How The Bill transformed UK TV

The crime procedural dominated TV schedules until it was axed in 2009

Sgt Bob Cryer (Eric Richard), PC Reg Hollis (Jeff Stewart), Sgt June Ackland (Trudi Goodwin), Chief Spt Charles Brownlow (Peter Ellis), DS Jim Carver (Mark Wingett) starred in The Bill. (ITV/Shutterstock)
Sgt Bob Cryer (Eric Richard), PC Reg Hollis (Jeff Stewart), Sgt June Ackland (Trudi Goodwin), Chief Spt Charles Brownlow (Peter Ellis), DS Jim Carver (Mark Wingett) starred in The Bill. (ITV/Shutterstock)

As iconic ITV series The Bill celebrates its 40th birthday, we look back at the history of the long-running TV staple.

Forty years ago, viewers of ITV sat down to the latest instalment of the channel’s newest anthology series, Storyboard. Little would those viewers have realised, however, that the episode they were watching, titled Woodentop, would birth one of the longest-running and awards-guzzling police shows in British TV history: The Bill.

Woodentop was never intended to run beyond that one-off, but ITV bosses saw potential in writer Geoff McQueen’s powerfully-written drama and, 14 months later, came Funny Ol' Business – Cops And Robbers, the first episode of a series that would run for the next 26 years.

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The Bill, as it was newly monikered, would become one of the jewels in the third channel’s crown, first running as a series of hour-long standalone episodes and later being promoted to a year-round, twice-a-week pseudo-soap that, at its commercial peak, was attracting audiences of 11 million.

As The Bill celebrates its 40th anniversary, we look at how it changed telly forever.

It’s one of the longest-running police dramas in TV history

The Bill actors, from left to right; Jeff Stewart, Roberta Taylor, Mark Wingett, Trudie Goodwin and Cyril Nri pose with an artwork given to the ITV show by artist Tracey Emin to celebrate the police drama's 21st anniversary at their studio in south London.
The Bill stars Jeff Stewart, Roberta Taylor, Mark Wingett, Trudie Goodwin and Cyril Nri pose with an artwork given to the ITV show by artist Tracey Emin. (PA/Alamy)

Currently tying with Taggart (1983-2010) and with Midsomer Murders (1997- ) coming up close, The Bill outlived most of its cop show contemporaries to become one of TV’s longest-running police procedurals, beating Dixon Of Dock Green (21 years) and Z-Cars (16 years).

“I think The Bill offered something new and experimental that surprised people,” says Edward Kellett, author of the book, Reaching A Verdict: Reviewing The Bill (1983-1989).

“It was ahead of its time in the way it was shot, with quick set-ups and use of single camera, a style which then became dominant in TV. Being an ensemble piece, it wasn’t dependent on one immovable lead to carry it and could keep bringing in fresh characters to entertain the audience.

"It also needed new writers and directors to supply the huge amount of episodes every year, so it kept refreshing the talent behind the lens as well. Above all there was a chemistry to the cast that made for a family feel; this was a reassuring world that viewers enjoyed diving into and being part of.”

It wasn’t afraid to experiment

The cast of The Bill in the 1990s. (Shutterstock/ITV)
The cast of The Bill in the 1990s. (Shutterstock/ITV)

Given that The Bill clocked up 2,425 episodes over its 27-year run, there was plenty of room for its writers and directors to mix up the formula. Not only was The Bill the first police series to be awarded the two-episodes-a-week treatment, allowing for more serialised storytelling, it was also the first cop show of the modern era to broadcast live, first in 2003 and again in 2005.

And then there was its innovative shooting style, a quasi-documentary look that would prove massively influential.

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“There was a house style of long, continuous takes that got more and more ambitious as the show went from hours to half-hours,” says Kellett. “One episode, They Also Serve, is set inside a van of bored officers waiting to be called up for riot duty.

"The entire first half is one 11-minute take moving around inside the van, camera operator literally crawling in a tiny space. The episode ends with the van being bombarded by missiles and petrol bombs, and one officer briefly set on fire, again in one take.

