I make no apologies for the joke.
Audience tastes in crime fiction change over time. The 90s, in the UK anyway, was the heyday of the Big Story, usually as told by Lynda la Plante and lasting up to five hours’ viewing time with ads. Then the 00s came along, and suddenly everyone wanted to be slick and cool, with an indie-music soundtrack over the top if possible. The current trend, one that’s been where the field is at for the past decade, is for dark, at times noirish, stories which are told across several episodes.
So, of course, shows come and go. The CSI-franchise, which seemed all-conquering in the 2000s, disappeared from screens entirely between 2013 and 2015 (no, I am not mentioning CSI:Cyber, that show never happened). Criminal Minds equalled the original CSI with 15 seasons, and Law and Order ran for 20, holding the title of ‘Longest Running US Crime Series,’ until this year when it was overtaken by its spinoff, the mighty Law and Order SVU. Maintaining creative energy across a long run is difficult, and it’s worth noting that even SVU’s ratings have been in steady decline for ten years. Actors and writers come and go, so if we’re being honest do their talents, formats that seemed fresh at the time can get old and worn quickly, audience tastes change, and there are very few TV crime dramas that make it to 10 seasons, let alone past 15.
But, when they do go under, it’s usually for one of the reasons I’ve already given. The CSI franchise may have lasted until 2015 but, if we’re being honest, its best days were in the late Noughties and CSI:Miami had peaked with seasons 3 and 4, before Horatio Caine went beyond all parody. Criminal Minds had clearly exhausted its format by season 6 and, with only one notable villain across all of its last 7 seasons the writers were struggling for ideas for a long time. Having never watched Law and Order I couldn’t say where it went wrong, but I’d imagine something similar happened to both it and to Law and Order SVU: after a while, they’d just reached the limits of what their formats could accommodate in a way that audiences liked. CSI, Criminal Minds, and Law and Order all sold themselves on the premise that they looked at crime and investigation differently, either through forensic work, psychological profiling, or by showing both the police and legal side of investigations. They started out as fresh takes on the genre, and the more they became just another cop show, the more that uniqueness faded and there was nothing you could find by watching them that you couldn’t find by watching something else.
They were all shows that had had their day.
21 seasons is the record for a continuously broadcasted crime show in the US, but it’s a good six seasons off the all-time world record, which resides in the UK, in Glasgow to be precise, where Taggart’s record of 27 seasons is safe until at least 2025, when on current trends the unstoppable juggernaut that is Silent Witness will inevitably overtake it (I could never get into it myself, oddly). Glasgow has the Gold, London has the Silver, with The Bill, which managed 26 seasons before its cancellation, and there was always a weird duality between the two shows. Their pilots aired within weeks of each other in 1983, sufficiently impressing ITV that it commissioned both as full series, The Bill starting in August 1984 and Taggart in July 1985, and they were cancelled within months of each other in 2010, after ITV had made the Exact Same Creative Mistakes.
The real Maryhill Police Station, home of Taggart long after Taggart wasn’t in it anymore.
Ok, so, it’s debatable how much Taggart was the fault of Scottish subsidiary STV as opposed to ITV proper, but, it doesn’t change that ITV managed to lose the world’s two longest-running crime dramas, within months, by doing the exact same things.
So what exactly did ITV do to mangle its apparently reliable crime workhorses?
Step 1: Change the iconic theme music
Even if you’d never watched The Bill, you’d have to have been living under a rock not to familiar with Overkill, its pre-2009 theme music. Taggart’s intro music, No Mean City, didn’t have the same level of public recognition, but was still beloved by the show’s fans. The opening credits of each show played out against a well-known, familiar, soundtrack that audiences knew and responded to.
Changing them, then, was a bizarre unforced error.
This might seem like a pretty minor point to pick up on – does the intro music really matter that much? The best I can say is this: the short answer is yes. The long answer is that the theme music is a central part of a show’s identity. It tells you, the watcher, exactly what kind of show you’re going to be watching. You know what you’re sitting down to, before it even starts. It signals to the fans that they’re going to see what they expect to see.
