Seven years after Blackadder had ended Ben Elton worked on a new project for Rowan Atkinson - a Dad's Army inspired sitcom about a team of police officers working in the fictitious town of Gasforth.
The Thin Blue Line was written in 1995 for BBC1. After his previous sitcom successes, Ben Elton had the idea of replicating the Dad's Army formula (which is essentially having a large collection of characters under the command of an old fashioned, curmudgeonly, but ultimately kind-hearted leader).
Rowan Atkinson plays Inspector Fowler, who admits 'sometimes I wish I could go and live somewhere on Radio 4'. He is in essence the captain Mainwaring of the piece, who is dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century by his long-suffering girlfriend and fellow sergeant Patricia.
Rowan Atkinson had already played a very similar character in the famous, but somewhat controversial, Not The Nine 0'Clock News sketch 'Constable Savage' with some speculating that this performance was the direct inspiration for the show - although Chris Barrie was reportedly also considered for the role of Fowler at some point.
Fowler's force comprises of PC Frank Gladstone (Rudolf Walker), the not-so-wise grandfather of the group, and Constable Goodie (Richard Dreyfus), the 'Pike' of the group who has a hopeless crush on Gasforth's brightest and greatest hope: Constable Habib (Mina Anwar).
Habib often challenges Fowler's slightly outdated attitudes. The gang work with, or sometimes against (in Fowler's case), the CID's Inspector Grim (David Haig) and his hapless sidekick Constable Kray (Kevin Allen), and then later in series 2 the equally hapless Constable Boyle (played by Mark Addy).
Grim, whose role bears a similarity to another Dad's Army character, Warden Hodges, was in particular responsible for some of the show's legendary rants (such as his despair at sun-dried-tomato-eating-lardy-dardy-lardy-dars). In another nod to Dad's Army he frequently mentions his girlfriend 'Tina' but as with Mainwaring's wife she's never seen!
Fowler's scenes with Grim were the highlight and, in my opinion, nothing short of comedy gold. Ben Elton often said at Upstart Crow recordings that this juvenile gag was his favourite exchange between the pair:
With only two series and fourteen episodes, the show stuck to the classic sitcom formula of less-is-more. It's not clear if more series were ever planned, but in my opinion The Thin Blue Line is criminally underrated (no pun intended...really).
My pick for the best episode is probably 'Fly on the Wall' where the gang are sent somewhat 'doolally' when BBC come to film a documentary about the police force. Patricia even gets out her tap shoes and Gladstone breaks into a chorus of 'Old Man River'. It ends with Fowler explaining the trappings of fame to an armed man who wants to get on the telly: 'Oh yes, it's fine for a while,' Fowler tells him, 'but suddenly Richard and Judy aren't taking your calls, you find yourself at carpet warehouses shouting, "Open New Year’s Day!"'
Despite a run that was shorter than it could have been, The Thin Blue Line was a success, and through its repeat showings on UKGold, it once ranked 30th in a poll of the greatest sitcoms.
It could be argued that it inspired the lesser remembered Doctors and Nurses (with Mina Anwar taking up a similar role to Habib) and also 2013's The Wright Way, also written by Ben Elton and starring David Haig. But these shows weren't critically well received (although I felt unfairly), ultimately they didn't quite recapture the magic of The Thin Blue Line.
Unfortunately, due mostly to a lack of repeats, The Thin Blue Line is not quite as well known as it once was, but it is my belief that it deserves to be remembered as a classic sitcom.
Written by Rhianna Evans