This paper examines the British series The Bill as an example of, and benchmark for, the television police genre. Although the series holds a special position within the genre, not least because of its longevity and embedding within Australian and British popular culture, it has attracted very little academic analysis. Existing research in relation to the television police series genre focuses on history and output of specific production companies and television industries; textual analyses of specific and defunct television police series; form and ideology; moral lessons and the place of crime in public life; the effect of changing cultural discourses; and anxiety about violence. However, this paper focuses on The Bill as a television series rather than the issues raised by The Bill as a television series. In doing so, a number of issues are explored. These include an overview, from the 1950s onward, of the television police genre within Australia, Britain and the USA; the interplay of elements of repetition and difference in a balance acceptable to producers, audiences and critics; four production eras and the influence of individual Executive Producers Michael Chapman, Richard Handford, Paul Marquess and Jonathan Young on the format and style of the series over a twenty- five year period from 1984 to 2009; and the blurring of generic boundaries in response to contemporary imperatives. In relation to these issues, it is argued that the television police genre is shaped by national, rather than global, discourses and is displayed in iconography that reflects national attributes and cultural context. It is further argued that the interplay of elements of repetition and difference impacts on viewer loyalty, and this interplay has been driven by a small number of individual Executive Producers, each constrained by contextual features such as industry trends, changes in cultural norms, falling ratings, and the need for a change in audience demographics. In accommodating these contextual features, traditional generic boundaries have blurred so that The Bill, exemplifies the merging of a masculine genre such as television police with a feminine genre such as soap opera.
Since its inception as a series the British television police drama The Bill (Geoff McQueen, 1984-present, UK) has regularly redefined the boundaries of the television police genre in relation to production values, characterisation, memorable characters and the creation of an active fandom. First broadcast in 1984 as an example of the police procedural category of the television police genre, it was hailed by critics and audience for its authenticity and gritty realism, for its production values and for its storylines.
Twenty years and some 2000 episodes later The Bill had incorporated, in a deliberate production strategy to attract more viewers, numerous elements of the soap opera genre. The emphasis was no longer on gritty realism and police work but rather on personal relationships and morally questionable behaviour within a specific police community. Traditional generic conventions of law and order gave way to anarchy, chaos, and a focus on the private, rather than the public, lives of protagonists. It is not the only police series to incorporate soap opera elements but was, in 2004, the only police series to incorporate so many of them. However, with the advent of executive producer Jonathan Young (2005 – present), The Bill refocussed on a balance between contemporary realism and personal relationships. As producer Tim Key said after the series won the Screen Nation Award for Diversity in Drama in February 2009, “The programme aims wherever possible to accurately reflect multi-cultural life in modern Britain… ” (http://www.thebill.com/videos/videodetail/item_200014.htm)
Such a progression is a feature of television police series on international screens. As McQueen (1998, 28) notes, shifts in generic conventions allow for creativity within the boundaries of tried and tested formulas, but an imbalance in the interplay of repetition and difference may lead to confusion or disinterest on the part of the audience. Blue Heelers (Hal McElroy and Tony Morphett, 1994-2006, Australia) features the private lives of characters but eschews anarchy and chaos. Law & Order (Dick Wolf, 1990-present, USA) features anarchy and chaos but eschews the private lives of characters. Both series have maintained viewer loyalty by balancing the interplay of repetition and difference in the depiction of national attributes and cultural context and by remaining within the boundaries of tried and tested formulas. The Bill, in contrast, has challenged generic conventions so strongly and varied the interplay of repetition and difference so much that it has blurred the boundaries between the television police and soap opera genres. In doing so, it has acquired a new audience in the form of soap opera viewers and has reversed falling audience ratings. The strategy of blurring boundaries has been successful: in March 2004 various media channels announced that ITV1 had commissioned a further 480 episodes of The Bill at a cost of 200 million pounds. The ‘golden handcuffs’ deal ensures that The Bill will be screened until at least 2010.
From 1984-1997 the major Executive Producer was Michael Chapman, who had worked on various television series since the 1960s. His production edicts shaped The Bill in its pre-1997 incarnation as a police procedural drama with strong documentary overtones. Falling ratings and a changing societal environment led to his replacement in 1997 by Richard Handford, who had previously worked as a producer on The Bill. Handford varied the interplay of repetition and difference by introducing elements of romance and a glimpse into the private lives of his characters but failed to arrest falling ratings. He was replaced in 2002 by Paul Marquess, from 1999-2001 a producer of the British soap opera Brookside.
Marquess abandoned the pre-1997 semi-documentary overtone of The Bill, reshaped the series as a serial, and focussed on sensational storylines, sexuality, and soap opera stereotypes. He organised a live episode in October 2003 to celebrate 20 years of production and hinted that one of the episodes transmitted in 2004 would feature an interactive element. Viewers who lost interest in the new format were outnumbered by a younger and more diverse audience with expectations shaped by familiarity with the television soap opera genre.