Put it this way: imagine you tuned into CSI for the very first time. The first two minutes would be some observations about the crime scene, and then you’d get either a pun or a whimsical observation from William Petersen, and the opening credits would launch to Who Are You by The Who, edited so that the first thing you hear is literally ‘Who are you?’ You’d know straightaway, that this show had a light-hearted touch, and it wouldn’t take itself too seriously despite its often grim subject matter – and you’d be right. Or, the opening credits of Line of Duty, which would be recapping all the twists from last week’s episode, with a piano urgently hitting quaver sequences on all its low notes, promising you further thrills and spills to come.
I could go on (and on and on and on and on and on and…) to take apart some classic TV themes and how they set up their shows just perfectly, but I think you get the point by now.
The reason Overkill and No Mean City were so iconic was because they got across, in the space of a 45-second credit sequence, exactly what kind of show you’d be watching. Overkill was dramatic and fast-paced, promising tension, high-stakes, a bit of pulse-pounding action, it even sounded a bit like the old nee-naw siren noise. No Mean City was slower, with almost a reggae beat, played over some gimlet-eyed stares from the main cast and lingering shots of the Glasgow backdrop, putting you straight into a noirish, gritty mood – you weren’t watching some country house murder-mystery cosy. Both shows, set up perfectly, and even better, the tunes were catchy and memorable. You could walk around humming them afterwards. A Sixth Form friends of mine actually worked out dance moves to No Mean City.
No. There will not be a video of me recreating them.
It was certainly a risk to change them, then, and it would be hard to say it paid off. The Bill’s new theme was so forgettable that they didn’t even bother with it in the show’s finale, switching back to Overkill for its last ever opening credits. I seem to remember it sounding a lot slower, darker and less urgent than Overkill, but I’ll level with everyone reading this: I cannot remember a note of the new tune and I’m not going to bother trying to find it on YouTube. It failed to stick in anyone’s mind. It turned fans away. I don’t need to relive it.
The story with Taggart is a little more interesting, because they didn’t completely revamp the theme music. It was still No Mean City, but instead of relying solely on the instrumental version as they had in the past, they remixed it, sped it up, and included Maggie Bell’s vocals as well. It’s astonishing how much the same song can sound differently when it’s remixed, and maybe it was just me, but… when I listened to the 2010, and 2009, theme songs side by side for this post, I had to listen very hard to the 2010 version to notice the similarities. Some of the same musical movements are there, but they’re done much quicker, not lingered over in the way that the 2009 version allowed, and it just feels so much more hurried. In the same way that The Bill had always been a fast-paced show, Taggart had generally moved quite slowly, so a sped-up theme didn’t fit.
I also didn’t like the new opening credits for Taggart, by the way. What is the point of shooting in HD if you make everything blurry?
It’s not that hard to know why the theme songs were changed, but it formed part of a wider tonal change in both shows so I’ll mostly come back to it in a bit. I do think that the addition of the lyrics to No Mean City were an attempt to make Taggart feel a bit more like the CSI franchise, which shows how off the ball either ITV or STV were in 2010, a point by which CSI already felt a bit stale and past its best.
Killing off beloved characters
Colin McCredie had played DC Stuart Fraser on Taggart for 15 years, until suddenly he… didn’t. The character was entirely dropped from the show’s last season without any explanation that I ever saw, never to be referred to again. It was hardly a way to treat the second-longest-surviving character on the show, and on a show where you only have four major characters, suddenly dropping one is, well, noticeable. I think Stuart was dropped for reasons of diversity more than anything else. Taggart had been hideously white until that point, and the character they seemed to be lining up to replace him was a black Muslim woman, overall it felt like an attempt to get more representation on-screen and that’s always welcome, but… if you have to do it by dropping another character, then that character needs to treated with respect. Given a send-off, or sent out in a blaze of glory (Taggart had done both in its time, if you count DCI Jardine getting clubbed over the back of the head as a blaze of glory). And recapping that at the start of the new series always helps. Stuart got none of this, he was just there one minute and not the next, and fans noticed. And complained.
