❉ Si Hart is back on the beat, reviewing Oliver Crocker’s second volume bringing Sun Hill to book.
“Like Crocker’s other books about the medium, ‘Witness Statements: Making The Bill 1988′ really does add to our understanding of working in British TV in the 1980s and of the real stories of how The Bill was changing the process of making a TV show at the time.”
Back in 2020, I had the pleasure of reviewing Oliver Crocker’s first book about the making of The Bill and I expressed my wish that he would follow up with a look at the series’ move to half hour episodes, which started in 1988. Now two years and many interviews later, that book has finally arrived as Witness Statements: Making The Bill 1988.
The last book ended with the show’s impending format change. The first three years of the show were like most other dramas of the time, 50-minute episodes in a later timeslot. This allowed the show to explore hard hitting plots and really explore its characters. For the series starting in 1988, Thames TV, wanting to expand their drama footprint on the ITV network, proposed reformatting the show in a new twice-weekly 30-minute episode format. This would require a huge retooling of the show both behind and in front of the camera to make it work.
The book looks at all 48 episodes produced in 1988 plus three synopsises of storylines that didn’t make it to the screen. Each episode has full details of the locations used in the recording as well as dates and other trivia. These are then backed up with the titular ‘Witness Statements’ which are contributions from various members of the team involved in bringing each episode to the screen. As with his previous book, Crocker really has gathered a hugely impressive range of people to talk about their involvement with The Bill. It doesn’t matter how small their involvement may have been, they all seem delighted to talk about the show.
Of course, much of the focus from fans will be on the reminiscences of the regulars and naturally they do have a prominence throughout. As the show expanded its episode count, so new characters were added to the team and many of the actors who played these characters contribute to the book. Some like Tony Scannell as Ted Roach or Kevin Lloyd as Tosh Lines have sadly passed away but their talents are celebrated by their colleagues throughout. It’s very interesting to hear what they thought about the revised format and having to adjust to the new way of working. There’s much made of the production techniques settled on being hugely ahead of their time with the reduced rehearsal time and single camera recording albeit on videotape.
Much of the focus of the book, particularly in the early episodes featured, is about how this worked. Suddenly there were two production crews working at the same time and with only a small group of regulars, the schedules had to be worked out very carefully so that actors or crew weren’t double booked or be unavailable for an episode they were due to be in. Crocker’s access to production documentation is very impressive in many of the Observation Notes, especially so for the first episode of the new series where he offers some intriguing details from the document created by the two producers about how the shooting days would work, right down to suggested meal breaks for the crew!
Each crew was assigned their own producer; Michael Ferguson overseeing one crew and Richard Bramall the other, with Peter Creegan as executive producer keeping an overview of both teams and the programme as a whole. It says something about the men in charge of the show that no-one has a bad word to say about any of them. Throughout the transition to making this new version of the show, there’s plenty of testimony from everyone involved in whatever capacity that the atmosphere on the show really did come from the top down. Considering what hard work making the show was, it really says something that as well as praising the bosses, everyone from the actors to the cameramen to the writers confirms it was a happy show, whichever crew was working and wherever they were involved.
What’s fascinating, reading all the recollections in the book, is the mix of people working on the show. There are many veterans of TV coming in as writers and directors who find a new lease of life for their careers as well as the new generation of up-and-coming talent coming in and gaining masses of experience. It’s great to hear that writers like P.J. Hammond of Sapphire and Steel fame, gained a real career boost after being approached to write for the show. The same for new writers like Kevin Clarke or Julian Jones who were nurtured through the process of writing their first scripts for TV.
One person, though, who is singled out for particular praise throughout the book is cameraman Rolle Luker. There are so many tales from people who worked with him on this series of The Bill to show how well thought of he was. His can-do attitude to recording the show resulted in tales of him placing the camera on his shoulders and marching off to bring the director the shot that was wanted. That this at one point nearly ended up with Luker falling out of a window to achieve this is recounted without sensationalism by the several people who tell it; it was just an example of how he worked to get the best out of every shot that he could.
Like Crocker’s other books about the TV medium (All Memories Great and Small, Witness Statements: Making The Bill (Series 1-3)), this volume really does add to the history of the people who have worked on British TV. Often these are the unsung people who don’t often get a chance to talk about their careers; the aforementioned cameramen, people who worked on the sound, make up and costumes, those who found the locations and other behind the scenes folk. With small precis of their careers and often brilliant observations about how working on The Bill was different to working in the studio or how ITV was different to the BBC at the time, this just adds to our understanding of working in TV in the late 1980s and of the real stories of how The Bill was changing the process of making a TV show at the time.
So, if you want to know how it feels to shoot in a chicken coop, surrounded by rubber chickens with feathers attached to them, be filmed in an overturned police car or be recognised in the street because you’re on TV twice a week then this is the book is for you. If you want a greater understanding of making a popular TV show at the end of the 1980s, this is the book for you. Basically, even if you’re not a huge fan of The Bill itself, you’ll find this a fascinating read because it’s something bigger than just a book about that show.
I await the next instalment from Oliver Crocker with bated breath!
❉ ‘Witness Statements – Making The Bill: 1988’ by Oliver Crocker, published November 2022, RRP £16.99. To purchase directly from Devonfire Books at £13.99 +P&P, CLICK HERE.
❉ Si Hart is a regular writer for We Are Cult but when he isn’t writing he’s busy podcasting. You can find him as one of the main crew on Maximum Power, the Blake’s 7 podcast and a host on Trap One, a Doctor Who podcast. He’s aslo regular on A Hamster With A Blunt Penknife. He tweets from @Si_Hart. So basically, you can’t escape him!