The Bill - Volume 5 Review
The Bill was an ITV police drama that aired continuously from 1984 to 2010. During that time it underwent several changes in format and timeslot but this collection of episodes comes from early 1989 at which point, according to its wikipedia entry, it was being transmitted as two 30-minute (including ads) episodes per week in the early evening. Which means no swearing or graphic 'adult content'. This set contains all thirteen episodes broadcast between 17 January and 28 February 1989.
The show has a large army of loyal fans but it was something I never watched which is why I was intrigued to see this. The format is that of a station-based police procedural drama. This uses the same dramatic setup as most hospital dramas such as BBC's Casualty in that you have an institutional building staffed by regular characters being visited by people who come in for one episode only, usually in distress and therefore have dramatic stories attached to them. This means you have long-serving regular actors who the audience grow to know - Trudie Goodwin played June Ackland for 27 years - as well as giving plenty of opportunity for young unknowns and seasoned character actors to appear. There is an old saw in Scotland that almost every Scottish actor has appeared in Taggart. Equally they have nearly all appeared in The Bill because its appetite for one-off appearances was so great it meant the casting directors had to spread their net far and wide. I reckon at least 10 or more new actors had to be hired per episode to satisfy all the storylines.
The location is Sun Hill police station in the East End of London and these episodes come from the time when bobbies on the beat still wore tailored uniforms with shiny buttons. Each 25-minute episode can have up to four plotlines unique to that episode(!) so the pacing is fast and the narrative condensed. In order to make an impact on the audience in such a short time the characters often have to be, at best, painted in broad brushstrokes or, at worst, stereotypes. Which is where the seasoned old character actors come in because they can often step in and portray a rounded individual in very few lines of dialogue, Betty Marsden being a good example in N.F.A.. Also in this set we have a now-poignant treat in Life and Death with one of the late Elisabeth Sladen's rare TV appearances of the 80s. The drama school graduates tend to have more enthusiasm than experience but it's fun to spot then-unknowns.
Occasionally an episode will break format and concentrate on one plotline only such as in Duty Elsewhere when PC Haynes (Eamonn Walker) is sent undercover on a gang bust. In this set there is even a two-parter. Of the regular cast, most deliver decent performances but some are better than others. However the standout principal for me is Kevin Lloyd as DC 'Tosh' Lines. He embodies his character effortlessly and gives life and humanity to every scene he is in. At the time these episodes were broadcast he had been in the show for a year and was already a favourite with the audience and it's easy to see why. It's such a pity then that his career and life ended so badly nine years later.
Transfer and Sound
The series was shot entirely on video on location and in the studio. Using a production method pioneered by Brookside in 1982, this series used lightweight video cameras which made interior location shooting easier and faster but which also meant lighting is more unpredictable and actors are often seen awkwardly close to the camera as they squeeze past in narrow corridors and doorways. But these episodes were never meant be viewed repeatedly which means many of these technical imperfections are left in as it would have been too expensive and time-consuming to fix them (I presume). For the most part the master tapes are in very good shape but there are odd episodes where the picture quality is noticeably poorer. There is also some occasional tape damage with one really bad instance of it. As far as sound goes it's clear enough but because the dialogue is all live it sometimes gets muffled by background noise. The downside of shooting on video is that sound problems couldn't be fixed later as with film. In one episode, The Key of the Door, the flat used for the location shooting has very squeaky floorboards which dominate the soundtrack even when the actors are sitting down because the cameraman is still walking around them. Nul points for the location scout.
None. As usual with Network there are no subtitles.
Like most soap-format serial dramas the casual viewer can be a bit bamboozled. The per-episode storylines are too brief and sketchy to be completely satisfying and the longer-running principal character arcs are for regular viewers only. As a casual viewer I found it reasonably well-made considering the time constraints on production that plague shows such as this and Kevin Lloyd is a pleasure to watch but otherwise it's a bit unpolished and hit-and-miss. One for the fans.