The Thin Blue Line came along seven years after one of the greatest comedies of all-time, Blackadder, had ended with a finale that challenged the sitcom status quo. It asked the question, 'What next?' - not just to the entire cast and crew of the series, but to every sitcom writer in the business. How do you follow that? Yet by some miracle Rowan Atkinson managed to step straight into the shoes of another iconic character only the year after Blackadder's end in 1989. Mr Bean was another creation from the minds of most of the Blackadder team; Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis (along with Ben Elton who wrote various episodes) found they had devised yet another comedy juggernaut. Bean had tapped into a global market of universal appeal; he was the mute master of slapstick. But, after five years of playing him, perhaps Rowan Atkinson wanted to start talking again.
It was now Ben Elton's turn to create a new series, and although Chris Barrie was briefly considered for the lead role, it ultimately fell to Atkinson to bring us yet another classic sitcom character: the old-fashioned "Bobby" from a bygone era, Inspector Raymond Fowler.
The Thin Blue Line is a sitcom about a team of police officers working in the fictitious town of Gasforth. Ben Elton has made no secret of his love of traditional studio-based sitcoms over the years, so it comes as no surprise that this is exactly the form The Thin Blue Line embraces. Recorded in front of a live audience, its key influence and overall atmosphere would seem to suggest a favourite of Elton's, and an enduring favourite of many, Dad's Army. Although initially a surprising comparison, The Thin Blue Line does essentially mirror the series with its expansive cast of distinctive characters - it has its Captain Mainwaring in Inspector Fowler, as he leads his team of largely hopeless but ultimately well-meaning officers.
Atkinson's Fowler is a stayed and unassuming man who admits 'Sometimes I wish I could go and live somewhere on Radio 4'. He is dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century by his long-suffering girlfriend and fellow Officer, Patricia (Serena Evans) who always seems to come second to Fowler's first love, the Police force.
Fowler's team of officers comprise of PC Frank Gladstone (Rudolph Walker), the not-so-wise grandfather of the group, and Constable Kevin Goody (James Dreyfus), the 'Pike' of the gang, who has a hopeless crush on Gasforth's brightest and greatest hope - Constable Habib (Mina Anwar).
Rowan Atkinson had previously portrayed a police officer in the famous, but somewhat controversial, 1979 Not The Nine O'Clock News sketch 'Constable Savage'. Some have even speculated that this performance was the direct inspiration for the show. Much like that sketch, The Thin Blue Line never shied away from debating socio-political issues, although in the series these discussions often descend into utter madness. One occasion involves Fowler pretending to be a tree, and another an alien ('As we know,' he declares, 'all Martians are green, and called Zog.'). They do, none-the-less tackle topics such as sexuality and race in a surprisingly modern way.
There are many younger sitcoms than The Thin Blue Line whose social commentary has become inevitably dated. At twenty-five years old you might expect this would have affected the show, but Ben Elton, a man who has never been afraid to confront a challenging topic and find within it something both funny and true, gave the series a contemporary, refreshing voice. This is nothing new for Elton, who cut his teeth on anarchic student-set (and student-loved!) classic, The Young Ones. In that series, Elton and co-writers Rik Mayall, Lise Mayer and Alexei Sayle filled the programme with laughs underpinned with serious points, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Blackadder too was filled with social commentary. It is no surprise then, that The Thin Blue Line is another Ben Elton sitcom which has plenty to say about the world we live in.
Mina Anwar's Constable Habib is often the character with the most to say. She's modern, confident, highly principled, but also kind-hearted. The Thin Blue Line may have Rowan Atkinson as its star, but strong women are at the heart of the series. Try as Goody might, his adolescent behaviour and obsession with chocolates and sweets (mainly Curly Wurlys) does little to win her affections.
Fowler, although well intentioned is often hopelessly out of touch "I didn't have drink and drugs when I was their age," he informs Habib when referring to juvenile delinquents, "I had Meccano". Of all Atkinson's famous characters, Fowler is perhaps the most understated, but no less great for it. In the second series each episode began with Fowler addressing the audience directly from his desk, breaking the fourth wall as he announces, "Good evening everybody". His cosy tones offer us an introduction to the episode, as though it were a kind of parable. The character manages to be both sanctimonious and charming, even as he holds forth on the topic of pickpockets: "The artful dodger was a thief, and I don't think he would have considered himself quite so "at home" in a juvenile detention centre, which is where I'd have put him."
The scripts are terrific, but the best exchanges come when Fowler has to liaise with CID. The team they have to work with, or sometimes against (in Fowler's case) comprises of Inspector Grim (David Haig) and his cocksure sidekick Constable Kray (Kevin Allen) and then, in series 2, the equally brash Constable Boyle (Mark Addy).
Grim's role bears a faint similarity to another Dad's Army character, Warden Hodges, who shares his penchant for ranting. But the length of Grim's rants and their almost poetic flow are unique to the series in their style, and it's a credit to David Haig that he pulls them off with such aplomb. Most famous is Grim's despair at "sun-dried-tomato-eating-lah-di-dah-di-lah-di-dahs". In perhaps another nod to Dad's Army, he frequently mentions his girlfriend Tina but, as with Mainwaring's wife, she's never seen.
Throughout the series you can spot a few comedy stars. Stephen Fry cameos in the first episode as Brigadier Blaster Sump; Trevor Peacock turns up as an "armed man"; and Stephen Moore, most famous for voicing Marvin, the Paranoid Android in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy appears as a sad, lonely man who tries to commit suicide after his home is burgled (poor Stephen, continuing a theme there). Alexander Armstrong also drops by to play a "toff". 'Do you have any idea who my Father is?' he asks Patricia smugly. 'I don't know Sir,' she replies, 'have you tried asking your Mother?'.
What strikes you most about the series is how a comparatively large collection of characters played off each other so fabulously. With such a rich cast, Dad's Army managed eighty episodes; for The Thin Blue Line, with its total of fourteen, you feel there could have been so many more.
It's unclear if the 'less-is-more' Fawlty Towers approach was intentional. Ben Elton has often spoken fondly of the series. During his warm-up routines for Upstart Crow recordings, he frequently cited the daft, innuendo filled exchanges between Fowler and Grim as being some of his favourite material he has written over the years. Fowler's palpable distain for Grim and the character's petty rivalry drives the series. It's especially enjoyable when, in the Christmas Special, the pair come to blows over who will play Captain Hook in Gasforth's annual pantomime. It is during this episode that Ben Elton allows himself a rare cameo as the hippy in the Wizard's hat.
Despite a run that was shorter than it could have been, there's no doubt that the series was a hit with audiences. It once ranked 30th in a poll of the greatest TV sitcoms. Unfortunately, it is mostly due to a lack of repeats that The Thin Blue Line is not quite as well-known as it should be, but there is no doubt that it deserves to be remembered as a classic sitcom.