The Bill cast remember Britain's most iconic cop show

Morgan Jeffery
Photo credit: ITV

From Digital Spy

Seven years after it left our screens, The Bill is bringing the drama back to telly – but not in the way that was anticipated.

UKTV channel Drama had planned to air every single episode, all 2,421 of them, from the beginning – but has shelved the idea of a six-year re-run after just a few weeks, jumping to series 14 already.

In lieu of such TV gold being shown, Digital Spy spoke to cast members from across the quintessential British cop show's epic 26-year run to reflect on its origins, its longevity, how The Bill weathered change and whether it has a future.

"OK, Carver – let's do it!"

The Bill was originally conceived by writer Geoff McQueen as a one-off drama, with the one-hour Woodentop airing as part of the anthology drama strand Storyboard on August 16, 1983.

Woodentop – named for a term given to uniform officers by plain-clothes detectives – charted a day on the job for PC Jim Carver (Mark Wingett) and also starred Trudie Goodwin as WPC June Ackland, with both attached to the fictional Sun Hill police station.

Photo credit: ITV

Mark Wingett: "The way that I was cast was I was in a play which was at the Royal Court, with five cast members, and four of us ended up in that original pilot. [The casting director] came to see the show and I was the one who got Carver – stroke of luck. We were just jobbing actors and this was just one of those jobs.

"I thought it'd be very interesting to play someone who's quite straight, a policeman, because I didn't get those roles. It was a month's job – two weeks rehearsal, two weeks filming – and that was it. It was fun, but I thought I'd get on with things and do other stuff.

"Little did I know that by playing a policeman for a month, I'd be doing it for 21 years.

"It was a very hot summer. Trudie and I and Bob Pugh [playing Det. Ins. Galloway], once swam across the Thames and back, because it was so hot."

Trudie Goodwin: "We went for a swim in the lunch-hour... and that's the main thing I remember about that rehearsal period, actually! I do remember it being very good fun."

ITV's top brass were impressed with Woodentop and commissioned a full series following Sun Hill's coppers. Retitled The Bill, the series sought to replicate the pilot's 'Day in the Life' feel by ensuring that a police officer featured in every single scene.

Eric Richard (Sergeant Bob Cryer): "You could not have a scene that did not have a police officer in it. Going back to Carver and his alarm clock going off, it was always a day in the life of a police officer. And that was unique, and a big hook for the audience."

Trudie Goodwin: "It was a really good idea for a one-hour play. But I had absolutely no idea it was going to go beyond that hour."

26 series, 2,400 episodes and a whole lot of awards

Few could have predicted the enormous success that The Bill would enjoy. Woodentop was followed by thousands more episodes across a run of almost three decades.

The show's attention to detail, honesty and early grounded style – with all storytelling adhering to the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) – struck a chord with both viewers and critics. It scored two Royal Television Society awards, a Writers' Guild of Great Britain honour and two BAFTA wins (with a further seven nominations).

Photo credit: Rex Shutterstock

Lisa Maxwell (DI Samantha Nixon): "We know a lot more about the police now than when The Bill first started. It was a real insight, a genuine insight, and it was a bit like you were getting a sneaky look at what they did.

"Even criminals... not that I know that many, but I have come across one or two! And they've said to me that they watch it because it's a great way to find out how the police find out about them!"

Trudie Goodwin: "I think maybe The Bill couldn't have been that successful, or wouldn't have taken off like it did, if it hadn't have been exactly when it was. There was a lot going on at that time, a lot of challenges for the police."

Mark Wingett: "There was the miner's strike, Yvonne Fletcher [a British police officer fatally shot during a protest outside the Libyan embassy in London]... filming the first series, walking down Whitechapel high street, we were getting harangued by the store holders.

"They were yelling, 'What about the f**king miners? What about Yvonne Fletcher?' – because they saw we were a TV company making a film with the police."

The Old Bill – and the new Bill

All aspects of the series would change and evolve as it continued. 174 different actors formed part of the series' main cast from its inception to its final episode, with the show's broadcast pattern and style of storytelling also shifting several times across 26 years.

Launching with weekly hour-longs that aired from July-May each year, from 1988 onwards, The Bill began airing two 30-minute episodes twice weekly, and was broadcast all year round without a summer break.

Photo credit: ITV

In 1993, the number of episodes increased to three per week, though five years later, this was again reduced to two per week, with each episode again running to 60 minutes.

The arrival of new executive producer Paul Marquess in 2002 saw The Bill adopt a new, more serialised, almost soap-opera style, with more of a focus on the officers' personal lives.

The shift worked and ratings rose from an average of 6 million in 2001 to around 8 million by 2002, and 11 million by 2005.

Lisa Maxwell: "It had to move with the times, as times were evolving."

Chris Simmons (DC Mickey Webb): "They took everything on – great one-offs, they did eight-parters... it wasn't afraid to keep up or tackle anything."

Eric Richard: "The quality of acting was just extraordinary, but because it was going out once a week and then later twice a week and then three times a week. I think the population didn't realise what they were getting. If we were doing only six episodes [a year], people would've been giving us awards for what we were doing."

Sticking with Sun Hill

Though cast overhauls were not uncommon on The Bill, many of the show's most iconic characters stuck it out for the long haul. Seriously long.

Trudie Goodwin played June Ackland in 914 episodes from 1984-2007, Jeff Stewart featured in 916 as PC Reg Hollis from 1984-2008 and Graham Cole pipped them all with PC Tony Stamp appearing from 1984 to 2009 across an incredible 1,112 episodes.

Photo credit: Douglas Doig / Getty Images

Chris Simmons: "Every few weeks, you'd have a new set of guest actors, a new director, a new crew, a new location... the only thing that was the same was your character... and because it was new all the time, you never got fed up.

"You always had these new hot-shot, kick-arse directors, trying to prove themselves... so you couldn't coast. I don't think you'd last."

Lisa Maxwell: "It never became a machine. The production values were always so high. You could be on it for years and you find you're still trying really hard.

"It was an exhausting job, because everybody cared so much. You work on other shows... and I'm not trashing any other particular show, but it's very easy to fall into a rhythm where you just do what you do every day. You couldn't do that on The Bill, because the stories were always so different. So you never relaxed, never."

Mark Wingett: "In the first or second series, an actor got sacked before lunchtime – the producer didn't like him and he was off the job by lunchtime!"

Graham Cole: "I think any sackings that happened were because someone came in with an ego. No-one had time for ego on The Bill."

Bring back The Bill

In March 2010, ITV announced that it would not be recommissioning The Bill, citing the "changing tastes" of viewers.

Thousands of fans threw their support behind a Save The Bill campaign on Facebook in an effort to have the decision reversed, but it was not to be – the final episode, 'Respect', wrapped filming on June 2010 and was broadcast on August 31, 2010.

Photo credit: ITV

Eric Richard: "Ever since television really got going in this country, which would be post-war, there's been a uniform police series, starting with Dixon of Dock Green, and it's interesting that since The Bill has ended, no-one has found another way to do it.

"You've got lots of crash-bang-wallop programmes – which are immense, this is not a criticism... but it's interesting. I believe there will be another Bill-type programme."

Graham Cole: "It was such an unusual show and such an amazing part of our lives. It was an extraordinary job."

Lisa Maxwell: "There's Line of Duty, wonderful police procedural drama, but there's something about the 'plod' element. The Bill has become its own brand, it's an icon. The music, the feet... it's so iconic. You can't recreate that, unless you make The Bill again."

The Bill begins airing on Drama from the very beginning on Monday, August 14 at 12pm.

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