Jonathon Young replaced Marquess as Executive Producer in 2005, toning down sensationalist storylines and, whilst keeping an element of interpersonal relationships, aiming for a more realistic representation of contemporary policing in London.
In order to investigate the longevity of The Bill it is necessary to examine the ways in which the series conforms to, and the ways in which it departs from, generic protocols. The Bill holds a special position within the British television police genre. Pre-1997 it was used as a benchmark by industry and audience judging British television police series but was also classified by its critics as pedestrian, dull and boring because of its focus on the small currency of daily life and because of its emphasis on realistic police procedure. Metropolitan Police surveys (pre-1997) indicate that it was the main television police program through which viewers are provided with an insight into the world of real life policing. By introducing elements not usually associated with the television police genre and by focussing on the minutiae of day-to -day policing rather than on the big pictures of crime statistics and terrorism, and by incorporating narrative elements more readily associated with the television soap opera genre, The Bill continually redefines generic boundaries. It has become embedded within Australian and British popular culture but, unlike Dixon of Dock Green (Ted Willis, 1955-1976, UK), Z Cars (Troy Kennedy Martin, 1962-1978, UK), Miami Vice (Anthony Yerkovich, 1984-1989, USA), and Hill Street Blues (Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, 1981-1987, USA), has not yet been the subject of detailed academic analysis.
Existing research in relation to the television police series genre focuses on history and output of specific production companies and television industries (Moran 1985); textual analyses of specific and defunct television police series (Hurd, 1981; Clarke, 1982, 1986, 1992; Moran, 1985; Laing, 1991; Thompson, 1996); form and ideology (Buxton, 1990); moral lessons and the place of crime in public life (Sparks, 1992); the effect of changing cultural discourses (Nelson, 1997); anxiety about violence (Brunsdon, 1998) and fandom, social commentary and construction of identity (see Allen, 2007).
Tulloch (2000, 33-55) provides an overview of theoretical approaches to the television police genre and implicitly acknowledges that the television police genre is shaped, in the first instance, by national, rather than global, discourses and is displayed in iconography that reflects national attributes and cultural context. Iconography used by producers and expected by viewers in examples of the television police genre includes specific uniforms, equipment, vehicles, and jargon. Audiences remember Joe Friday’s dry ‘Just the facts, ma’am’ and the staccato theme music of Dragnet (Jack Webb, 1951-1959, USA), George Dixon’s ‘Evenin’ all’, the catchy lyrics of Car 54, Where Are You? (Nat Hiken, 1961-1963, USA), the black Granada crashing through a plate glass window in The Professionals (Brian Clemens, 1977-2983, UK), the heroes of The Sweeney (Ian Kennedy Martin, 1975-1978, UK) snarling ‘Get yer trousers on, you’re nicked’ or ‘We’re the Sweeney, son. So if you don’t want a kicking… ’, the operatic soundtrack of Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter, 1987-2000, UK), and the guns of many USA examples of the genre. Iconography is evident in the sub-industrial Melbourne back streets of Homicide, and in Blue Heelers, visually replete with the markers of a Australian country town. It is evident in The Bill, which is full of what Brunsdon (2001, 43) describes as the iconography of London. It is evident in the weapons, poverty, and gritty urban landscape of Hill St Blues and in the crowded precincts and courtrooms of NYPD Blue (Steven Bochco and David Milch, 1993-2005, USA) and Law & Order (Dick Wolf, 1990-present, USA).
As Fiske (1987, 222) notes, the television police genre, like all genres, modifies its conventions in a dialectical relationship with changes in social values. Neale (1980, 22-23) argues that particular features which are characteristic of a genre are not normally unique to it but that it is their relative prominence, combination and functions which are distinctive. Thus police series and sitcoms feature protagonists in everyday life but assign different foci to their activities. The television crime genre is a case in point. It usually depicts characters dealing with criminal activities rather than juggling romantic and sexual activities. It encompasses programs about amateur sleuths, private eyes, professional crime fighters, and real life crime-watch depictions. The boundaries of the television police genre are more limited in that the genre deals specifically with the actions of police officers. But it too has wide and shifting boundaries. Perhaps the most obvious and unarguable point is that television police series portray some aspect of police work.
