The Bill – Light Duties

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Light Duties, the first episode from the reformatted 25 minute incarnation of The Bill, aired on the 19th July 1988.  It gave us our first chance to see Jim Carver (Mark Wingett) in plainclothes (and demonstrates he’s something of a landlubber – Jim feels seasick after a trip down the Thames).

It’s not a pleasure cruise though, Jim and Ted Roach (Tony Scannell) are interested in a body fished out of the river.  But anywhere that Ted goes trouble’s not too far behind – he finds himself tangling with DS Dougan (Andy Secombe) and DI Corrington (Anthony Dutton), both of whom claim the body for their own.  Ted glowers at them in his trademark fashion.

Scripted by series creator Geoff McQueen, Light Duties demonstrates that even though the running time of each episode had halved, there wouldn’t be any problems keeping multiple plotlines on the go as per the previous series.  A collapsed man in the street (along with his dog) and concerns over the health of Sgt Penny (Roger Leach) are both developed (Penny’s the one on light duties following a recent incident where he was shot).

Plenty of new characters are swiftly introduced.  PC Haynes (Eamon Walker) is the new token black character, whilst Inspector Frazer (Barbara Thorn) is the new token female officer.  PC Edwards (Colin Blemenau) remains as the token Welshman ….

Some of the troops aren’t too impressed about serving under a female officer.  Given this was 1988 and both Juliet Bravo and The Gentle Touch had aired some years ago, this seems slightly surprising.  Clearly Sun Hill was a very conservative area.  Frazer’s first appearance, in plainclothes, is a treat.  Poor PC Stamp (Graham Cole) shooed her away from the incident with the collapsed man in a rather heavy-handed way, not realising who she was.  The audience didn’t know at the time either, but I’ve a feeling that the penny dropped with them long before it registered with Stamp.

Ted’s continuing to grizzle.  With the DI’s room vacant, he feels that he’s the man for the job – but obviously nobody else does.  So Ted does what he does best in times of crisis, grabs his bottle of whisky and heads off to drown his sorrows.  The toilets are an obvious place for a spot of peace and quiet – presumably why Tom’s there, chugging down a handful of pills in order to soothe his shattered nerves.  Ted offers him a swig from his bottle (“might help”) which Tom accepts.  Pills and alcohol, not a good mixture ….

These episodes of The Bill tended to be self-contained but, as we’ll see, Tom’s issues carried over into the next episode – The Three Wise Monkeys.  Understandable, since it would have been a little unbelievable to have neatly wrapped up his problems within twenty five minutes.

Ted’s blood pressure continues to take a pounding when he learns that Burnside (“bent Burnside!”) is a contender for the vacant post of DI.  Although the pre-watershed placing of the series now means that his oaths (“naff off, Bob”) lack a certain something.

Rather coincidently, there’s a connection between the old man who collapsed and Ted’s dead body.  This allows him to score something of a coup, although I’ve a feeling that any kudos will be short-lived.  Ted operates on such a short fuse that you can guarantee he’ll soon put somebody’s nose out of joint and be back to square one.

A number of characters didn’t make the transition from the 50 minute format to the twice weekly 25 minute series, but I’m glad that Ted Roach did.  Sun Hill wouldn’t have been the same without him, although it’s plain that one day he’s going to go too far.  Luckily, that won’t be for a while yet.

The Bill – The Three Wise Monkeys

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Geoff McQueen returned to script The Three Wise Monkeys.  It opens with Ted in a bad mood (for a change) although DC Mike Dashwood (Jon Iles) is, as ever, much more sanguine.  Ted wants to be back at the nick, so he can deal with Blakelynn (Tom Owen) but instead has to deal with the fall-out from an attempted armed robbery.

Blakelynn ends up being extracted from Ted’s clutches and delivered into the care of DC Willis (Mark Carey) and DC Hawtrey (Nick Brimble).  They come from the West Country, so are obviously “carrot crunchers”, as Ted so nicely calls them.   Brimble makes the most of his handful of lines.  Towering over Ted, Hawtrey tells him that “if you don’t shove off within the next five seconds I’m going to bounce your head around this yard for a pastime.”  Lovely!

Tom Penny’s still on light duties (in the CAD room) but all this talk of shooters isn’t doing him any good.  Frankly, he looks so flaky that it’s rather strange nobody has noticed anything is amiss – not even Chief Supt. Brownlow (Peter Ellis – sporting a severe new haircut) who’s wandered into the CAD room to stick his oar in (or coordinate proceedings, depending on your point of view).

