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From the creator of Mr Bean and the musings of Stark comes the short-lived but much-loved English Police Station comedy The Thin Blue Line. Made in 1995 and 1996, this TV show probably took a page out of The Bill and layered it with lashings of Black Adder to come up with a rag-tag bunch of well meaning coppers who will stop at nothing to see that the law prevails. Going back to the days of traditional sitcoms, the BBC spared every expense to generate an intimate feel to the characters and situations at the Gasforth Police Station. Written by Ben Elton, who has a penchant for irreverent comic realisations, this is another successful "look at life" in his extensive resume of irony and wit.

Thin Blue Line, The: Complete Collection - Seasons 1 and 2
Starring Rowan Atkinson and a cast of mainly unknowns, each persona is somewhat stereotypical but we wouldn't have it any other way as this highlights the characters' strengths as well as deficiencies for the ultimate comic relief. Personality clashes abound which sets the scene for many humorous incidents and wacky solutions to crimes, although half of them revolve around the classic comic strategy known as The Comedy Of Errors. And although Rowan's character does the majority of the talking in this show, there is still sufficient screentime for the rest of the actors to show their funny side too.

The Show
Containing all 14 episodes from both Series 1 & 2, we follow the lives in the days of an out-of-the-way police station somewhere in England as they do battle with the forces of badness and naughtiness. The second series in particular has each episode being introduced by Inspector Fowler who gives a one-minute monologue of what is about to be shown to you. I won't bother going into a long (or even short) synopsis of each episode since you will know what you're expecting if you've already seen the show, so I'll just list off the titles of each offering instead :-

Series 1 disc - Rag Week, The Queen's Birthday, Night Shift, Honey Trap, Fire And Terror, Kid's Today, Yuletide Spirit.

Series 2 disc - Court In The Act, Ism Ism Ism, Fly On The Wall, Alternative Culture, Come On You Blues, Road Rage, The Green-Eyed Monster.

Inspector Raymond C Fowler (Rowan Atkinson) heads this unlikely group of patient police officers. Fowler comes from the old school of a respectful upbringing and is making the best of where God, Queen and country have put him. His strong sense of community becomes his primary concern in life, which is only surpassed by the cynicism that he places on the more questionable personalities surrounding his precinct. Not having the best sense of reality as far as the world is concerned, he does have the most noble of ideologies, although he is still completely bewildered by the antics of all those around him. If the world were his oyster, he would enjoy nothing more than if everyone were to embrace the age-old customs he grew up with such as reading a good book in bed and lying down afterwards.

Thin Blue Line, The: Complete Collection - Seasons 1 and 2
Raymond is currently in a ten year relationship with the long-suffering Sergeant Patricia Dawkins (Serena Evans) who wants what all women want, a loving partner, although she never gets what she expects from Raymond. Her frustration often rises up to the boil as Raymond remains blissfully unaware of her sensitivities and desires in life, especially for the other use of the bedroom that he tends to ignore.

Then there are the three main uniformed officers: Constable Maggie Habib (Mina Anwar) is the most level-headed and down-to-earth persona at the station, although it's a miracle she stays that way what with everyone else around her going completely bonkers. Kevin Goody (James Dreyfus) is doing everything he can in vain to catch Maggie's eye although he tends to show much more of his effeminate side than does Maggie herself (he's kind of the love child of his flared-nostrilness Kenneth Williams, if that's even possible). Then there's Trinidad import Frank Gladstone (Rudolph Walker) who always seems to come up with the most bizarre theories on life to the eternal confusion of Raymond and Co.

CID Inspector Derek Grim (David Haig) dreams of the ultimate sting in his locality to finally show the big nobs in Scotland Yard that he's got what it takes to carry out a sophisticated police investigation without "fannying about", but more often than not his elaborate plans seem to go balls up. Finally there are his two younger cohorts, Detective Constable Kray (Kevin Allen, 1995 series) and Gary Boyle (Mark Addy, 1996 series) whose biggest motivations are to chat up the women and continually eating.

Together, they hold the rogue elements back from crossing what is known as The Thin Blue Line.

Video
Being the typical low-budget sitcom affair from the BBC you can't expect this transfer to improve much from the original broadcasts on TV or made available on VHS. It is sufficient however for the purposes of this show; you will notice every ounce of studio settings in this image with the doors shaking the supposedly solid brick walls and the unflattering lighting given to everything onscreen. Since there are only two discs to store fourteen half-hour episodes on, that means that three and a half-hours are crammed onto each disc which makes for a challenging compression. You will also notice a slight judder evident in the screenshots; this is the result of the interlaced nature of the video recording.