In general, television police programs before the 1980s avoided topical and controversial subjects. Examples of the genre tended to focus on a no-nonsense, factual presentation as in Dragnet, or to focus on specific neighbourhoods as in Homicide and Division Four (Lynn Bayonas and Marcus Cole, 1969-1976, Australia), or the promotion of specific cultural values as in Dixon of Dock Green. The Bill, in contrast, featured topical and controversial subjects on a regular basis. Within the British television police genre Dixon of Dock Green shared similarities with The Bill in that it was set in a police station in London’s East End and focused on routine police procedure and low-level crime, but, unlike The Bill, it avoided controversial subjects. In the 1960s, Z Cars, another landmark British television police series, focused on routine police procedure. However, it redefined the boundaries set by Dixon of Dock Green by structuring one episode around the issue of pornography (Happy Families, 1964) and by portraying police officers as fallible human beings. In the 1970s, The Sweeney and The Professionals focused on combating armed robberies and terrorism. The one episode of The Professionals that dealt specifically with racism (Klansmen, Series 1, episode 13, filmed in 1978) was never shown on British terrestrial television because its subject matter was thought by London Weekend Television to be offensive to some viewers.
In contrast, The Bill dealt with controversial topics on a regular basis and, in doing so, redefined the boundaries of the British television police genre by moving closer to the generic conventions of British soap opera. Clutching at Straws (1984) dealt with child molestation, Burning the Books (1985) with pornography, Homebeat (1985) and Domestics (1987) with racism, and The New Order of Things (1987) with a suicidal AIDS victim. Storylines in The Bill were topical, immediate, and raw. Police officers were sometimes shown as sexist, racist, and politically incorrect, yet the same officers were also shown as caring, sensitive and heroic. From the first episode of The Bill (Funny Ol’ Business-Cops And Robbers, 1984), characters were multidimensional. Some of them, such as Sgt Bob Cryer and WPC June Ackland, echoed character types embedded in the national consciousness. Many of them had histories that were revealed to viewers over time.
History of The Bill
From that first episode, too, as Lynch (1991, 15) notes, storylines were multi-stranded so they could accurately reflect both the routine work and the diversity of cases dealt with by a single relief (‘A’ relief) in Sun Hill, a typical Metropolitan police station. Funny Ol’ Business – Cops and Robbers opens with a briefing from Sgt Cryer and Sgt Alec Peters, shows PCs Carver and Francis ‘Taffy’ Edwards arresting a car thief who is revealed as an informant for DS Burnside from Barton Street nick, PC Dave Litten assisting CID with a case involving a series of house break-ins related to a double-glazing company and WPCs Ackland and Martella unsuccessfully attempting to arrest a gang of pickpockets. Viewers learned that Sgt Cryer disapproved of ‘bent’ (dishonest) coppers and that he strongly suspected DS Burnside was one of them. They learned that ‘snouts’ (informants) were not to be trusted, and that DS Burnside was capable of treating colleagues and villains with equal callousness.
As an example of the television police genre The Bill met with some initial opposition. A number of critics voiced their disapproval of police officers portrayed as fallible beings rather than exalted gods of irreproachable morals. The then Police Commissioner objected to the projection of unprofessional and unrealistic attitudes and actions. The editor of Police Review decried the tendency of the series to show police officers virtually at war with society. Overall, however, audience reception of the early episodes of The Bill was encouraging enough for further series to be commissioned. Lynch (1992, 17) argues that the initial popularity of The Bill was due to its production excellence, its realistic look, the fact that it was character driven rather than relying on plot and effect, the fact that its characters were believable, and the fact that the audience could identify with the characters. However, Kingsley ascribes its success differently, agreeing with Sparks (1992) and Brunsdon (1998) that violence and fear play a part in persuading viewers to embrace the television police genre. She writes:
The Bill came to the screen in a year when few people were neutral about the role the police were taking in society. The service lost popularity, seeming to be no more than a tool of the Tory government when riot police charged against demonstrations by striking miners. But incidents such as the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy in April and the terrorist bombing of the Grand Hotel, Brighton, during the Tory Party conference which occurred only four days before the first episode of the first series in October  perhaps moved public opinion in the other direction. (Kingsley 1994, 28)
Sun Hill’s iconography reflects that of the real London Metropolitan Police. Although Sun Hill does not exhibit what Thomas (1997, 186) identifies as a ‘visual expression of Englishness… village greens and gardens, medieval lanes and churches, and wood panelled interiors where log fires burn even in high summer’, it does show a distinctive iconography in keeping with its fictional site somewhere in London’s East End. The iconography of The Bill is urbanised and somewhat bleak. It does not rely on the visually pleasing heritage nostalgia iconography so obvious in, and arguably so essential to the success of, Inspector Morse and Heartbeat (Patrick Harbinson and Stephen Leather, 1992-2009, UK). The site that Sun Hill occupies is indicated by what Brunsdon (2001, 43) refers to as London iconography – a geographical position defined by double decker buses, red telephone boxes, the river Thames, smart housing enclaves and bleak council estates such as the Bronte, the Abelard and the Jasmine Allen – which adds to the generic convention of ‘gritty realism’ pioneered in Z Cars and used with such effectiveness in The Sweeney and The Professionals. The Bill features the bobby on the beat idealized by earlier British police series such as Dixon of Dock Green and the meeting places of pubs and cafes so important in creating a sense of community in British soap operas such as Coronation Street (Tony Warren, 1960-present, UK).