But having said nobody’s noticed Tom’s traumas, that’s not quite the case.  Both Alec Peters (Larry Dann) and Bob Cryer (Eric Richard) are aware he’s got something of a drink problem, as does Inspector Frazer.  She’s only had a short time to make her presence felt, but the fact she elects not to do anything official about Tom- leaving it to Bob to have a quiet word – indicates that she’s on the side of the troops.  The counter-conclusion we can draw is that she somewhat negligently leaves an officer she knows to be sub-par in a position of considerable authority.

Ted and Mike are cruising the area, looking for the armed robbers (they’ve stolen a car and taken the driver hostage).   They have no joy, but WPC June Ackland (Trudie Goodwin) and PC Yorkie Smith (Robert Hudson) are more fortunate, or maybe unfortunate ….

They pick up three armed TSG officers who are rather forthright (“get right up his end son”) and it’s clear that their gung-ho attitude is going to bite them on the bottom very soon.  And so it does.  There’s a spot of gunplay before the end of part one, which is chiefly notable for how bad a shot the baddy is – he lets off twelve rounds at fairly close range but doesn’t hit anybody.  It’s still a traumatic event though – which becomes plain later on as both June and Yorkie come to terms with their close escape.

And if it was stressful for them, then it’s even more so for Tom Penny.  He might have been safe in the station, but even thinking about it is enough to push him to the point of collapse.  Frazer continues to demonstrate her sense of empathy as she takes June into the toilets and encourages her to have a good cry (“there’s no men in here”).  June prefers to throw up instead, which seems to please Frazer just as much.  After a good cry or a good puke, she’ll no doubt feel a lot better.

The Three Wise Monkeys quite neatly shows how police work can be seconds of pure terror.  The plotline with Tom Penny will be referenced again, which is a rarity during this period of The Bill as normally it didn’t string out character angst across multiple episodes.  How that would change ….

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The Bill – Good Will Visit

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In later years Sun Hill nick would become a hotbed of tangled interpersonal relationships and corruption.  But in 1988 things were much simpler.  Back then, if the boys and girls in blue had personal relationships they had the good grace not to let it interfere with their work whilst rotten apples were few and far between.

True, the likes of Ted Roach were happy to bend the rules, but there’s no sense that he was actively fitting up suspects.  Even Frank Burnside, briefly glimpsed during the 50 minute series and shortly to return as the new DI, was on the side of the angels.  The series made capital out of his reputation for corruption several times, but nothing was ever proved (although you could always argue that he was simply good at concealing it!)

The introduction in this episode of PC Ramsey (Nick Reding) helps to shake up the relief.  Ramsey, transferred from Barton Street, brings with him an unsavoury reputation and is viewed with suspicion and mistrust – at least to begin with – by the others.  Ramsey didn’t stay at Sun Hill for too long (about six months) and it’s interesting to observe that over time his rough edges were smoothed down, leaving him as just another member of the team.  The Bill would make capital out of bent coppers later on, but back in 1988/89 it was a storyline that seemed to be off-limits.

Ramsey’s first appearance – driving a flash car very fast (and parking in the Chief Super’s space no less) – is a non-verbal signifier of his attitude and his brusque manner when asking June and Yorkie for directions also helps to quickly define his character – he’s a self-contained unit, not interested in making friends unless (like Ted Roach) they can further his career.

His interview with Chief Inspector Conway (Ben Roberts) helps to fill in some of the blanks.  Conway regards Ramsey as a bent copper, although Ramsey counters that he was cleared.  Conway doesn’t see it that way – in his view (one shared by Ramsey’s previous Chief Super) Ramsey was clearly guilty, although when we discover what his crime was – cheating at cards – it doesn’t seem too bad, but it was serious enough for Ramsey to be busted down from plain clothes to uniform, a clear humiliation for him.

It doesn’t take long before Ramsey makes himself comfortable, demanding bribes from local traders, such as Leslie Fisk (Tony Portacio).  But his actions quickly catch the attention of Bob Cryer, which sets up a nice dramatic tension – Cryer now knows that Ramsey’s a wrong ‘un, so he’ll be watching him like a hawk ….

Ted Roach continues to rampage around the building.  Now he’s acting DI, Ted spends his time giving Mike and Jim a very hard time.   Ted forces Mike and Jim onto the streets where they tangle with a couple of Asians.  One of them launches himself at Jim with some flashy kung-fu moves, but the ever resourceful Jim throws a bin at him, which does the trick!