The Bill had a slightly different problem, in that ITV wanted to cut costs, and its major cost was its actors. In 2009 ad revenue was falling in the aftermath of the Credit Crunch and the network wanted to economise. They did this in two ways: going from two weekly episodes down to one, and losing about one-third of the regular cast in one fell swoop that summer (several other actors left over the course of the year and largely weren’t replaced). Again, this was done without a lot of fanfare. Possibly this was influenced by The Bill’s previous habit of killing off characters in explosions, fires and gunfights. Post-2005 executive producer Jonathon Young was noticeably less keen on the flamboyant storytelling that had characterised the previous few years, so he may have wanted to avoid a repeat of the 2002 Sun Hill fire which allowed then-exec Paul Marquess to quickly kill off a load of characters he wanted to replace. The problem with this approach was that, whilst characters leaving owing to promotions or transfers was a lot more realistic than a mass die-off due to Godzilla attacking the station, it ended up being too low-key. There was very much a ‘Oh, is that it then?’ moment at the conclusion of a six-episode story arc that saw the departure of four major characters. There hadn’t seemed to be much setting up of any of their departures.
Again, it’s not like the showrunners could have done much about ITV’s budget, so if characters had to be dropped, they had to be dropped. Taggart dropping Stuart was very much an unforced error; The Bill clearly had to trim down on its cast. I don’t even think having four characters leave to set up a new human trafficking unit was a bad idea – I just think it needed more set up than it got, which was about two minutes at the end of the aforementioned six-episode arc. Even a couple of throwaway lines from a senior officer just wandering through about how they needed a Superintendent to head up the new human trafficking unit would have clued the audience in that someone was going to be leaving soon.
There are ways for longstanding, beloved characters to leave a series, but ‘Cyabye,’ with no explanation or chance for the audience to say goodbye isn’t the way to do it.
Surviving characters suddenly becoming cartoon versions of themselves
Sun Hill’s uniformed Sergeants Dale Smith and Callum Stone had never really liked each other all that much. It was a classic conflict between by-the-book Smithy and sails-close-to-the-wind Callum, of the kind that cop dramas have thrived on since time immemorial. There was tension between them, Smithy was concerned that Callum was leading some of the younger uniforms astray, he complained about him to their boss at various points, there were sideways looks and sideways comments… and then the format changes happened and suddenly they were having punch-ups at the riot training facility and in the station car park.
It was plausible because Smithy had always had a bit of an edge to him and there was always a sense that he was a sticker for the rules because he didn’t trust himself without them, and Callum’s habit of colouring outside the lines had been well-established, but the whole point of the antagonism between them was that it was never quite out in the open. Once they started having shouting matches and boxing matches it all felt a bit, well, over the top, especially as for most of this period Smithy had actually been promoted and was Callum’s boss.
The showrunners could have got away with this being the only example of characters suddenly becoming over-the-top caricatures of who they’d previously been, but, of course, it wasn’t. Jack Meadows had always been presented as a bluff, no-nonsense, but very capable DCI, until they promoted him to Superintendent and he was suddenly so no-nonsense he didn’t know that asthma could be fatal. PC Nate went from a bit of a ladies’ man to an out-an-out womaniser. Two of the detectives went from providing insight and perspectives on their minority backgrounds to full-on Cultural Ambassadors every time they featured prominently – that felt fine for Grace Dasari, who’d always provided representation for Hindu people, but felt very forced for Jacob Banks. The problem wasn’t with having a black detective having to navigate the racial politics of policing poor black communities in a largely white force – The Bill had done this before, and better, with PC Lewis Hardy, but that worked precisely because Lewis was explicitly from a poor black background and met with decidedly mixed receptions from both his colleagues, and the black community, as a result. Banksy, on the other hand, was a former teacher married to a barrister, who’d never really been depicted as having been heavily involved in, or even especially interested in, the racial politics of his job before. The Bill certainly needed a character or two to explore this issue – racial tensions between ethnic minorities and the police remain an ongoing issue in the UK, and the police still have an awful lot of work to do to gain the trust of many people of colour in the UK. Its depiction of the racial dimensions of policing had certainly not been as good after PC Lewis left. But the answer wasn’t to force an existing character to undergo a complete Personality Transplant. Much better to create a new character – any one of the uniformed officers added after 2009 would have done.
