26 March, 2010

Bye Bye Bill

Another one of those mornings where, having not blogged in ages, three things take my interest at once. This one's a eulogy. Ish.

It's been announced today that ITV has axed The Bill. This comes as no surprise to many of the people who've stuck with it for 27 years, even less to me, who gave up on it about a decade ago. I got tired of the repetitive drug-related storylines, the complete disregard for factual accuracy (no, June Ackland, you can't stay at Sun Hill if you get a promotion!) and - yes - the greater attention given to the private lives of the officers.

The thing is, I used to love the show. Really adore it. In fact, at a Doctor Who convention in 1997, I embarrassed myself in front of Simon Rouse - who'd appeared in the Who story 'Kinda' and still plays DCI Jack Meadows to this day. I went up to him and said, as casually as possible, 'Doctor Who's not my favourite show - it's The Bill'. He said 'Oh', and turned away the way one would when confronted by a six-foot, sweaty-faced loon professing his love for a telly show. Such blasphemy deserved to be treated so. I'm sure it wasn't quite as uncomfortable for him as the scene a few hours later when he tried to disentangle himself from the unwanted attentions of a drunken Patricia Quinn.

When Doctor Who came off the air in 1989, many of my friends jumped onto the nearest sci-fi option to hand. I'm sure this is why Red Dwarf suddenly became such a hit, just as so many people who I know to be lifelong Whoovers began obsessing about Star Trek: The Next Generation or B*byl*n F*v* (it's apparently bad form to mention its name nowadays, but back in the 1990s it was the cause of many a geekgasm). I held out until 1999 when, after Paul McGann failed to excite with the Doctor Who TV movie and the only chance of new Who was a rather excellent spoof by Steven Moffat for Comic Relief, I finally succumbed to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

But in that ten years, holding out for a new Time Lord, I switched my affections to police procedurals. I taped every episode of The Bill when UK Gold began the complete rerun (stopping only when DI Frank Burnside finally left the series) and watched the first three series of Prime Suspect more often than any other Doctor Who except 'The Five Doctors'. Sun Hill became so familiar to me that when I finally moved to London and visited a friend who lived in Brockley, I was thrilled to pass a street corner that I remembered from an episode of The Bill where I'd seen PCs Stamp and Quinnan try to prevent an altercation between an IC1 male and an IC1 female outside of an estate agent.

It was possibly a late bonding exercise between my Dad and me, too. He'd be sat in his chair and we'd settle down to another exciting instalment of live in Sun Hill. We watched London's Burning too, until that also went the way of all good dramas that decide to go sexy. My Dad had been a fireman, so that was interesting to hear him comment on how truthful and accurate those early series had been, but The Bill was better, because they had something other shows didn't have - PJ Hammond.

The creator of Sapphire & Steel somehow switched to writing for The Bill in (I think) the late 1980s and continued to write episodes until the mid-1990s. His always had a macabre or unexpected element, which helped keep The Bill as a fresh anthology series with a regular cast. One episode involved Mr and Mrs Chamberlain, a middle-aged couple who came to Sun Hill station to report a missing girl. Their blonde, busty neighbour's social life had caused the couple some distress in the past, but now they were worried for her, as she'd apparently disappeared. Mr Chamberlain was played by David Ellison, who I recognised as the grumpy PC Beck from Juliet Bravo. It turned out that the reason Mrs Chamberlain had insisted they report the girl as missing was that many years before, she'd suspected her husband, a butcher, of being responsible for the murder of a young woman who he'd grown obsessed by. Recognising the return of his symptoms, she fabricated the missing story to give her enough time to alert the police that something was wrong.

Such a brilliant, grizzly twist.

I rescued a box of tapes from my parents during a recent visit and brought them back to London with me. Almost every episode had someone in that I recognised, playing a guest role, and I still remembered the stories to many of the episodes, so it was strange to see an episode I remembered with a guest star who'd subsequently become famous: a juvenile offender played by Jake Wood, Max Branning in EastEnders; a child abuse victim played by Harry Peacock ('Proper Dave' in the Doctor Who episode 'Silence in the Library') - and his violent father was played by John Leeson, who'd voiced K-9!.

Hearing this morning that The Bill was being culled made me sad, but also relieved. It was like hearing that an old friend who I haven't seen in ages had been suffering from some dreadful illness but had finally died. I'm not sure I'd want to see a friend in pain like that, but I'm also unsure whether I'll be watching The Bill's last episode either. It'll be full of people I don't know, with the odd aged face that I can just recognise used to be familiar. There's only Jack Meadows left now. If he lasts to the end, maybe I could somehow try to tell him again that I used to love that show he was in, love it even more than Doctor Who.

Nah, I think that'd just end up being embarrassing for both of us. Better to just slip off quietly, so no-one knows I'd ever been there.

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