Mix in another subplot concerning Alec Peters and some sailors and you’ve got a typically dense episode of the series.  The arrival at Sun Hill of a well-drilled squad of sailors (responsible for smashing up a bar) is a nice comedy moment, as is Conway’s acid response when he discovers exactly what Alec has done.  “How can you board one of her majesties frigates in sight of traitor’s gate, of all place, without permission?”

The Bill – Home Sweet Home

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Cryer leads an operation to evict a group of squatters.  Councillor Thomas (John Bowe) is on hand to ensure that there’s no police brutality, but it seems any brutality will come from the squatters side ….

Whilst Thomas is quick to jump to the defence of the squatters, not many share his opinion (certainly not the other residents or the police).  The squatters may soon be homeless, but Bob opines that it’s out of choice not necessity – they all come from affluent families and are indulging themselves by playing as revolutionaries.  Cultural slumming, according to Hollis.  CND posters serve as clear signifiers of their beliefs, although their desire to make a stand for liberty and freedom is rather dissipated when we see them bailed out by their parents to return home with fleas in their ears.

Marie Tucker (Sasha Mitchell) is also homeless, although she has no-one to come to her aid (apart from social services).  Her social worker, Sonja Bloomfield (Janet Dale), is concerned, not only for Marie’s two young children, but also for Marie herself – who could be suicidal.

There’s a circular path to the story as Marie holes up in Councillor Thomas’ bathroom.  On returning home, Thomas is less than impressed to find his house has been invaded (he makes a swift beeline for the scotch).  There’s a clear irony at work here – Thomas was keen to champion the rights of the squatters earlier on, but (at least initially) he has little or no sympathy when events move to his own doorstep, as he urges Smith and Frazer to extract Marie as quickly as possible.

Bloomfield is on hand to discuss with Frazer how the system has failed Marie and countless others like her.  Marie and her children had previously lived in a grotty bed and breakfast (“wardrobe there, bed there, damp bit there, rotting bit there, roaches all bloody over”) but walked out when she could stand it no more.  Instead of pumping money into bed and breakfasts, Bloomfield despairs that there should be a better way.

The core of the episode – an unhappy Marie pouring out her heart to Frazer and Bloomfield – is unusual, since we can only hear Marie, we can’t see her.  This means that Frazer and Bloomfield are the ones who have to react as Marie’s monologue takes an increasingly dark turn.

There’s no happy ending.  Marie overdoses on pills from Thomas’ bathroom and by the time the door is broken down she’s unconscious and fading fast.  The fact she’s surrounded by her two young children only serves to make this emotional punch even greater.  Thomas sums it up (“what a mess”) and reflects how he entered politics to help people like Marie, but has failed to do so.

Cleverly changing gear away from the squatters (who initially seemed to be the focus of the episode) Home Sweet Home offers little hope or reassurance.   When PC Haynes frets that the ambulance is taking too long, Thomas shrugs and says that it’s a sign of the times.  “But we’re running out of time” counters Haynes.  Can we draw any solace from these events?  Thomas (who saw his marriage disintegrate due to his political ambitions) reacts with compassion to Marie’s children, which offers hope that in the future he’ll redouble his efforts to help the most vulnerable, but it’s about the only crumb of comfort on offer.

Nicholas McInerny contributed twenty nine scripts for The Bill between 1988 and 2008, although given the quality of Home Sweet Home, his debut, it’s surprising he didn’t write more.  He’ll return later in 1988 for Old Habits, but then takes a break until 1995.

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The Bill – All in Good Faith

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All in Good Faith shows the sharp delineation between two very different types of coppers – on the one hand there’s Ramsey and Roach, on the other are Frazer and Conway.

Frazer calls Ramsey in for a chat.  She’s concerned about his attitude – seven members of the public have made complaints about him this year alone.  Given his faintly contemptuous and sarcastic attitude in front of her, it’s easy to see that he takes this same persona onto the streets.  Ramsey doesn’t disagree, telling her that he treats people the same way others treat him – which isn’t really what she wants to hear.

He can’t resist adding that a frontline policeman is always going to be the subject of complaints which someone like her, with little or no experience of policing on the streets, will never be able to understand.  This conflict – between the sharp end and the executive level – has been played out numerous times across multiple police series.