Readers familiar with the last few seasons of The Bill will note that I’ve saved the best for last – Max Carter, played by Christopher Fox. In his first 18 months Carter was written as a bit of a chancer prepared to go to greater lengths than were strictly healthy to get results, but lengthy story arcs focused on him revealed that under the surface he was more caring and at times even reflective. One of his more memorable storylines involved him working alongside the wife and family of a man he’d shot and killed whilst assigned to the Firearms Unit, and showed that underneath his gung-ho attitude he was troubled by the man’s death. But then the Credit Crunch dumped something into the water at Sun Hill, and Max transformed into a casual racist who managed to offend both Grace and Banksy on a regular basis, who pushed a woman into committing suicide by police through his aggressive negotiating techniques in an armed siege, and whose no-holds-barred rules-get-in-the-way attitude led to him becoming a cocaine user after an undercover assignment. As a side effect of the coke snorting, he lost all his previous complexity… and became a much less interesting, sympathetic character.
That’s the problem with making characters both over-sized and one-dimensional. They just become harder to relate to and care about. Audiences start to lose interest in them.
The Bill at least had an ensemble cast, and characters such as Smithy and DI Manson were still strongly written and given engaging storylines. Taggart only ever had four characters, which they then dropped to three, so when those three became over-sized cardboard cutouts of their most recognisable character traits, it was very noticeable, very in-your-face, and made it much harder to feel invested in two out of three of them. Robbie had always bent the rules when it suited him, and had always felt an unrequited attraction to Jackie, but there were other sides to his character that were explored – his mistakes were often criticised by Burke, had real consequences for the team’s investigations in some stories, and he felt a real need to prove himself at times. In Taggart’s final season, however, his character arc became ‘Robbie screws up, Jackie sighs, rolls her eyes, cleans up after him.’ With that many screw-ups in the space of six episodes you started to wonder why either Jackie or Burke were so loyal to him. His relationship with Jackie was also oversimplified, and actually misunderstood by the writers – she’d never so much cleaned up after him, as held him in check, made more difficult by the fact that he outranked her. The dynamic between them was always there, and came into sharp focus in some stories, but receded into the background in others, and was never simply that Jackie ran around after him covering up all his mistakes and blunders. The final season went back to it in virtually every episode, it quickly became old, and I began to care much less about Robbie in particular, but also about Jackie.
Losing Stuart was problematic because, although it had four main characters, Taggart had always given more prominence to Burke, as the main character, and Jackie as the most interesting character. Dropping to three mains meant that the dynamic between them had to change, and one-dimensional Robbie just wasn’t interesting enough to carry a third of an episode. Burke, in the meantime, went from grumpy hardboiled no-nonsense veteran, to outright maverick pining for ‘The Old Days,’ overnight. Admittedly, I did like his new boss telling him to stop wishing he could go back to the 80s when he was a proper copper, as ‘It wasn’t any better and you know it.’ But as she was portrayed as a secondary antagonist in most episodes, the line lost some of its punch. Burke had never had any time for office politics, and had clashed with superiors who put politics first, but he’d never had rose-tinted specs and a hard-on for the Eighties. Taggart’s last season was written during a huge burst of nostalgia for Old-School Coppers, back when Men Were Men, brought on by Life on Mars and then Ashes to Ashes, and this point of Taggart suddenly trying to remix everyone else’s Greatest Hits is… something I’m coming back to. Let’s just say for now, Burke’s sudden conversion into a ‘Things were better in the Old Days,’ Professional Grumpy Old Man always complaining about having to follow rules and procedures felt like a poorly disguised, and poorly carried out, attempt to win over Ashes fans with a discount Glasgow Gene Hunt. And his sudden penchant for rushing off to confront villains alone felt like a pretty obvious attempt to turn him into a less glamorous, less ginger Glasgow Horatio Caine. Thank God they didn’t try to make him wear shades.