Although The Bill drew on a tradition of notable British television police series from previous decades such as Dixon of Dock Green; Z Cars; and The Sweeney, unlike its predecessors, it had a large ensemble cast and there were no ‘stars’. Parallel narratives meant that the focus was never on only one or two members of the team. While Dixon of Dock Green is inextricably linked with George Dixon, Z Cars with Charlie Barlow, and The Sweeney with Jack Regan, viewers of The Bill would be harder pressed to name a single character or actor who exemplifies the series. DS/DI Frank Burnside is arguably the most memorable character of The Bill, but he does not exemplify the series in the way that he does in the spin-off series Burnside (Lizzie Mickery and Steve Griffiths, 2000, UK), that George Dixon does in Dixon of Dock Green and that Jack Regan does in The Sweeney.
One of the factors that impacts on the longevity and cultural embeddedness of The Bill 1984-1997 was a tradition of excellence in writing, direction, and technical production. In keeping with the gritty realism that typified the early years of The Bill, episodes were shot using a handheld M2 Ikegami camera. Camera shots, sometimes jerky and almost always from the viewpoint of a police officer, conveyed a sense of immediacy, familiar from news broadcasts, that helped to establish credibility in the eyes of viewers. Naturalistic lighting was preferred and rehearsals were minimal or non-existent. Editing techniques featured long takes with the camera panning from character to character rather than the more traditional shot-reverse-shot cutting.
Lynch (1991, 76) reports that the ensemble cast and the necessity of producing 104 half hour episodes each year dictated a tight production schedule. Two separate and colour coded production teams were formed. Each team was headed by a producer and divided into teams that worked on episodes at various stages of production. Each team produced two episodes every two weeks. Each episode was allocated four weeks of preparation, five days of shooting, ten days of editing, and four days of sound dubbing. When necessary, as for example in the move from North Kensington to South Merton, a third team was used to create a stockpile of episodes.
Episode ideas, in the form of a two or three paragraphed outline, were provided by scriptwriters, and considered at weekly script meetings attended by the Executive Producer, other producers, script editors, assistant script editors, police advisors (ex-Metropolitan Police officers) and the project coordinator. Scriptwriters were asked, after outlines had been considered for dramatic content, procedural credibility and the feasibility of shooting on a five-day schedule, to provide a three-page storyline. If the storyline fitted relevant criteria the writer was asked to provide a full script. Scriptwriters were expected to research their storylines in some detail. This involved visits to police stations, courts, social service agencies and hospitals. Attention to correct police procedure was considered essential and was ensured by the presence of two police advisers who organised actors’ visits to real police stations to introduce them to police operations, procedures and duties. The names of characters were checked against those of serving police officers. Such protocols, combined with acceptance and approbation from the Metropolitan Police, helped to mirror the realism of British policing that was so important in audience acceptance of the series.
Geoff McQueen (the original writer and a driving force behind the program) said:
We agreed that it would always be the police officer’s story, that nothing should be shown without one of our police men or women being there… we also agreed to keep out of the police officers’ homes. I wanted to see how it was affecting their work at the station rather than how the work at the station was affecting them at home. Immediately you go into the police officers’ private lives, it’s the kiss of death to police series, as I see it. (cited in Kingsley 1994, 25)
Although it was episodic rather than serialised, in its location and subject matter The Bill did not rely completely on established television police generic conventions but shared common strands with examples of the British soap opera genre such as Coronation Street (Tony Warren, 1960–present, UK) and EastEnders (Julia Smith and Tony Holland, 1985-present, UK): an urban working class neighbourhood, a clearly defined hierarchy and a focus on the minutiae and topicality of daily life. This, in a national culture that embraces the soap opera genre in print, radio and television media, is a factor in the longevity and institutionalisation of the series. In addition, unlike most contemporary television police series, The Bill incorporated, in many episodes, an element of the humour more commonly seen in British situation comedies. In Blind Alleys, Clogged Roads (1987) Inspector Roy Galloway’s arrest of a taxi driver caused a traffic jam in front of the police station. In Beer and Bicycles (1989) Chief Inspector Derek Conway (Ben Roberts) followed several false trails while searching the station for caches of alcohol and PC Tony Stamp (Graham Cole) objected to having to transport a flatulent police dog in his Area Car. Dancers (1996) involved a tea dance for retired police officers, a disappearing rabbit, a disrupted bridal celebration, a stolen car, a tray of cream cakes, and a villain who fled (‘had it on his dancers’) after a bank robbery in the 1970s but returned for his granddaughter’s wedding.