We also see it again with Roach and Conway.  Ted Roach’s time as acting DI is going fairly smoothly (he’s off the drink for one thing) but the wheels start to come off when a gun handed in at a recent amnesty is tied back to a man called Duffy (Leslie Schofield) and linked to a crime which occurred five years ago.

Ted is keen to go round and nick him, but never stops to consider the nature of an amnesty.  Conway decides that for the sake of community relations it wouldn’t be a good idea to arrest Duffy (if they did, the public would lose all faith in future weapons amnesties) but Roach ignores him and nicks him anyway.

Conway and Frazer discuss Ted, with Frazer musing that “surely he must understand there’s more to police work than arresting people, we have to gain the public’s cooperation and respect.”

However when Ted brings Duffy in, Frazer is more forgiving.  “We’re sadly lacking good practical officers, with all his faults I wouldn’t like to see Roach get into trouble over this.  I’m positive he’d make a good DI”.  Conway then makes a revealing statement – as long as Brownlow is in charge at Sun Hill, Roach will never rise above his current status as DS.

All in Good Faith adds a little more meat to the bones of Ramsey’s character, whilst also throwing the spotlight on Conway and Frazer.  Conway is shown to be more of a politician than a thief-taker, but in his position – where he has to face both public and political pressure – that’s understandable.  Frazer’s character traits are teased out nicely – it’s difficult to say whether she or Ramsey came off best during their meeting (both made fairly valid points) but she seems more able to straddle both sides of the fence (a desire to catch criminals allied to the realisation that they need the respect and cooperation of the public) than Conway does.

The Bill – Just Call Me Guvnor

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Frank Burnside (Christopher Ellison) returns to Sun Hill to take up the vacant post of DI.  But first he has a little undercover business to deal with – rounding up a violent gang of football supporters.

Burnside had previously made three appearances in the 50 minute series at Det Sgt Tommy Burnside (his name was later changed to Frank when it was revealed there really was a Tommy Burnside serving in the Met).  That he already has a little history with both the viewers and the officers at Sun Hill is something that works well.

We open with Conway explaining that Operation Red Card has infiltrated two undercover officers into Front Line (“a highly organised and extremely dangerous gang of thugs who are responsible for a great many of the violent acts at football matches up and down the country”).  And now they’re going to arrest them all.

The countdown to the start of the operation takes place in the peace and quiet of the CAD room with Viv, Hollis and Tom Penny.  Viv’s keen to be out on the streets with the others but the more pragmatic Hollis knows they’re well out of it.  Ted, who is present at the scene, is wise enough to know that you don’t go rushing in – you let the uniforms soak up most of action and then bring up the rear.

One of my favourite moments occurs when one of the Front Line yobbos spits at Ted.  He responds with a well-aimed headbutt!

It’s been expressly stated to all the troops that when they come across the undercover officers they should make no sign if they know them.  However, Ted and Jim can’t help but goggle as Frank Burnside is taken away (dressed in a natty pair of underpants) which immediately blows his cover.  Not the best way for Ted and Jim to encounter their new boss ….

Burnside and Bob Cryer have a history.  Bob has always regarded Burnside in a very jaundiced light, convinced that he’s corrupt (and later tells him to his face that he doesn’t understand how Operation Countryman – set up to investigate police corruption – missed him).  They don’t really hit it off when Burnside returns to Sun Hill either – as Frank enters the charge room and gives one of the suspects a quick slap.  Unsurprisingly, Bob takes a dim view of this.  “Let me remind you, as one of the duty officers on this relief, I will not have my prisoners assaulted.”

The needle between Bob and Burnside always remains bubbling under the surface, as – of course – does Ted’s spiky relationship with his new boss.  Burnside does have some supporters though – chief amongst them being Inspector Frazer.  This is partly because she knows that Burnside previously acted the part of a corrupt officer in order to ensnare others.  Problem is he played the part so well that the likes of Bob Cryer are now convinced he actually is bent.  Not that he’s bothered what others think of him.

The fact that Burnside and Frazer have a history is an interesting touch.  He greets her with a “hello sexy” which doesn’t upset her.  When he calls her Chrissie, she melts a little more – although both accept that “the past is the past” (there’s a hint that they had an affair back when he was a married man).

