‘Witness Statements: Making The Bill (Series 1-3)’

❉ Oliver Crocker returns with a new book looking at the early days of The Bill.

“Crocker lets the people who made the show tell the story of The Bill.… Here you really come away knowing that everyone involved in making The Bill had a vital role to play in getting the show to the screen and making it a success. This was a real team effort from the top down, with everyone giving their all to get the show made.”

In the first book written about The Bill in over 10 years, Oliver Crocker, author of All Memories Great & Small and presenter of The Bill Podcast, takes a trip back to the earliest era of the show. Before it was twice weekly half hour episodes, this book looks at the pilot, Woodentop and the first three seasons of the programme, back when it was fifty-minute, self-contained episodes and a brand-new show from Thames Television.

Like All Memories Great and Small, Crocker lets the people who made the show tell the story of The Bill. Once again Crocker has assembled a truly fantastic set of interviewees, from the core regular cast (including John Salthouse giving his first interview about his time at Sun Hill) to members of the production team, the sheer number of people Crocker has interviewed is phenomenal. While often when reading books of this ilk you feel that some roles in production are overlooked, here you really come away knowing that everyone involved in making The Bill had a vital role to play in getting the show to the screen and making it a success. This was a real team effort from the top down, with everyone giving their all to get the show made.

At the start it was certainly a battle. The production team faced numerous problems actually getting the show made. There are entertaining stories of these problems recounted by the team about how they faced trouble with the management at Thames Television for daring to make a videotape series outside of the studios at Teddington, battles with time management for getting the crew across London to the locations, numerous problems with the public as they went out to record the show and that’s before car accidents involving the stars of the show happened during recording!

There were also some problems with the Police themselves. The Metropolitan Police viewed the show with some suspicion to begin with and ordered their officers on the beat not to cooperate with filming requests (though many apparently ignored the order on their patches) The costume team also had to work closely with the Met, especially as these had to be signed out at the start of production and returned at the end of each series to ensure they didn’t fall into the wrong hands!

Many of these problems came from the nature of the show they were making. Back in the early eighties, an all-location videotaped show was very much a rarity. The crews were pioneering a new way of making a drama serial, very much the precursor to the way modern TV drama is now made. The crew all knew they were working on something special from the start. Their belief in the show really shines through in all the interviews. There’s no doubt it was very hard work, but everyone was behind it one hundred percent.

Some of the best recollections of the problems they all faced come from the directors. Sensibly the show was directed by a mix of newcomers and veteran directors. Despite starting out being out of their comfort zone on The Bill, what comes across is that these directors seriously relished the challenges of the work which pushed their skills into new avenues. There are warm recollections of Christopher Hodson, for example, whose career was given a whole new lease of life by working on it, and Michael Ferguson speaks very fondly of joining the team and how much he enjoyed the opportunities the show gave him.

Director turned producer Peter Creegan also speaks especially warmly of the show and his recollections are superb throughout. What’s very clear is how much of an input he had throughout this period, taking over from Michael Chapman and bringing his own vision to the show. He was the person who came up with the decision not to show the criminals planning their crimes or to not have any scenes without a police officer in shot somewhere. This focus made the show unique among Police shows at the time and he’s rightly proud of that.

Of course, the writers were really important too and I especially enjoyed the contributions from the technical advisor and writer for the show, Barry Appleton. I loved his stories of how he would feed his real-life experiences to the writing team so that they could work them into their scripts. Eventually he was given the opportunity to write for the show himself, something he thoroughly enjoyed. Other writers tell stories of how they researched stories with members of the police and how they often work from a real life they wanted to explore, from racism to domestic abuse. They were all determined to make the show hard hitting and as realistic as possible and I really liked their rather surprised evaluations of how well their scripts stand up to this day.

Of course, for any fan of The Bill, the recollections of the cast are going to be the most fascinating. As the public faces of the show, they’re going to have fascinating recollections of the show in its earliest years. Crocker doesn’t disappoint here, rounding up interviews from all the major cast members of the time, many of whom remain recognisable to this day from their time on the show. The names of those characters still resonate to this day; Ackland, Cryer, Burnside, Carver, Galloway, Martella… For a generation, they were the police!

Again, what shines through time and time again is how proud they all of their time at Sun Hill. As expected, they all have strong opinions about the characters they played, not always liking all the ways they developed but immensely glad of the opportunities the show gave them. Again, similarly to the crew, the cast seemed to have a real belief in the show from the very beginning and had an inkling that they were working on something special, but also a lot of humbleness about their talents and their contributions to the show. For instance, Nula Conwell’s reminiscences of how her part grew and grew and how she grew as an actor with it are really heart-warming, as are the warm feelings from everyone of how much of a team they were and how the actors really supported both each other and the production team.

It’s very clear that the level of the fame that came from being in The Bill came as something of a shock to them all, whether they were new to the profession or had years of experience. Being recognised in the street was something new to them all which some took to better than others.  This also caused problems out on location at times and they have tales to tell about being recognised while filming and how sometimes it could be very disruptive.

With each contributor giving a potted history of their career and where they were by the time they came to work on the show, this becomes, like All Memories Great and Small before it more than a book about The Bill. This is a book about the history of how television was made at this time and the people who were there making it.  More especially it is about how one programme pushed the boundaries and redefined how you made a drama series. The Bill was hugely influential in so many ways and its impact on drama production cannot be understated.

All of this and the pages of previously unseen photographs from the cast and crew looking behind of the scenes of production, this really is an unmissable read for anyone who is interested in The Bill or anyone interested in the history of British television. I really hope Oliver Crocker is working on a sequel as I feel there are plenty more stories to be told about the show as it moves to half hour episodes…

❉ ‘Witness Statements: Making The Bill (Series 1-3)’ by Oliver Crocker was first published by Spiteful Puppet and Chinbeard Books, and is currently available via Devonfire and can be ordered now from Amazon. RRP £13.99.

 Green-fingered librarian Simon Hart is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

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