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Killing off The Bill is a mystery to me

So it's goodnight and good luck, then, to The Bill, which bowed out last night after 27 years on the box. I have to confess that I haven't watched The Bill in any meaningful way -- by which I mean on a regular basis -- for quite some time, although I have dipped in and out whenever possible and have rarely been disappointed with the quality.

But I was there at the beginning, in 1983, when creator Jeff McQueen's original series arrived on ITV, intended as a kind of British answer to Hill Street Blues (hence, I imagine, the police station being called Sun Hill), which at the time was a very new kind of cop show, boasting an ensemble cast and numerous personal story arcs among the everyday cops 'n' robbers stuff.

Back then, The Bill showed in a weekly, hour-long slot and the main character was a shouty red-haired detective who never seemed to click with audiences. Other characters, though, became firm favourites -- such as Jim Carver, played by Mark Wingett, who remained with the series, through all its incarnations, until 2005.

And there were many incarnations, some of them ill-advised. Never, in fact, has ITV seemed so determined to muck around with one of its most-liked drama series.

At one point the series was chopped back from an hour a week to half-hour episodes, shown twice (or was it thrice?) weekly, which made it less of a cop show and more of a soap opera with uniforms.

But it could still be very good. Personally, I started to lose interest once they started getting rid of the best characters -- including DCI Burnside (who briefly got his own series), 'Tosh' Lines and the hapless, hilarious PC Reg Hollis -- and replaced them with characters who looked less like coppers than like the cast of Hollyoaks at a police-themed fancy dress party.

But The Bill, nothing if not resilient, bounced back, returning to the hour-long format with storylines that were bigger, grittier, more violent and altogether more reflective of the real world of drug-dealing, gun gangs, turf wars and international crime that crosses all borders.

Last night's closing chapter, the conclusion of a two-part story called Respect, was typical. The Sun Hill team, led by Superintendent Jack Meadows (the long-serving Simon Rouse), try to nail a gang responsible for the murder of a teenage boy and the gang-rape of a teenage girl, who for initially obscure reasons effectively becomes a hostile witness in her own case. It was tough, convincing, tightly-written and extremely well acted; the naturalistic acting in The Bill was always of a fairly high standard.

The episode closed with an emotional speech by Meadows to the press on the theme of respect, followed by an ingenious, one-take tracking shot that started inside the station and ended with Meadows climbing into his car, the illuminated Sun Hill sign visible in the corner.

I'm sure hardcore fans will have choked back a tear. They were probably a bit angry too, and who can blame them? What I saw last night was a serviceable cop show with plenty of life left in it, and better than much of the overblown, underdeveloped muck ITV routinely vomits into primetime.

Twenty-seven years is a long time, yet the audiences The Bill attracted were healthy. So why give it the chop -- and what's ITV going to do with the free time? More reality programmes and game shows? More documentaries with Martin bloody Clunes?

If it can find room for tweedy drivel like Marple, which creaked back onto ITV on Monday, or Midsomer Murders, which is due to drag its carcass into the next decade despite the departure of John Nettles, then surely it can find room for The Bill?

The axing of The Bill is a mystery. Pity there are no decent coppers around to solve it.


The Bill ***