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Soaps Interview

Tim Key (Series Producer, 'The Bill')

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After 27 years on the air and over 2,000 episodes, The Bill bows out this month following ITV's decision to axe the show. When the news was announced back in March, the commercial broadcaster cited falling ratings and changing tastes for the programme's fate. However, the subsequent outcry from fans has proved that there are many people who will be sad to see the UK's longest-running police drama disappear from the schedules. The show's two-part finale, titled 'Respect', reintroduces the character of Jasmine Harris and explores her involvement with a violent gang. DS recently chatted to The Bill's series producer Tim Key to find out more.

When were you told that The Bill would be coming to an end?
"We were told pretty much as soon as it was announced - the confirmation of it was very last-minute. We'd obviously been talking to the channel in the weeks and months before, so we knew that there were different options on the table. But it wasn't until the night before we announced it to everyone at the site that we knew for definite what the decision was. It played out how it appeared to play out, really - we'd hoped until the very end that there was a way of keeping it going, whether that was as it was or moving it into a slightly different slot or format. But in the end, ITV decided that it was time to say goodbye to it."

What was your reaction to the decision?
"I was devastated by it, really. We all were. But at the same time, you kind of accept that we're working in an industry where big decisions like this have to be made. Nobody takes their job for granted. It's a show that's been running for a very long time and that makes it vulnerable. The biggest problem really is that it isn't new - and advertisers and TV channels are obsessed with the new. For The Bill, I think no matter what anyone does to it, it's never going to be a new show. It's a time where people are having to rein the money in and be quite ruthless about things - people have got decisions to make and you can understand why people make some of them, even if you don't agree. But we were all absolutely gutted by it - we hoped it would never come to that, and it did."

Did you feel like you had plenty of time to come up with a suitable ending?
"We didn't have a lot of time. We knew that a certain episode was the end of the current contract with ITV, so we'd always known that we'd have to be flexible about the end of that episode. For example, it might have been that we'd have to take an on-screen break and come back again, so we'd worked in a bit of flexibility. But until we knew for definite what the deal was, we couldn't commit to anything. In the end, we completely tore up what we had planned for the final episodes and started again with something that we felt honoured the legacy of the show and delivered for our characters and for our audience."

And what kind of effect did the decision have on storylines in general?
"It affected everything and we had big decisions to make almost immediately. We had to rewrite a number of stories. For example, the episode that just went out with Stone and his father's funeral - originally that had been conceived as an episode that would send Stone in a very dark and dangerous direction for at least the next six months, if not 12 months. So we had to rework that episode so that instead of it being the start of something, it brought some of Stone's story to an end, saying to the audience, 'This is why he is the way he is'. At the end of it, he was faced with a choice between doing the right thing or the wrong thing, and he chose to do the right thing. So we had to do quite a bit of work like that."

What were your main aims when you started planning the final two-part episode?
"We talked about it a lot. Ending a 27-year show is a pretty impossible task, because whatever you do, people will have a view on it and say, 'I wish they'd done this', or 'I wish they'd done that'. We decided very quickly that we didn't want to do anything cheap or sensational - we didn't want to blow up the station. We talked about whether it would be the right thing to do to kill off a character, but we decided that would be cheating the audience. So we decided that what we wanted to do was celebrate what the show had always been about - the officers of the Metropolitan Police force, the job that they do every day and the effect that the job has on them."

How did the gang storyline for the final episode come about?
"We've done what we always like doing - we feel that the show has always, at its best, had something to say about the world that we live in. So we wanted to find an area of modern life and modern crime that people weren't familiar with, and we wanted to tell a story that was about something. In researching it, we discovered the appalling way that girls are treated in gangs - the way that they're raped to keep them quiet or punish them, or used as a status symbol for members of the gang. We decided that we had the right character in Jasmine, who we really liked when she was on screen the first time round, to tell the story through. So we wanted to do something that had real integrity and we wanted to reward our viewers, who've stuck with our show over the years."

And what can viewers take from the final two-parter?
"Well, the show is about real life, real people and what it's like to be a police officer, so we wanted our message at the end of it to be, 'This is the sort of everyday story that The Bill can tell'. Although it's certainly had its more sensational moments, whereas all the other cop shows are always slightly heightened or serial killer shows, ours is a show about real policing. We wanted to have that message at the end and give everybody a sort of 'greatest hits' package of what The Bill has always been about."

Is there a feeling of nostalgia in the final episode, or is it very much business as usual at Sun Hill?
"It's 50/50. The mood during the shoot was positive and there was a lot of laughter, but obviously a lot of sadness as well. In terms of what's on screen, we honour the traditions of the show and there are tributes in there to some of the show's trademarks. I think the fans will see that. There's a homage to the walking feet - they make a slight reappearance at the very beginning of the episode. I don't want to give too much away, but we looked at ways of respecting the show's heritage and addressing some of those questions that we've been asked about certain aspects of the show. It's an ensemble piece and all of the cast are in there - they've all got good stuff to do, and I think the last five minutes are incredibly powerful, poignant, respectful and appropriate. I'm very, very proud of that last episode in particular."

The Bill's two-part finale begins on Tuesday, August 24 at 9pm on ITV1. The concluding part airs on Tuesday, August 31 at the same time.

> Click here to read Part Two of our interview with Tim Key in Soap Scoop Get the Inside Soap magazine on your iPhone or iPad

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