The Bill differed from other television police series in its approach to characterisation. Laing quotes the casting director of Z Cars’ first series as saying:”Before we began rehearsals I spent a clear week with [the actors] discussing the complete social background of every character – age, parentage, why they were in the police force, what they wanted out of it. We filled it all in, in great detail. Not one of these blokes would say a line without knowing why he was saying it” (1991, 128). In contrast, Kingsley (1994, 45) quotes Pat Sandys, one of the producers of The Bill, as saying, ‘When a new regular joins, he or she is given the character’s professional background – then that actor is left to find his own space’. Some actors were comfortable with this approach. Others were not, and their characters quickly disappeared from the personnel list at Sun Hill. The character that emerged was usually a meld of the producer’s vision and the actor’s interpretation.
From episode 1 of Series 1 (Funny Ol’ Business-Cops and Robbers, 1984) until the end of Series 3 (Not Without Cause, 1987), The Bill consisted of weekly fifty-minute episodes. Episode 1 of Series 4 (Light Duties, 1988) heralded, in a direct challenge to established British soap operas such as Coronation Street, the era of two twenty-five minute episodes per week. Some five years later, with the transmission of episode 1 of Series 9 (Dying Breed, 1993), The Bill’s twice-weekly broadcasts were increased to thrice weekly twenty-five minute episodes on the basis of favourable ratings. Australian viewers were introduced to The Bill in 1986 courtesy of the government funded Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). The series achieved consistently favourable ratings and has been a staple series on the ABC ever since.
In 1997 Michael Chapman’s position as Executive Producer was taken over by Richard Handford, whose brief was to revamp the series in an effort to reverse falling ratings. As The Bill was ITV’s pivotal program, broadcast three times a week, it was considered particularly important that the series regain and increase audience ratings. Figures quoted in the popular press at the time showed that The Bill’s audience shared had dropped from 50% to 40% within a year. The men who directed the revamp – apart from Handford, who had been a producer under Michael Chapman – had a solid background in the soap opera genre so it was perhaps unsurprising that they turned to the conventions of that genre and moved The Bill in a new direction that focused less on a semi-documentary style of police procedure and more on sensationalist and farfetched storylines that left little to viewers’ imaginations. The new direction for The Bill, while somewhat atypical of the masculine television police genre, confirmed the ability of the series to adapt to changes in industry and audience expectations and to challenge, with its interplay of repetition and difference, the generic boundaries of the television police series.
While acknowledging the traditional high production values and the meticulous writer influenced plots which aided the institutionalisation of The Bill, the new regime argued that viewers wanted to learn about the experience of being a Metropolitan police officer in the 1990s, and that such experience included racism, alcoholism, sexual harassment and sexual relationships in officers’ professional and private lives. They argued, too, that viewers wanted younger, more attractive officers in the corridors of Sun Hill. As there was no increase in budget, this meant that by April 2003 over 20 regular characters were written out of the series.
In early 2002 Paul Marquess (Alas, Vegas, 1998; Picking up The Pieces, 1998; Brookside, 1999-2001) was appointed Executive Producer. His brief from ITV, as reported in multiple media channels, was to boost ratings, and his experience was solidly in the soap opera genre. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his strategy to gain audience share incorporated elements of soap opera that went far beyond those introduced by Handford. All pretence at achieving quality television was dropped. Marquess claimed in the print media that ITV and Thames Television had decided the serial aspects of The Bill were very successful and that audience research supported this belief. His appointment reputedly included very definite instructions to turn the series into a serial. The Guardian reported his view that The Bill was a product held in affection by viewers: “No one here wants to piss that away and it gets 7m viewers as it is, but if you look at The Bill‘s core demographic, it is white men over 50. And guess who it was being written, produced and directed by? White men over 50. I’m not here to slag it off, as there have been some terrific episodes. I’m here to make it more relevant”. (Marquess 2002) Marquess revamped the official website of The Bill (http://www.thebill.com), terminated the official on-line fan forum and erased all mention of program history prior to his regime. In April 2001, he introduced a regular electronic newsletter alerting fans to upcoming developments and new characters. Despite claims in the May 2001 electronic newsletter that ‘crime stories will now come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and durations – much more like real life in fact’, long term fans argued that the only crimes visible on The Bill were the sensationalism and simplistic storylines combined with stereotypical and shallow characterization that changed their favourite series beyond recognition and altered the interplay of repetition and difference so drastically that The Bill appeared to have migrated to the feminine soap opera genre. Fans who visited the official website of The Bill were invited to subscribe to the newsletter to keep abreast of developments. However after a few months the newsletter was relegated to the backburner and made only sporadic appearances. On the rare occasions it did appear Australian and New Zealand fans (several months behind the UK) were infuriated to discover that it was written for the British fandom and contained major spoilers (exposition of as yet unseen storylines) in relation to events at Sun Hill.
