If you've read my previous reviews, you know that I'm a big fan of British TV. Frequently, the very best of the crop is sent over here on DVD to the States, so it's possible to get a lop-sided view of the country's total TV output: most of what we get here of British TV plays very well. Now I had never heard of Britain's longest-running cop show, The Bill (as far as I know, it's never played here), but something running twenty-three years in over fifty countries, and still going strong, must be working on some level. Unfortunately at first, I couldn't see the appeal of The Bill. In fact, it took me three separate tries at the four-disc, almost ten-hour box set The Bill: The Complete First Series before I could really get into it.
It doesn't help that The Bill starts out (at least for this season) with one of the lamest opening title credit scenes in TV history. Two sets of feet, belonging to uniformed officers of Britain's police force, walk in slow unison as the series' synthesizer theme comes up. Alternating with shots of the officers' world-famous "Bobby" hats, the opening, shot on cheap, crude video, looks like nothing more than one of those first horrible MTV music videos that bands shot out on the streets with a camcorder. The opening certainly doesn't bode well for the rest of the show. And once the first episode started, the supposedly gritty (but in actuality cheap and inept-looking) shaky hand-held camcorder long-takes continued, making The Bill look like a not-too-far off straight version of Reno 911!. Further alienating me was the at-times almost impenetrable East End accents and slang that fly by furiously, all without the aid of supplemental subtitles or close-captioning. I tuned out, labeling The Bill as "amateur night," and moving on to other DVDs to review.
However, I really enjoy cop shows, and something kept drawing me back to The Bill, and finally, steeling myself last week to sit down and watch all eleven episodes in fell swoop, I eventually broke through my first and second impression of the show, and began to get caught up in the whole thing. Created by producer Geoff McQueen, The Bill takes place at the fictional Sun Hill Police Station in the East End of London. There, all of the myriad tasks, both mundane and dangerous, that policeman all over the world experience, are played out on the real streets of London, and in the crummy, cramped, ill-lit station house. The Bill deliberately doesn't visit the personal lives of the policemen and policewomen who work at the busy Sun Hill Police Station; all of the action and drama are focused on the work day. A greater sense of urgency and reality is achieved that way; we feel like bystanders who have wandered into a busy metropolitan police station, watching the action unfold - and many times, not really comprehending what's going on until the very last moments of the episode.
The Bill, not unlike a cross between the uber-reality series Cops, and the gritty yet fictionalized police drama of say, a Law and Order, further keeps the audience on edge by deliberately making the show as ugly as possible. Lighting is all natural (actors are frequently put in a horrendous light - no Hollywood star, even a fledgling one, would put up with The Bill's cinematography), and the camerawork is cramped, tight, and intrusive. Real street locations are always used, and the actors, obviously not chosen for glamour-puss movie-star looks, act and sound like real cops (except for the occasional over-acting that happens from time to time, particularly with John Salthouse's overemphatic Detective Inspector Galloway). Actual police procedures are emphasized (a la Dragnet), with a refreshingly honest look at the way many of those "by the book" procedures are skirted or ignored by cops under pressure to get results, or else.
The stories featured in this first season of The Bill focus on the day-to-day workings of a modern urban police precinct house, ranging from major drug busts to murder to the pathetic lies of a troublesome neighborhood drunk. Definitely in The Bill's favor, storylines aren't always neatly wrapped up within the hour, nor are they always solved to the satisfaction of the audience's preconceived notions. As well, the main characters of The Bill, the various police officers who work the dirty, mean streets of East End London, aren't the spit-and-shine, true-blue police heroes of older cop series. Decidedly human, the officers who work at the Sun Hill Station frequently make bad judgment calls, and wind up paying for them either at the hands of their superiors, or by the humiliation of fellow officers, who are always watching each other to see who will screw up next. As I said, sometimes, the acting can be a notch too high, with some phoney-sounding yelling and lots of arm waving, but overall, the performances match the alternately desultory and exhilarating mood-swings of the routine goings-on at the Sun Hill Police Station.
