Christmas is where you find it. Sometimes you find it in Canley Borough Operational Unit Command, Sun Hill. It’s a rough joint where the hours are long and life is short. It’s where the cops play hardball, the dames play hard to get, and the dame-cops do both, in sensible shoes. (That’s right, some of the cops are dames – though admittedly, not really until the 1990s, and they rarely make it past Inspector.)
Over its 27-year history, British police procedural The Bill aired 2,425 episodes, just five of which were Christmas specials. They represent 0.0020% of the total output, and 100% of the episodes where Reg Hollis plays the back end of a pantomime cow. That makes each one a rare truffle for this little piggy to sniff out and stack in order of greatness. Let’s get sniffing.
5. Twanky (1997)
The plot: PC Polly Page is having a mare directing the annual Sun Hill Christmas panto: Aladdin, from a script by Tosh. The scenery keeps falling down. Widow Twanky loses his voice. Reg Hollis gets his head stuck in a cow. The Princess Lychee (it was the nineties) costume is accidentally swapped for a box of shoplifted fetish-wear that’s exhibit A in an ongoing trial. Then the venue cancels at the last minute and a crazed ex-con stalks the production, takes a hostage, and attempts to cosh the Assistant Detective Inspector to stop him taking the witness stand.
Time until police work: 4 minutes 43 seconds. There’s a call-out to a bar fight involving a carving knife and 107 stitches.
Who gets nicked? Three kids who steal a trolleyful of frozen turkeys. A hostage-taking pantomime-cosher. And DC Rod Skase, who gets nicked and sexually assaulted by a pair of coppers from a rival station who honk his Widow Twanky balloon boobs.
Best line: “You tell Deakin, there’s no way Jason’s going down. I’ll ‘av him.”
High points: Reg saving the day with a new venue and the hostage-taker getting taken down by the might of Sun Hill live on stage, to the delight of the audience, who scream like it’s the Beatles at Shea Stadium.
Low points: The Gary Glitter song and dance routine (hindsight).
Why it’s in fifth place: It’s the only one of The Bill Christmas specials that makes you watch what feels like an entire pantomime, including songs and an overlong cow-based dance routine. Nobody should have to go through that at Christmas.
4. The Night Before/The Morning After (2000)
The plot: The Sun Hill uniforms are planning a Christmas bash at their local, but CID’s nose is out of joint about not getting an invite, so they nick the landlord’s son for possession (an early role for Matt from aptly named boy-band Busted) and get everyone barred. Reg finds a club as a stand-in party venue but they all get into a mass punch-up in the queue. Married PC Dave Quinnan rescues PC Polly Page from the melee, and overcome by lust, they embark on an affair, feeling each other up in the meat wagon and getting entangled underneath an orange duvet. Meanwhile, two department store security guards commit aggravated robbery and pin it on a small-time Glaswegian shoplifter, who tries to appeal to Duncan’s Scottish camaraderie by spinning him a pack of festive lies.
Time until police work: 00:47. Straight in. Two uniforms go to pick up a department store shoplifter who makes a run for it through soft furnishings but comes a cropper by the vacuum cleaner display.
Who gets nicked? The Scottish shoplifter, Matt from Busted, and eventually, the two security guards.
Best line: “I got him in the grotto” “Sounds painful”
High point: Learning that Reg’s middle name is Percival
Low point: A surprisingly long C-plot about Derek and Jack needing a wee.
Why it’s in fourth place: A complete absence of Christmas magic. It might be set during the festivities, but this dour two-parter’s adultery plot and EastEnders-style domestic drama feels not the faintest bit Christmassy. It’s a lot of moping around in dressing gowns, grumpy bickering and lonely heartache, more kitchen sink than Frank Capra.
3. When The Snow Lay Round About (1999)
The plot: A bottle episode! The Sun Hill crew is snowed in on a mostly silent night down at the nick. Having been cruelly mocked for the quality of his Christmas tree, Reg goes out into the snow, whereupon he intercepts a rogue snowball-thrower setting off the local burglar alarms. A Christmas orphan arrives in the form of Glen, whose foster family refuse to come and collect him because he keeps running away and is generally a bit of a knob. Glen’s dad is doing five in the Scrubs, so Glen keeps robbing the staplers and calling everyone filthy framing pigs. A comedy Russian barbershop quartet show up when their minibus is stolen, and they all get the major horn for Sgt. June Ackland, who loves it. Tony brings in a drunk elf, who promises to grant him a Christmas wish if he can go free. Tony wishes for mince pies, and then magically a boxful is delivered. Danny the Elf makes the Serg’s Christmas wish come true by unearthing Glen’s grandad to come and pick him up.