Just Call Me Guvnor is a cracking reintroduction for Burnside.  It sets up the parameters of the character perfectly whilst letting the audience know more about him than his colleagues do.  We know that Burnside isn’t corrupt, although Bob and Ted – contemptuously referred to as “a couple of tossers” by Burnside – and the rest of the nick believe otherwise.  Bob is later put straight on this by Frazer and he’s forced to apologise to Burnside, although he also tells him that it still doesn’t mean he has to like him …

A late story beat (revolving around the prisoner headbutted by Ted) might not come as a total surprise, but it’s yet another victory for Frank Burnside who ends the episode very much on top.

The Bill – Caught Red Handed

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Barry Appleton’s Caught Red Handed juggles several plotlines at once and, as with previous episodes, it takes a little while before it becomes clear which ones will dominate and which will fade away.

The episode opens with the fallout from a stabbing.  Jill Kelsey (Chrissie Cotterill) attacked her husband, John (Jim Barclay), with a breadknife – stabbing him eight times.  It’s instructive to see how pretty much everybody (apart from Alec Peters) treats her with compassion, from Ted Roach at the scene to Inspector Frazer and Viv Martella at the nick.  Jill Kelsey is positioned as a victim rather than a criminal, which explains why Ted’s usual brusque manner is absent.

Of course, the fact she stabbed her husband not once but eight times suggests this may be more than a family row which escalated.  But she seems genuinely contrite and he – as soon as he regains consciousness – is completely forgiving and disinclined to press charges.  It slightly stretches credibility that he recovers so quickly (after eight stab wounds? Clearly they were very shallow ones).  His revelation that the argument started when he complained about soggy cornflakes signifies that this crime has a faintly comic air, strengthened when John turns up at Sun Hill to take his wife home.

So Burnside’s quite happy to let them go – the whole incident written off as a domestic – although it seems rather unlikely that he’d be discharged from hospital quite so soon (even if they were desperate for beds).  That he turns up at the nick still dressed in his hospital pyjamas also seems a little unbelievable.  There’s a late coda to this part of the story, which once again is played rather for laughs.

Attention then turns to an obbo at the local swimming baths with Tom Penny and June Ackland.  This is chiefly of interest due to the way Tom reacts when put under stress (not very well).  They’ve rigged up an observation point to monitor the changing rooms in an attempt to identity a thief who’s been rifling through the lockers.

When someone is spotted, June tells Tom to switch on the video recorder.  This is a slight plot weakness – back in 1988 VHS tapes would have been quite cheap, so why not just keep the recorder running all the time?  Although they catch the criminal, something goes wrong with the tape and they’re left with no visual evidence.  This is enough to once again push Tom to breaking point – showing that whilst he appears to be fine on the surface, whenever there’s the merest hint of stress he’s liable to fold like a pack of cards.  As before, there’s never any suggestion that he’s not in a fit state to do the job – or that the next time he makes a mistake it may have more fatal results – presumably everybody just expects that eventually he’ll pull himself together.

This part of the episode has a happy ending, money treated by the SOCO (Susan Curnow) was placed in the lockers.  It contained an invisible red dye, which would stain the hands of anybody who handled it.  Hence the episode title.

But Caught Red Handed could also refer to Yorkie Smith, who’s observed in the pub acting in a very suspicious manner.  Frankly he wouldn’t make a very good criminal as he’s far too transparent (although his fashion sense – rolling up his jacket sleeves as though he was in Miami Vice – should certainly be against the law).  Jim suspects he’s been buying drugs and a search of his locker reveals a packet of pills.

This places Jim in a moral quandary.  After confronting Yorkie and a brief moment or two of soul searching he feels he has no alternative but to make it official.  Later, Ted Roach is withering in his condemnation – telling Jim he may have irreparably damaged Yorkie’s career.  Ted’s viewpoint would no doubt be shared by many of his colleagues, where it would be seen as closing ranks to protect your own, rather than concealing a crime.

Yorkie comes clean.  The drugs are anabolic steroids, designed to help him rebuild his strength as a rugby player.  He claims that many athletes take them (which is true, although his statement that it’s not an offence is a little harder to swallow).

Had Burnside not been DI then it’s possible it would have been dealt with unofficially.  But Caught Red Handed provides us with early evidence that Burnside is keen to mould Sun Hill in his own image, and this incident gives him an ideal opportunity to clip the wings of the uniformed branch.

His summary of both Brownlow and Conway is insightfully caustic.  He claims that Brownlow “is more interested in his golf swing and that converted barn he’s got up in the lakes than what goes down at Sun Hill”.  He concedes that Conway is a good man and a good copper but that he has to play things “by the book. And that is a worse handicap that Brownlow’s golf swing.”

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