Here are the 11, one-hour episodes of the four-disc boxed set The Bill: The Complete First Series, as described in the enclosed DVD booklet (the fourth disc contains extras, described below):
Funny Ol' Business
A typical, busy day on Sun Hill's ground; a team of "dippers" working the High Street; a rash of pickpockets and thieves breaking into cars; a pair of burglars using a new dodge in stealing from houses. In addition, the Station Sergeant meets an old police adversary in this first story of this East End Police Station.
A Friend in Need
Another busy day in Sun Hill Police Station. A series of bomb scares results in a row between the Chief Super and his head of CID, Inspector Galloway. An injured man's life is saved and a young constable is accused of stealing from a man charged with an offense.
Clutching at Straws
Thief in the street market; a particularly brutal assault in the lift of a block of flats; but most sinister of all -- a recurrence of child molesting makes for a busy duty-turn at Sun Hill Police Station.
Every policeman knows that some day it may happen -- to him. Today it does happen -- to Detective Sergeant Roach of Sun Hill CID. Investigating a spate of armed robberies, he finds himself looking down the barrel of a gun.
It's Not Such a Bad Job, After All
A powerful and moving story concerning the life and death of a young girl who came to London seeking glamour and a career.
The Drugs Raid
Chief-Superintendent Brownlow sees a chance to get to grips with the local drug problem in a military-style operation involving most of Sun Hill Police Station.
A Dangerous Breed
Police Constable Litten, on temporary secondment to CID, and anxious to show his worth, has the misfortune to cross the path of that potentially most dangerous animal -- an informant, in a story concerning the theft of a diamond necklace.
Rough in the Afternoon
The most ambiguous and difficult territory for the police anywhere is the "domestic." But because in this week's case a small child is involved, the matter has an urgency which overcomes their natural reluctance to get involved.
Burning the Books
A Rogue's tale if there ever was one. DI Galloway and his men are up against an old adversary, who's proved too slippery in the past. But this time Galloway reckons they've got it on him, as the chase leads from warehouse to bank to solicitors, and finally -- out into the street.
Death of a Cracksman
Youth turns to experience when Eddie, Andy and Colin find a safe they can't crack. But times have changed, and Alfie Mullins with them. Suddenly it's not merely a missing safe, but a dead man. The police at Sun Hill are called up to deal with it.
The Sweet Smell of Failure
A real Darby and Joan -- and sticky fingered as a small boy with a toffee apple. PC Carver and WPC Ackland close in on the aged desperados as they meander like jackdaws through the manor.
Since the original source materials were deliberately grungy, don't expect the full-screen transfer for The Bill: The Complete First Series to look like Star Wars. I did notice some compression issues, but nothing huge, although I did have trouble with one of the discs scratching. Fremantle Media uses a flipper disc-holder system within the DVD cardboard sleeve, that I've never seen before. It doesn't work. Not only was a disc floating around inside (naturally, scratched), but I almost snapped another disc, trying to get that flipper holder out of its depression. Poor storage system.
The English 2.0 stereo mix is fine, but the original soundtrack goes in and out (due to the shooting method), so that, along with the thick Brit accents, would have merited a subtitle or close-captioning option. Unfortunately, they're not provided here.
First, we have the original pilot for The Bill: The Complete First Series:
It's fairly interesting, but if possible, even more rough than the subsequent first season. Next, we have a short featurette on the series, Behind the Creation of The Bill, that gives some good insights into the show. The next bonus featurette, The London Beat Featurette, which supposedly is about other successful crime shows in Britain, was unable to play, being on the scratched disc that dislodged because of the poor flipper holder storage system.
Realistic drama following young Jimmy Carver's first day as a police officer, as he learns about procedures and the dos and don'ts of the job.
It took several times for me to get into it, but The Bill: The Complete First Series turned out to be quite engaging, with a grittier-than-normal look at the streets of London, especially if you're just used to Masterpiece Theatre DVDs of historical England. The boring routine of most police work is honestly portrayed, and there's an admirable attempt not to go too deeply in the officer's personal lives. The Bill: The Complete First Series is about police work, on the job, and that's it. Some subtitles would have been nice, but eventually, you pick up an ear for the thick East End accents. I recommend The Bill: The Complete First Series.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.