The Bill post-1997 continued to redefine the boundaries of British television police genre with its production techniques and intensive schedules. Both Handford and Marquess, aware of budgetary constraints and logistical requirements, continued the use of colour-coded production units. The production site remained based at South Merton and, as in the Chapman era, the show remained the star, but the post-1997 years were notable for an increased use of actors from soap opera programs. The focus of an episode or storyline was often on one or two members of the team and the use of parallel narratives became less frequent. Handford, for instance, was responsible for the Fox/Santini storyline (Deep End, The Party’s Over, Bang Bang You’re Dead, and Team Spirit, 1998), in which PC Eddie Santini sexually harassed PC Rosie ‘Rosebud’ Fox; and for the DS Beech as bent copper storyline (The Rate For The Job and The Personal Touch, 1998; Walking On Water, 1999; Supping With The Devil and Touch And Go, 2000; Fake Fur, In Safe Hands, Find The Lady, Fifty-Fifty, and The River, 2000) which culminated in the removal of Chief Supt Brownlow and most of the Sun Hill CID team (All Fall Down, Parts 1 & 2, 2000).
Handford was also responsible for the return of mean and menacing DCI Frank Burnside (Cast No Shadow, 1998), last seen as a DI at Sun Hill in 1993, and for Badlands (1999), in which PC Dave Quinnan was beaten by a fifteen-strong gang of local youths at the local sports club. Conforming to pre-watershed conventions, the severity of the beating was emphasised through the reactions of the characters involved rather than an explicit depiction of the incident. Viewers saw PC Quinnan hit the panic button on his radio, causing the alarm to sound in the CAD room, and heard the horrifying sounds of the attack. They saw PC George Garfield’s frustration at being locked outside the club, unable to rescue his colleague. They saw the reaction of police officers in the CAD room at Sun Hill. Badlands was the beginning of a storyline, extending into the Marquess era, that involved a competition between PCs Quinnan and Garfield for the affections of a nurse, the resignation of PC Garfield, an affair between PCs Quinnan and Polly Page (Lisa Geoghan), the break up of PC Quinnan’s marriage, the rejection of his marriage proposal to PC Page, his breakdown and transfer and her breakdown and extended sick leave. Stephanie crystallised the thoughts of many fans in regard to the Handford era, writing, in a comment posted to the BillFans.net forum on February 6, 2003: “I feel… that once Handford had let certain genies out of bottles there was no way they could be put back, and I also feel the nineties audience just wanted a lot more personal stuff than an eighties one did”. Post-1997 The Bill gradually changed from a series to a serial in the television soap opera tradition. Although this was explicitly attributed to falling ratings, it was also an implicit acknowledgment not only of the fragmentation of audiences due to an increasing diversity of media channels but also of Feuer’s (2007, 27) argument that ‘the distinction between ‘serialised’ [with some continuing story arcs] and ‘series’ television that once defined the difference between daytime and prime-time television formats no longer really exists’.
Episode titles were abandoned in 2002 when Marquess took over and storylines often covered ten or more episodes. Romantic relationships and sexual exploration took centre stage. However, given that British culture embraces the soap opera genre, this probably saved The Bill from cancellation. Marquess was unrepentant about changing the program. He insisted that the focus would remain firmly on crime, but that The Bill would show how crime affected the characters on a personal as well as professional level. Much of the iconography embedded during the Chapman era was replaced. This was partly due to the need to mirror changes in uniforms, equipment, vehicles, and identification codes within the Metropolitan Police force and partly to signify a change in the generic interplay of repetition and difference. The iconic plodding feet seen in the credits disappeared in early 1998 and were replaced with iconic police images such as epaulettes and hats. Thereafter the title sequence, credits and logo that established the program as a recognisable example of the British television police genre were changed on a regular basis.
