These days I am perplexed and slightly bemused to find myself watching The Bill on a regular basis. Thing is, I used to hate The Bill, then a while ago I took to watching it for laughs, and now I end up addicted. A cynic might speculate that this addiction has something to do with the casting of the very yummy Sally Rogers, and I’m not necessarily saying there is nothing to that, but the show has changed almost beyond recognition in the last little while.
The first cop show I got into in a serious way would have been The Sweeney, and that informed what I wanted from a cop show. The Sweeney was total entertainment, so much so that Life on Mars, in reviving the essence of the show, toned it down quite a bit. Maybe it’s due to modern sensitivities, as in the much lower level of casual sexism in Life on Mars, or maybe to the fear that, with so many elements of the Sweeney universe having aged so much, a straight reproduction might have just come across as camp, a kind of Inspector Austin Powers. But The Sweeney had everything – a bit of grit, a bit of glam, a fast pace and plenty of action. Even watching it now on DVD, it holds up surprisingly well.
So you can understand why I never took to The Bill of old. It all seemed a bit dour and prosaic – sure, you had men in ill-fitting suits calling each other “Sarge” and “Guv”, but car chases were few and far between, and the cops were more likely to be dealing with muggers than gangsters. Nothing wrong with that by its own lights, but if you were used to your cop shows being action all the way, it did seem a little, well, sociological.
Then, a few years back – I wasn’t a regular watcher so I don’t know exactly – the whole show was turned on its head. There was a massive cull of characters, and the emphasis shifted massively from police procedural to soap, thus offending existing Bill fans without winning new ones. This is when I started watching more often, because the results were unintentionally hilarious. All of a sudden, you had a notably younger and prettier case – of both sexes – hanging around the station discussing their love lives. In theory they were all police officers, but in practice they did as much policing as Chandler in Friends did data processing. Once or twice an episode, the writers would seem to remember that this was supposed to be a cop show, and would rush out to nick a dodgy Scotsman.
(Incidentally, criminals’ ethnicity in The Bill is a fascinating matter in its own right. In the past, the black mugger seemed to feature a lot, although there were always plenty of sympathetic black characters to balance out any potentially racist overtones. Nowadays, if you see a black character in The Bill he’s almost certainly a cop, and crooks tend to be Scottish, Irish or East European.)
But over the last little while I’ve been catching The Bill in its new, hour-long format. Stylistically, there’s a big shift towards US procedurals like CSI, and the longer episodes allow the big stories to breathe, while the soapy subplots (now much more in the background) can continue without overwhelming things. The result is really very good – much better than some of the heavily hyped miniseries around, and the production values sometimes touch feature film quality. Out of a relatively humdrum old series that had become an embarrassing train wreck, suddenly you have a consistently high-quality drama series, something that might even be saleable to the Yanks. From the most unpromising beginnings…