“Truth Will Out”: a savagely ironic title for the trailer of an April episode of The Bill, released the day before the tragic announcement that the show will be axed this summer after 27 years. Except the truth is always cloudy, as shown by previous instances of axing proven and successful shows.
Police serial The Bill has been a stalwart of British television history. Anything that can survive 27 years in times of great cultural change has much to be proud of. But its axe is like the carpet of tradition being yanked unceremoniously from under our feet.
The most radical changes in the show’s distinguished history were made in 2009. It was slimmed to one episode per week, moved to a post-watershed slot to make it more ‘gritty’, stripped of its much loved theme music, and the production became filmic and quite unfamiliar. Little more than six months later, with audiences plummeting, time is called on the show. It doesn’t take a great detective to work out what appears to have gone wrong here.
I am not an expert in television, nor do I have access to all the vital statistics, but this sorry episode rings very familiar. It’s Knightmare all over again. Knightmare finished with viewing figures approaching 5 million (more than The Bill currently receives), which is quite phenomenal for a section of programming loosely labelled as ‘dying’ at the time. The truth did eventually come out for Knightmare. While creator Tim Child found that the improvements he wanted to make would be harder and harder to achieve, it was commissioners, ultimately, mixed with a little career politics, that pulled the plug.
Statistics are useful evidence towards research, but research is always a double-edged sword. The question is whether the objective is already pre-pledged. If children’s television was on the decline by 1994, why axe the show that pulled in 5 million viewers? By that merit, Knightmare could have commanded its own niche, and children’s broadcasting should have been focussed around it, not away from it. “Audiences are getting younger” was the painfully definitive message coming from television gurus, and the decision was already cast in stone. Knightmare‘s final season in 1994 was cut short to around half the length of a tradition series, and its replacement, the younger-aimed Virtually Impossible, was deserted. The statistics implied that Knightmare had kept the strong figures alive and the drop was a reaction to its absence. Suits, on the other hand, shrewdly interpreted them as proof of their assessment that audiences were migrating away in drones.
Similarly, ITV must have known through the limited success of spin-offs such as Burnside and MIT, which exemplified that post-watershed ‘gritty’ texture, that tampering with The Bill in a similar fashion could spell trouble, and it is no suprise that the axe has fallen so soon after the changes took place. One generally has concern when there is too much power, or too great a salary at stake for someone of the higher echelons to utter the immortal words “I was wrong”. But the fate of The Bill does not seem to be about lapses of judgement; rather, it seems to have been deliberately shunted with careful manipulation to justify its cut at the earliest opportunity.
The agenda of Peter Fincham is greater evidence behind the axe than viewing figures. Changes to The Bill were unabashedly pronounced as a money-saving measure. Yet, despite revenues beginning to recover, it is still ready to cut rather than save the classic drama serial. A shame, but no surprise, then, that someone who presides over Jeremy Kyle and the dismal “No lighty, no likey” Saturday dirge Take Me Out should be ready to readily purge the small pocket of quality left on a broadcasting channel fast losing its soul to reality TV.
You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. The demise of The Bill is a great loss to many people. Respectfully, I hope ITV loses a great deal more.