At least I really hope nobody did.
That idea… is truly terrible…
If you think it’s getting dark, turn out more lights
Thus spake Ronald D Moore, showrunner of the famously bleak and depressing Noughties reboot of Battlestar Galactica, which had previously been about the lowest-stakes sci-fi series in existence. RDM said it, but crime drama really embraced it starting in the mid-Noughties. If the Nineties was all about the Big Complex Stories, and the Noughties had tried to be too cool for school, then by the end of the decade, darkness and noir were very much the tone that everyone was aiming for.
The Killing, the 2007 Danish show, was the first series in this new wave, which is still rolling through crime fiction today. Hey, audiences still like it, although there are signs that the format’s limits have been reached, and were actually reached a while ago. Broadchurch couldn’t maintain creative momentum into its second season (thoughts on how ludicrously bad season 2 was in the link below), and even the mighty Line of Duty looked a little out of ideas in its fifth. Following The Killing, so-called Scandi Noir was briefly all the rage, in literature as well as on TV (Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo both came to prominence in the UK in the three or four years after it). Suddenly every TV station wanted some depressing Nordic crime dramas; The Bridge was probably the most successful, Wallender also made an impact, although it’s worth noting that an awful lot of Scandi imports weren’t actually that good. The Killing convinced TV producers everywhere that there was a vast, untapped pool of high-quality drama in them there fjords, only for the pool to turn out to be far shallower than they thought.
Even Copenhagen Police Station looks depressing
It’s also worth noting that, although its runtime was longer, The Killing’s central conceit, of telling one storyline per series, wasn’t very different from Prime Suspect or Trial and Retribution. It was rather better than the latter, not quite as good as early instalments of the former. It hit at just the right time, with the Noughties Cool Vibe feeling stale, but audiences had already shown that they were ready for dark, complex stories.
What this meant for The Bill and Taggart was that ITV, like every other station, was scrambling around for its own versions of The Killing. The BBC reacted by creating its own noirish, one-story-per-season dramas, the 2011 phenomenon that was The Shadow Line, the unstoppable juggernaut of Line of Duty in 2012, and 2014’s Hinterland (my review of this series is far and away the most visited site on this page – link below). ITV eventually followed suit, giving us Broadchurch and Unforgotten, and lately The Victim, but its initial response was to take two of its existing crime shows and clumsily try to turn them into Killing-style Brit Noir.
This was a disaster for The Bill, although it could have worked with Taggart.
The Bill’s slot had been 8pm for years, and its writers had largely become very good at dealing with complex storylines in a pre-watershed way. They occasionally had some complaints about going too far, but on the whole they managed to handle issues like terrorism, rape, honour killings and gang violence in a family-friendly manner. The move to 9pm was difficult as a result – the writers were suddenly expected to produce grittier, tougher material that they weren’t used to, and which the actors were noticeably uncomfortable with at times. What they needed was good long probationary period to get used to their newfound creative freedoms, but ITV, which had never been shy to axe shows it feels are underperforming (they’ve been known to do it halfway through a show’s run), was never going to give them that. Ironically, the time at which the cancellation was announced, March 2010, was the point at which the writers and cast had just started to find their feet in the new format and had produced some really good, tense, memorable stories.