"And one mid-2000s episode that takes place in the custody area — Three In A Bed — pushed the camerawork to the limit by being filmed in two takes: one before the ad break, one after.

“As time went on The Bill attempted longer and more ambitious storylines linked together, rather than being resolved in one episode, such as the hunt for a child serial killer in 1990 which took place over six parts.

"One of the most dramatic shake-ups of the format was the mid-90s three-parter Target, in which June Ackland is hunted by a hired assassin. This involved ambitious and bloody set-pieces in each episode, starting with a shooting in a high street, moving on to the burning of a house and ending in the death of a regular character.”

It boasted appearances from many stars-of-tomorrow

Keira Knightley appeared in an episode The Bill. (ITV/Shutterstock)
Keira Knightley appeared in an episode The Bill. (ITV/Shutterstock)

It’s staggering how many now-household names began their careers on The Bill. Keira Knightley, aged just 10, can be seen in the 1995 episode Swan Song; a 25-year-old David Tennant appeared (as a child murderer!) in the episode Deadline, while his Doctor Who co-star Catherine Tate appeared as three different characters between 1993 and 1997.

That’s not to mention James McAvoy, Idris Elba, Nicholas Hoult, Martin Freeman, David Walliams, Robert Carlyle, Sean Bean, Russell Brand and Emma Bunton, among many others.

“Marc Warren [from TV’s Van De Valk and Hustle] as a drug-addled teenager in Cry Havoc is a definite stand-out,” says Kellett about his favourite guest star turn.

“His character stabs one police officer and tries to knock another one to his death off a girder before coming to a bad end. Also John Simm as a creepy young thug in Blind Spot who assaults a man and gets away with it for lack of evidence.

"And Alex Kingston [River Song in Doctor Who] in In On the Game, playing an ultra-glamorous escort who turns out, much to everyone’s surprise and disappointment, to be an undercover detective.”

It’s one of the most influential police shows of all-time

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We wouldn't have Line of Duty without The Bill. (BBC)

The Bill was a revolutionary show at the time for focusing as much on the lives of the police officers as on the crimes themselves and it’s not hard to see its influence in many of the cop dramas of today, from the BBC’s recent Blue Lights to Line Of Duty to Grace (penned, incidentally, by former Bill scribe Russell Lewis).

“A lot of the creative people who worked on shows like Line Of Duty started out on The Bill,” says Kellett.

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“And you can see its influence in a show like Unforgotten, in terms of it simply showing the police getting on with their job and not necessarily being mavericks.

"That’s another one that's written by someone who started out on The Bill, Chris Lang.”

It was a show liked and respected by the police

Cast of ITV television show The Bill on December 22, 1988. Back: Mark Powley, Larry Dann, Colin Blumenau, Mark Wingett, Jon Iles, Christopher Ellison and Tony Scannell. Front: Roger Leach, Jeff Stewart, Kelly Lawrence, Eric Richard, Kevin Lloyd, Barbara Thorn and Trudie Goodwin. (Photo by Douglas Doig/Express/Getty Images)
The cast of The Bill in 1988. (Douglas Doig/Express/Getty Images)

Not all cop shows get the support of the very organisation they’re depicting. Some are too exaggerated, some are too sanitised, others simply depict the police in too bad a light. But The Bill valued authenticity, using a multitude of police advisors, with executive producer Johnathan Young even meeting up with the Met’s then-commissioner Sir Ian Blair in 2006.

“They had police advisors embedded right from the beginning of the show,” explains Kellett. “And the crew would go into real police stations to meet real officers and real officers would advise on storylines. I don’t think the upper echelons of the police weren’t keen on it, but they never are.

"But I think the people who were lower down, who were helping the show get made, they appreciated seeing the full spectrum of the job, of how tough it could be.”

Reaching A Verdict: Reviewing The Bill (1983-1989) is out now from Devonfire Books