Six Things You Didn’t Know About The Bill

We walked the beat with these bobbies for decades, but here are some things you might not have known about Sun Hill’s finest…

The Bill

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A DOCUMENTARY

Britain's best-loved police series may never have existed at all, if it wasn't for a now-obscure documentary which aired in the early 80s. Called simply "Police", this film was a fly-on-the-wall look at everyday life for Thames Valley officers, and it had a serious impact on one TV writer called Geoff McQueen.

Inspired by the atmosphere of the film - not just in terms of the subject matter, but also its hand-held camerawork and innovative focus on the police officers' points of view - McQueen decided to replicate the feel with a one-off TV play called Woodentop. Aired as part of an anthology series called Storyboard, Woodentop was such a success that it led to the commissioning of a full series, The Bill, which stayed true to the ethos of a grittily realistic exploration of policework, with at least one officer present in every scene.

2. THE ORIGINAL SET WAS TINY

The first series of The Bill was filmed on a shoestring budget in Wapping, East London, with the interior of "Sun Hill police station" actually housed within a former cigarette packing factory. While clever camerawork makes it look like an expansive hive of police activity, the set was so small that there was very little room to manoeuvre, with parts of the "police station" having to serve as the production team's offices in between scenes. Everyone was in such close quarters that the production team had to stop typing or answering phone calls whenever filming was underway. And the police canteen? That was also the real-life canteen for everyone on set, actors and backstage staff alike.

3. A NEARBY SKIRMISH CHANGED EVERYTHING

The Bill didn't stay in Wapping for long, thanks to one of the most dramatic industrial disputes of the 1980s. A stone's throw from the set, an epic confrontation had sparked off between newspaper workers and Rupert Murdoch's News International, after the media magnate decided to modernise his business and relocate his newspapers to Wapping.

Thousands of workers involved in the editorial and printing side of News International went on strike, with violent picketing and angry skirmishes with police officers in Wapping. For obvious reasons, actors on The Bill were concerned about being mistaken for real officers and getting embroiled in the nearby battles, so there was no option but to move the whole show to another part of London.

4. IT WASN'T ALWAYS SET IN CANLEY

Seasoned Bill-watchers will know the show is set in Canley, which is second only to Walford in the annals of fictitious London boroughs. But, if you watch it from the start, you may be surprised to realise Canley didn't exist in the early part of the show's run, when the location of Sun Hill station was explicitly described as being in the very real borough of Tower Hamlets.

5. ACKLAND AND BROWNLOW WERE SURPRISED TO BE CAST

June Ackland and Charles Brownlow are two of the most famous characters in The Bill, being there from the very beginning. Yet neither actor expected to get these parts. Peter Ellis had already been rejected for another role in The Bill, and was literally on his way out the casting room's door when he was surprisingly offered an alternative role: Charles Brownlow.

"Fortunately I was walking slowly to the door because otherwise I might not have got Brownlow," he later recalled. In a pleasing turn of events, when Brownlow left the show decades later, his final episode was written by Peter Ellis' real-life son. As for June Ackland, actor Trudie Goodwin was similarly surprised to get the part, as she'd made a bit of a name playing "lots of gangsters' wives" and didn't think a policewoman would be a natural fit. That said, Trudie never really identified with Ackland, saying her iconic alter-ego had a "bit of a humour bypass."

6. THE UNIFORMS ARE THE REAL DEAL

The Bill was known for its realism right from the start, and the uniforms are a crucial part of this. The show's stars were granted the rare privilege of having authentic police uniforms, which caused a bit of a headache for the production team, who always had to lock the clothes away in secure conditions to stop them falling into the wrong hands. In fact, when The Bill ended in 2010, the Metropolitan Police had to purchase over 400 kg of Bill uniforms, including stab-proof vests, for exactly that reason.