As a result of the changes instituted by Marquess, actors no longer had the freedom to create their own characters. Several actors left the series after disagreements over the direction their characters’ lives were taking. Many more were removed as a result of sensational storylines that disposed of large numbers of officers (the exposure of DS Beech as a bent copper and the Sun Hill station firebombing). By 2003 The Bill had effectively changed its audience profile from ‘white men over 50’ to a younger demographic and had doubled its target audience in the 16-34 year old bracket. Marquess (cited in Tibballs 2003, 13) said ‘serialisation has delivered a younger audience and a much bigger female audience’. His words underline the validity of Pearson’s assertion:
The increasing fragmentation of the audience… meant that a programme’s demographic profile counted for more than sheer numbers, with advertisers seeking the ‘right’ viewers, those with disposable income and inclined to spend it… by the end of the twentieth century demographic thinking had become the norm among industry executives. (2007, 15)
Both Handford and Marquess abandoned short episodes in favour of one-hour episodes. Although audience research indicated that viewers liked tight half hour storylines, the rationale given by production executives for the expanded episode format was that it enabled producers to meet contemporary audience demand to develop characters’ personal lives and that it served as a platform for stronger and more challenging storylines. In 2002 Marquess challenged television police genre boundaries by changing The Bill from a series to a serial. Episodes were no longer given titles but were assigned numbers. Ep 1 dealt with an undercover operation in a lap-dancing club. Ep 2 introduced the race riots storyline that resulted in Chief Inspector Conway’s death in a car bombing, and the deaths of a number of officers in the firebombing of Sun Hill police station.
Transmission frequency in Britain was subject to scheduling variations but in Australia the ABC continued to broadcast new episodes every Tuesday and Saturday nights, except when a block of eight Tuesday nights during November 2003-January 2004 was taken over by MIT: Murder Investigation Team (Paul Marquess, 2003-2004, UK), a spin-off of The Bill. From early 2008 the ABC dropped the Tuesday night transmission and presented a ‘double bill’ of back to back episodes. Although regulatory authorities prohibit depictions of graphic violence in The Bill’s pre-watershed timeslot, both Handford and Marquess oversaw storylines that dealt with issues of extreme violence. In an attempt to boost ratings, both producers also focussed on the personal lives of Sun Hill police officers and emphasized aspects of modern living such as drug taking, sexual harassment, child pornography, personal vendettas, murder, extramarital activity, and divorce. While fans were not happy with the direction taken by both producers, the most virulent fan criticism was reserved for Marquess. Australian fan sdbrown wrote on the Billfans.net forum on February 6, 2003:
A key criticism of Marquess has been his use of ‘controversial’ storylines. I guess this depends on what one considers to be ‘controversial’ – personally, I have no problem with storylines about gay police officers, corrupt police officers, or police infighting, because in actual fact all are aspects of police work and the police lifestyle. A friend of mine who worked for the NSW police told me many stories about the extremely political, competitive, and harsh nature of the police… On a personal level as a fan, I enjoy watching my favourite show, whilst undergoing significant change, remain an entertaining, engaging, and relevant TV show. Like everything in life, a TV show must change and grow if it is to survive, and I believe The Bill is doing this.
Marquess instituted regular story conferences at which he indicated how future storylines were to be delineated. The pre-1997 refusal to explore the private lives of Sun Hill police officers was vetoed, with the result that well crafted crime solving gave way to gratuitous groping and clichéd coupling. It was noticeable that by 2003 many former writers and directors had left the series. However, post-2005 under Jonathan Young, the interplay of repetition and difference changed to incorporate more elements of the original police procedural concept. In order to accommodate grittier storylines ITV announced in January 2009 that the program would be shifted to a weekly post watershed slot in the UK.
Another of the factors that impacted on the longevity and cultural embeddedness of The Bill was a tradition of incorporating humour – sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant – into episodes and storylines. This, too, almost disappeared post-1997. As kerry holmes_protégé noted wryly on the Billfans.net forum on May 2, 2003:
In the good old days The Bill had a sense of humour and irony. Now whenever I laugh during an episode I’m not sure if that’s the intended effect or just woefully bad scripting.
Nevertheless, there were some humorous moments. Some, particularly in the Marquess era (exemplified by the following example), were centred around dialogue, as when Sgt Craig Gilmore and PC Nick Klein watched PC Cathy Bradford pole dancing during a covert operation. Klein said: ‘Well seriously though Craig, doesn’t she do anything for ya?’ Gilmore replied: ‘Look, I’m just more interested in the pole, alright?’ (Ep 1, 2002)
Not everyone was happy with the changes in form and content. In Britain, media reports indicated that audience share dropped from 9.74 million for the week ending 15 June 1997 to 8.89 million for the week ending 14 June 1998. Ratings at this time indicated an audience share that fluctuated between 42% and 32%. Research indicated that viewers liked The Bill and its format of a single story contained in each 30-minute episode, which allowed them to dip in and out of the series. Journalist Stephanie Bentley (1998, n.p.) reported that John Hardie, ITV’s marketing and commercial director, announced a three-month heavyweight promotional campaign for a ‘new, improved’ version of The Bill, one that explicitly advertised a change in generic conventions. One-hour specials, allowing more time for character development, and the use of continuing storylines to keep viewers hooked, were planned. Hardie promised that authenticity would not be lost, arguing, ‘The Bill is not a soap. It is an authentic police drama. We don’t want kitchen sink drama, we want crime stories.’ Fans saw the situation somewhat differently. One, anon, argued cynically on the Billfans.net forum on March 6, 2003:
The answer to why more people watch The Bill now is simple. The show now is watched not only by the type of viewer who watched it years ago and watches it for the crime, but also by another very large audience: the ‘soap viewer’- the result is a very high following. Unfortunately there’s no shortage of the ‘soap viewer’ wanting to watch the latest sensationalist story.
