surrounds. Likewise, the two-part story "Thug On The Tyne" took place entirely in Newcastle.
  • Platonic Prostitution: One episode revealed that Reg Hollis visits one, but only for someone to talk to (he pays her anyway).
  • Police Procedural
  • Put on a Bus: Frequently. It was quite common in the old days for a character to simply vanish without even getting a departure storyline - the producers of the show apparently even had their own phrase for this: "they went to the stationary cupboard and didn't come back."
  • Rearrange the Song: Many times over the course of 27 years. In 2009 it was finally decided to replace it with a completely different piece of music, rather than once again rearranging the one which had served it so well in its first 25 seasons. In the final episode, a new version of the old theme music, that was similar in tone and style to the new 2009 music played over the credits.
  • Recycled Title: Several times. There were two different episodes titled "Whose Side Are You On?" for example, broadcast nearly a decade apart from each other, each with an entirely different plot to the other.
    • A complete list can be found here.
  • Required Spinoff Crossover: The first episode of the 2003 Spin-Off series Murder Investigation Team followed the titular team while investigating a murder in Sun Hill, complete with requisite cameos from six of the then recurring members of the parent series' cast, and also the use of the regular Sun Hill police station sets and locations.
    • For two of those regular characters, Sergeant Matt Boyden and PC Nick Klein, it was actually their final appearances. Boyden appears as a corpse (but is still being played by the original actor), while Klein is shown in a secure rehab unit, in recovery from his drug's habit.
  • Retool: Again, many times over the course of its long lifespan. The most recent retool was in 2009, begining with the episode "Live By The Sword".
  • Revolving Door Casting: It has been revealed by one of the actors that they are only ever given six-month contracts at any one time before having those contracts renewed, so (in theory) major cast turnarounds could happen as regularly as half way through each broadcast year.
  • Rousing Speech: At the end of the final episode, Superintendent Meadows gives one about respect to the press, as a Take That to the thugs and the warped gang culture and mentality they faced during the final story. And some would argue, as a Take That from the production team to ITV...
    • "Rousing speech" is given an ironic double meaning here, when you consider that the actor who played Supt Meadows was... Simon Rouse.
  • Run for the Border: In this case, usually London City Airport or the Eurostar Terminal.
  • Scary Minority Suspect
  • Serial Killer: And serial rapists.
  • Shown Their Work: A lot of the earlier episodes are particularly realistic about the day-to-day minutiae of police work. One episode in particular (featuring little-remembered DS Alistair Greig interrogating a local hard case) was so accurate about technique that it was used to teach police cadets how to question suspects effectively.
  • Spin-Off: The short-lived Burnside, and the slightly-longer-lived MIT: Murder Investigation Team. Whether Beech Is Back counts as a spinoff or as a slightly differently packaged set of regular episodes is up for debate.
  • Spiritual Successor: The series was very much a spiritual successor of The Sweeney (it shared common production personel with it in the early days). And of Z Cars and Dixon of Dock Green, to a lesser extent.
  • Spoiler
  • Television Geography
    • Play spot the Southwark street with this show. Or, if you know National Rail, spot the out-of-place train. Or, a scene clearly filmed south of the Thames.
  • Title Drop: A regular trope of the earliest episodes was that the episode title always popped up somewhere in the dialogue of that particular episode.
  • Transplant: Detective Constable Eva Sharpe was moved over to the Spin-Off series Murder Investigation Team during that program's second (and, as it turned out, final) series.
  • Trash the Set: At least twice, but not always when the location had to be moved.
  • Undercover Cop Reveal
  • Unfunny Aneurysm Moment: Kevin Lloyd's character, DC Tosh Lines, was written out (Lloyd had been sacked for drinking problems) as having accepted a job at the coroner's office. The actor died a week later.
  • Walk and Talk
    • Arguably an early pioneer, certainly as far as UK television is concerned.
  • Welcome Episode: The 1983 pilot episode takes this format.
  • Whitehall: In the 1984 episode "The Drug's Raid", Whitehall intervenes when the main suspect turns out to have diplomatic immunity, much to Detective Inspector Galloway's disgust.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Frequently employed by senior officers, particularly Sgt Smith and Gina Gold.
  • The Yardies
  • You Do Not Have to Say Anything: "... but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say can (and probably will) be taken down and used in evidence."
  • You Talkin' to Me?

Tropes that The Bill averts:

  • British Brevity: It clocked up more than 3000 episodes during its 27 year run.
  • Doubling for London: In 27 years, it continued to film in the capital, even after other London set series had moved production to other (cheaper) places.
  • Hot Scientist: Completely averted with Eddie, who is obese (and happily so).
  • Limited Advancement Opportunities: Averted very much. Several characters have moved up from PC to Sergeant over the years, with Dale Smith moving from PC all the way up to Inspector as of 2009.
    • Superintendent Jack Meadows was actually introduced as a Detective Superintendent way back in 1990, and was only subsequently demoted back to Detective Chief Inspector (on grounds of "lack of supervision" of a corrupt officer under his command). He had made several unsuccessful attempts to regain promotion over the years, before finally being re-promoted back to Superintendent in 2009 (albeit in the uniform branch, rather than the CID).
    • It was played straight once or twice. Sergeant Cryer turned down promotion. His short tenure as a plain clothes officer ended with him deciding it wasn't where he wanted his career to go, and opting to go back to his old job in uniform where he felt more comfortable. Similarly, PC Tony Stamp remained a PC for his entire 26 year time on the series by choice, deliberately refusing any attempts to promote him because he prefered being near the sharp end of policing.
  • Necro Cam: Completely averted, even with denouements.
  • One Steve Limit: In a rare example of this trope being averted, between 1988 and 1989, there were actually two characters named Anthony: PC Tony "Yorkie" Smith, and PC Tony Stamp.
  • Three-Wall Set: Consciously averted. The producers have converted a building into a complete mock-up police station, which allows plenty of opportunity for one-take Walk and Talk scenes.
  • The War on Terror: The two plots involving terrorism post-2001 turned out to be, respectively, a Far Right attempt to stir up racial hatred and a Mad Bomber.