Thin Blue Line, The: Complete Collection - Seasons 1 and 2
First things first are the colour schemes, which do the job but not particularly remarkable in their delineation. In fact if I didn't know better than I'd say there was a very slight green tinge to the images inside the studio - this is apparently a common trait when using fluorescent lighting. I'm not saying that this is what happened at the time of filming, but I can't find any other explanation for what I see here. Anyway, the tones and hues are reminiscent of Dad's Army where everything is muted to the point of serviceability. Skin tones are natural looking with the only splashes of astounding colouration coming from stuff like Maggie's undercover attire and the fluorescent markings on police uniforms and vehicles.

There is no low-level noise to bare with, a remarkable achievement considering the lack of general brightness from the image, however the second series improves on this considerably. Again, the majority of these episodes are indoor shots (either in the studio or on location) and these tend to hold a lower level of light than we're probably used to even in these ideal conditions. The outdoor scenes also hold a similarly dull display but the contrast is somewhat better here. The scenes at the soccer ground are the most potentially problematic areas with the background sky being much brighter than the foreground scenery, but the DVD holds up to this setting very well. Grain is not even an issue here as its the analog video artefacts which cause more concern.

Having been recorded on the barest of satisfactory camera equipment and video stock, there are slight issues with the occasional out-of-focus imaging and object shimmering mainly off of the grills from blinds, frosted windows and even some of the clothing. The fact that this video encoding is given an average bitrate of 4mbps doesn't help in resolving these matters with the worst offender coming from a pixelation that surrounds nearly every small detail such as the writing on the posters etc. The black levels and shadow detail are good enough to make the job worthwhile, not to become a filmmaker's delight in. With all things considered, there is no macro blocking to distract us from all the other little nitpicks.

The most pressing concern is what the cameras saw and how the video itself was recorded mainly from the interlaced nature of the system, which can make viewing slightly unbearable over time. Overall, the image is certainly watchable even with the faults inherent in both the source material and DVD encoding difficulties. It was either this or to spread all fourteen episodes neatly over three discs.

Thin Blue Line, The: Complete Collection - Seasons 1 and 2
Audio
Pretty much a serviceable (there's that word again) English Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack, nothing more than that. For what this show is meant to offer you can't expect more than what is here. Since this is purely a dialogue driven series, these DVDs do what is required although with some good stereo separation from the canned laughter mainly and the show itself from the centre channel. The first series is much lower in output volume than the second series, so have your thumbs ready at the knobs.

If I had to pick this to bits (it's my job anyway) there are many aural bugbears that were sufficiently reduced anyway at the time of production. Some of the more common problems are the hiss generated from boosting the dialogue when required and lowering it when the obligatory laugh comes from the audience. Also, there is a slight high-pitched sound that pops in occasionally no doubt due to the requirement of electrical gear being in close proximity to the boom mikes especially. These shortcomings are simply unavoidable and almost add part of the charm to a series such as this.

Dialogue is easy to discern even with the variety of English accents on offer from only seven main characters, however a couple of phrases still elude me as to their exact word content usually because of the laughter recorded over the top of them. There is also a small instance of incredibly awful dubbing to the Japanese men in Come On You Blues which sounds natural enough, but the lip-sync is terrible even though their mouths are saying exactly the same thing (could this have been a tribute to badly dubbed foreign productions?) Sound effects are extremely minimal to the point of "was that a sound effect?" but the music bridges are well rendered and unobtrusive. No subwoofer or surround channels are used so this sounds just the same on a good stereo system as well as in your huge surround one.

There are no subtitles for this release which, this time, won't be needed even by English speakers.

Extras
A single menu on each DVD to select each episode with - a clean and uncluttered system - tada!

Thin Blue Line, The: Complete Collection - Seasons 1 and 2
Overall
If you are into all things British Comedy then The Thin Blue Line is another of these quality productions to have been financed by the BBC. Whilst the rantings of Raymond Fowler might go over the already thin line of relevance to the situation at hand, it is the resolutions which Ben Elton provides that makes the effort all worth while. Also, the work of the supporting cast provides the variety needed to get the best laughs out of what Raymond must endure, their characters also building up in personality as time progresses to develop an even richer humour throughout.

Despite the inevitable flaws of the video compression, the DVD of this television show is worth the price of admission alone and might even have a replay value more than that of many other shows I've seen (mainly from the new American releases that pass as drama for one). The creators must have realised that the show was coming to an end with its ten-minute extension tacked onto the last episode so that everyone may walk off into the sunset (if there's such a thing in England). And unless your kids are totally into Eminem and the like, I'm sure they will find something here of value as well.


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