Time until police work: 5:04 Tony radios in a drunk and disorderly elderly man found singing Jingle Bells and trying to climb a lamppost on Fenton Street, who calls himself Danny the Elf.
Who gets nicked? Danny the Elf and Reg’s phantom snowball-flinger. The Russian minibus thief goes free because he brings the bus back, makes up with his barbershop quartet and they all have a sing-song.
Best line: Glen’s heartbreaking “Do they have Christmas in prison?”
High point: Danny telling Serg he was the one who’d granted his unexpressed Christmas wish for Glen to find his beloved granddad, then disappearing to the sound of sleigh bells as the theme music kicks in.
Low point: The Borat-alike Russians. “We must tour UK for orphans charity!” Must you?
Why it’s in third place: It’s very silly but really Christmassy. It snows! There’s a tree! Reg has an action scene (off-screen, but still). It has a happy ending, and the storyline about Gary the foster child ends up being genuinely moving. Comedy Russians aside, it’s a very respectable hour of festive TV.
2. Santa’s Little Helper (2008)
The plot: A spate of burglaries is traced back to a market stall Santa, who robs people’s houses during the one-hour wait for their family’s grotto photo. It turns out that Santa’s on probation, and clean, but his daughter Lisa and her boyfriend were doing the robberies to pay off his pre-prison debts to a wrong’un. Sun Hill’s finest conduct an impressive sting operation, then keep going up the chain until the investigation leads them all the way to a notorious organised criminal gang leader.
Time until police work: 0:42. Two uniforms respond to a 999 call about an unconscious elderly man at a break-in. No messing.
Who gets nicked? Lisa. Lisa’s boyfriend. Lisa’s dad. The loan shark and thug who was terrorising Lisa.
Best line: “Thieving Santa, they’ll be telling me the Tooth Fairy’s a crack dealer next.”
High point: When they’re letting Father Christmas out of custody and give him back his beard out of an evidence bag.
Low point: All the stick DC Stuart Turner gets for owning a Westlife CD and keeping his flat tidy. Masculinity is a spectrum, officers. Broaden your minds.
Why it’s in second place: It’s not only quite a touching story about a family trying to stay together at Christmas (albeit through breaking and entering and a bit of ABH), it also a well-plotted, satisfying series of revelations that kick-start an exciting, twisty-turny multi-episode plot about DC Stevie Moss’s undercover work that’s more or less a bonus series of Line of Duty. We’re talking high-stakes criminal gangs, guns and double-crossing.
1. Christmas Star (1998)
The plot: Tony is organising the works Christmas do, and promising the world on a £15-a-head budget. (The world: music, crisps, nuts, some grub, champagne, lap dances for the men and a Father Christmas stripper for the women.) Trouble is, he’s done a hooky no-VAT deal for cheap booze with the Cash and Carry, which gets raided by the Fraud Squad, so has to pay full whack out of his own pocket at the offy instead. A BMW driver has done a hit and run, leaving a schoolgirl Arsenal obsessive in a coma. Suspecting the owner is lying about his car having been stolen, P.C. Santini does some proper coppering, finds out the owner’s wife was driving, and nicks them both. On top of that, he manages to get the victim a hospital visit from Arsenal’s Emmanuel Petit. A Christmas miracle!
Time until police work: 2:06 All units are called to the high street because of the hit and run.
Who gets nicked? The BMW driver and his wife.
Best line: “Tony’s had a bit of an annus horribilis” “And quite a rough year.”
High point: Eddie delivering on his footballer promise to the victim, but being classy enough to keep it to himself. What a mensch.
Low point: The BMW owner’s cliched beatnik stylings, man.
Why it’s in first place: It’s a gripping, well-paced hour, with a satisfying ending, and a moral about not promising what you can’t deliver. It’s got a guest star in the form of 1990s football sensation Emmanuel Petit, and a hero in the form of P.C. Eddie Santini. Also, being set in 1998, these days it’s a lovely nostalgic watch. Someone gets a fiver out of a Midland Bank cash point! Someone else pays their share of the drinks kitty by cheque! All the women’s eyebrows are plucked thinner than an Elizabethan royal. Truly, a hallowed age.
Merry Christmas to all! (But mostly to P.C. Reg Hollis).