Despite tension between audiences in an increasingly diverse digital environment, Marquess’s strategy was successful in attracting and maintaining audience figures. In October 2003 he celebrated twenty years of The Bill with a live episode that was transmitted in Britain from two broadcast units at the studio and used 104 technical crewmembers in six production teams and 22 cameras rather than the usual 24 technical crewmembers, one production team and one camera. Media reports indicated that ratings averaged 9.9 million (peaking at 10.4 million in the final 15 minutes) with a 40% audience share. Shortly afterward, in March 2004, The Sun announced that, in a 200 million pound deal, ITV1 had ordered 480 new episodes of The Bill. Nigel Pickard, head of ITV drama, told The Sun that the deal was done in order to stop rival networks poaching the series. Five years later, in 2009, media reported that The Bill, at the heart of the ITV1 schedule, was to be repositioned in a weekly post watershed transmission (http://www.thebill.com/productionnews/articledetail/item_100012.htm). It seems that, in the evolution of The Bill, pushing generic boundaries, attracting a soap opera audience and acknowledging industry trends has been successful.
Since its inception as a series the British television police drama The Bill has regularly redefined the boundaries of the television police genre in relation to production values, characterisation, memorable characters and the creation of an active fandom. From 1984 to 2004, The Bill challenged generic boundaries, moving within and from a police procedural format notable for authenticity and gritty realism to a hybrid that combined police procedure with soap opera elements. From 1984 to 1997 it was well known for its authenticity and gritty realism, for its production values and for its storylines.
However, falling ratings dictated a series redefinition and post-1997 The Bill attracted a number of audiences, the main ones of which were long-term fans (many of whom had grown up with The Bill) and soap opera viewers with different expectations shaped by familiarity with British soap operas such as Coronation St and Eastenders. Long-term fans looked for quality drama; the soap opera audience looked for sensationalism. The existence of such diverse audiences showed that The Bill, regardless of its age and thousands of episodes, was still evolving, still challenging generic boundaries, and still balancing the interplay of repetition and difference. With its institutionalised geographic and culturally specific setting, the series provides a readymade bridge between the traditionally masculine genre of police drama and the feminine one of soap opera and highlights a pathway to contemporary industry realities.
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Blue Heelers 1994-2006. Hal McElroy and Tony Morphett, Seven Network, Australia.
Burnside 2000. Lizzie Mickery and Steve Griffiths, ITV, UK.
Car 54, Where Are You? 1961-1963. Nat Hiken, NBC, USA.
Coronation Street 1960-present. Tony Warren, Granada Television, UK.
Dixon of Dock Green 1955-1976, Ted Willis, BBC, UK.
Division 4 1969-1976. Lynn Bayonas and Marcus Cole, Nine Network, Australia.
Dragnet 1951-1959. Jack Webb, NBC, USA.
Eastenders 1985-present. Julia Smith and Tony Holland, BBC, UK.
Heartbeat 1992-2009. Patrick Harbinson and Stephen Leather, ITV, UK.
Hill Sreet Blues 1981-1987. Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll, NBC, USA.
Homicide 1964-1976. Lynn Bayonas, Seven Network, Australia.
Inspector Morse 1987-2000. Colin Dexter, ITV, UK.
Law and Order 1990-present. Dick Wolf, NBC, USA.
Miami Vice 1984-1989. Anthony Yerkovich, NBC, USA.
MIT:Murder Investigation Team 2003-205. Paul Marquess, ITV, UK.
NYPD Blue 1993-2005. Steven Bochco and David Milch, ABC, USA.
The Professionals 1977-1983. Brian Clemens, LWT, UK.
The Sweeney 1975-1978. Ian Kennedy Martin, Euston Films, UK.
Z Cars 1962-1978. Troy Kennedy Martin, BBC, UK.
Dr Margaret Rogers is an Independent Scholar. She completed her doctoral dissertation, ‘Previously on The Bill: Factors in the longevity of a British television police series’, in 2004. She holds undergraduate and postgraduate Business degrees majoring in Organisational Communication and Communication. Her research projects encompass pub rock, masculinity and Australian identity; the impact of the ‘ten pound’ migrants on Australian popular music; Australian media and cultural identity in the 1970s; Australian television series; television police series in Australia, Europe and the USA; slash fiction and the television police series; and virtual communities in fandom. She is currently writing a crime novel, the first in a series featuring the Australian Federal Police, set in Canberra.
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