Oh, and they had the new tough-and-cool theme tune that no one liked as well, to emphasise that this show was Dark And Gritty Now.
You’d think ITV’s execs would have learnt that they needed to give Taggart at least a season to cope with all the changes being chucked at it, but, no, they didn’t.
If The Bill had seemed uncomfortable at times with the new format, Taggart was very disjointed indeed. Partly this was due to the sudden changes in its three remaining lead characters, of course, but the writers were also struggling with the tonal changes. Taggart had always been on the gritty side, but there was now an added need to make it seem tough and action-packed, with a few of those Maverick Loner Cops everyone seemed to like, and ITV also wanted a multi-episode story strand built-in. Basically, they now wanted a show that was doing the same things as Life on Mars, The Killing, and CSI:Miami, all wrapped up into one, complete with lyrics in the intro music. Nostalgic for the Good Ol’ Days, complex and layered, and some kind of bizarre fusion of old-style Western, morality tale, and Hummers. Taggart’s ratings, which had always held steadily around the 4 to 5 million mark, duly nosedived, going below 3 million for one episode.
Trying to be Glasgow Life on Mars or CSI:Glasgow was always a game of silly buggers (they already had an iconic intro song, they didn’t need to revamp it), but there’s no reason why Taggart should have failed so abysmally at adding in complex, multi-episode storylines. It’s actually a little bit ironic too, that a big part of Taggart’s ultimate demise was trying to ape The Killing, when Taggart was probably a big influence on The Killing (Taggart was hugely popular in Denmark from 2002 onwards). In its final season, they added a multi-episode plotline about Robbie and a drug addict that eventually led to him being internally investigated. The problem was, they didn’t set it up properly, didn’t follow it across all the episodes, didn’t give us any reason to care, and in Robbie probably chose the wrong character to boot. The idea was that Robbie befriended the junkie during the first episode and started looking out for her, which got him into hot water with Professional Standards when she was caught up with an organised crime group in the sixth episode. The problems were many, though; Robbie had never seemed that bothered about any of the people swept up in their investigations before, his relationship with the woman was set up in about five seconds at the very end of episode one, it wasn’t alluded to again until episode six, and… why do I care about any of this? Robbie’s been daft. Pre-2010 Jackie would probably have let him get suspended to teach him a lesson, rather than run around after him cleaning up the mess.
It felt like Taggart’s writers had rather missed the point of the multi-episode story arc, which The Killing had been using to tell a more complex story than 45 or 60 minutes allowed. Having a longer-running storyline revolving around police or political corruption, or organised crime (all things that Taggart had done before) running alongside the Case of the Week would have worked fine. Expecting the audience to remember, and to care about, that one junkie Robbie had said he would help six weeks ago was a stretch at best.
It really did seem like ITV had looked at the most successful crime shows on British TV in the late Noughties and decided that a revamped Taggart would be their answer. To all of them. At once. The result was a messy final season that didn’t even manage to be Taggart, sending ITV’s other big beast off with a whimper, barely heard over the sound of Horatio Caine putting his shades on in the real CSI:Miami.
ITV actually had three long-running cop shows in 2010, and it’s worth nothing that they never seem to have considered making the same changes to Midsomer Murders as they did to The Bill and Taggart. This was, undoubtedly, because Midsomer Murders is a low-stakes cosy, still in 2010 featuring the original DCI Barnaby as pretty much TV’s nicest detective. It would have made no sense whatsoever to try to turn it into Midsomer Noir, and thank God they didn’t try and created Broadchurch instead to fill that particular niche in the market. Clearly, there was enough understanding of the identity of their shows at ITV to know that a darker, grittier, tougher Midsomer wouldn’t work – never mind trying to turn Barnaby into an action hero, or even changing its well-known theme. I just wish they’d had the same understanding about The Bill and Taggart.
…will not be suddenly required to take down the Midsomer Mafia across a six-episode arc
Now those links I promised…
And also, some shameless plugs…
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