Australian Arts Community
Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (6.35 pm)—For decades, Saturday nights have found many of us called to the television. The familiar sounds of sirens, flashing blue lights, theme music and the iconic pictures of two police officers walking towards the screen could only mean one thing: The Bill was starting. The Bill, an English police drama which ran for 27 years, was once Australia’s most watched television drama.
It stood the test of time as great shows before it slowly lost against the more popular reality TV. However, sadly in July last year England’s ITV announced that Sun Hill police station would be emptying their cells, removing their police uniforms and shutting their doors permanently. There was no fire, no terrorist attacks and no mass murder. The show, as simply as it started, ended.
During the eighties and nineties, when The Bill was in its heyday, it became a real family affair. Children were allowed to stay up longer, dessert was allowed in front of the TV and even the family pet was sneaked in to sit around and watch the latest events occurring in and around the fictional suburb of Sun Hill, set in the rather realistic backdrop of east London. The Bill started at a time when television drama was at its peak, competing with great Australian shows such as A Country Practice and The Sullivans and following on from great British comedies such as Are You Being Served? and Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em. The British writers went out on a limb to provide a different type of drama. Thus The Bill was born—a bird’s eye view into the goings-on of a busy London police station.
The Bill was not an obvious hit. It was decidedly unglamorous, featuring leaden skies and dingy council estates. It was only signed on to 12 episodes, as the BBC was unsure that the audience would take to seeing the happenings inside a police station. But fans were gripped by the lives and exploits of the officers of Sun Hill police station and the series drew praise for its suspense filled story-lines and tight scriptwriting. Unlike many TV shows today, the story-lines had depth and feeling and the puzzle was not solved in an instant. The characters built relationships with the audience, and many of the names and faces of The Bill’s past will be embedded in the minds of many Australians. Names such as PC Tony Stamp, Sergeant June Ackland, DC Tosh Lines, DS Jim Carver and DC Mickey Webb entered our living rooms so often and for so many years they became a part of the family’s Saturday night rituals. I always used to know that The Bill was starting because my mother-in-law would cut short teatime to go home and watch The Bill in the comfort of her own lounge room, and now I am going to have to endure my mother-in-law for longer, God love her, because there is no excuse to go home anymore.
The Bill served as a starting point for many English actors, as Neighbours and Home and Away do for Australians. However, for an Australian to portray a character in this drama was a rare yet significant move, and it is worth mentioning here one Australian actor, City Homicide’s Daniel MacPherson. The axing of The Bill is the final nail in the coffin for shows which do not have to run off short, quick story-lines to grab the audience’s attention. Two one-hour episodes per week was a sufficient amount of time to watch the Sun Hill crew work their way through a kidnapping, a murder or a drug charge in the Canley borough operational command unit in east London. Had they been solved in the mere half-hour that most dramas are allowed today, the depth of story would be lost.
Saying goodbye to The Bill for many Australians was like saying goodbye to an old friend. It was a poignant television show which became the mother of all police dramas, both Australian and English, that have branched from its concept. It seems that none that tried following in its footsteps did quite as well. Twenty-seven years for one show is no mean feat. I would like to see if any of the reality TV shows that we have to endure today will do nearly half as well.