By Edward Kellet
On The Bill Podcast, Oliver Crocker pondered how many non-regular characters returned for subsequent appearances – and on reflection, there are more than one might imagine. In most cases they return when the writer returns, adding to a world that they originally created. When Alec Peters is accused of stealing a dying man’s wallet in ‘Procedure’ by John Milne, he faces aggro from his car-dealing son, Mr Morrison, who appears a year later in ‘Carry Your Bags, Sir?’ by the same author. Already bearing a grudge against the police, his mood worsens when they arrive to question him over alleged burglaries by one of his staff. He gives Reg a bloody nose and is arrested, which is the last thing Brownlow wants to hear when his complaint is still outstanding. On learning which officer was hit, he remarks, “Oh – understandable. I suggest somebody explains to Hollis the advantages of dropping the matter. Get Bob Cryer to have a word. He can hit him too if necessary.” Another author from this era, Kieran Prendiville, introduces the Lovett family in ‘Mickey Would Have Wanted It’, then brings them back for ‘Michael Runs the Family Now’ and a third instalment, ‘Vendetta’. An obvious analogy of the Krays, the Lovetts are a criminal dynasty whose father Mickey was a legendary figure in Burnside’s time: “You knew where you were with Mickey Lovett – old school. When I was a young woodentop he saved me from a right hiding once. I was off duty, shouting my mouth off in some drinking club.” His sons are a different proposition, determined to prove they are the law on the manor, and Burnside tries and fails to bring them down. And then there is Arthur McKenzie, chronicling the most enduring thing in Burnside’s life: his run-ins with his whimpering snout Alfie Dobbs, the man who puts himself about because, in his words, “You’ve got to be as wide as a fat lady’s Khyber in this game.” When he discovers that Alfie has sold his services to a rival DI up north, Burnside turns on him with the fury of a cheated lover, which makes you wonder what real life experiences of McKenzie’s may have inspired the character!
Recurring police characters are, understandably, thin on the ground, but as the show expands to focus on Barton Street, both the thuggish Terry Coles and his governor Twist are seen more than once. The most memorable role, however, is taken by Billy Murray in his first appearance on the show. Some guest actors took on a completely different part when they became regulars, usually crossing from one side of the law to the other – whereas DI Brian Jackman, introduced in ‘Fools’ Gold’, is nothing less than an audition for Don Beech, differing only in name and rank. Like Beech, he’s more interested in keeping the right villains sweet than in enforcing the law. When a notorious bank robber turns supergrass, promising names and details of other jobs, Jackman lays on the red carpet for him, allowing his girlfriend into his cell and giving Yorkie, the arresting officer, some readies to nip down the local Chinese on his behalf. “Oh, get a receipt for that, will you?” he adds as he lays the money on the table. After the crook starts complaining about what he’s been given, Yorkie comes to blows with him, and Burnside has had enough: “Get her out, and bang him up!” “This outfit is amateur,” Jackman sneers, and is told, “I want you out of here in an hour, otherwise I’ll bounce you out.” Oddly, this doesn’t stop them collaborating a year later in ‘When Did You Last See Your Father?’, as Jackman returns for a cameo role that lasts barely three minutes. This time it’s not the same author, suggesting a generic policeman role that was given extra value by re-employing Murray.
Given the sheer number of parts that The Bill chewed up in its twenty-six years – according to Graham Cole, the contracts department issued around 24, 000 of them – it’s not surprising that the same faces recurred so often. Besides the practice of guest artistes graduating to a regular spot, there was also a reliable group of actors who were called on to play a ‘type’; people like Peter Jonfield and Trevor Byfield (you know them when you see them) popped up without fail every three or four years, bringing their distinctive features to a range of hardcases and low-lifes. Even in the early days, some actors who appeared in the last hour-long series swiftly return in similar roles in the half-hours: again, an unsurprising move by casting directors when you need to populate a hundred and four episodes rather than twelve! David Allister, a supercilious headteacher in Series 3 who wants to keep the police out of his school because it’s the done thing, returns in Series 5 as a closeted gay man who is being extorted by a youth he unwisely befriended. “They can’t touch you for it these days – consenting adults, in private,” Mike reassures him. “Maybe they can’t lock me up. But you’ve seen what the newspapers can do to a gay politician, gay judge, gay vicar. I’m a headteacher. They could crucify me.” The different names on the end credits are the only thing to suggest they are different people, otherwise it could easily be the same man. At the other end of the professional scale, Lorraine Ashbourne does such a good job playing a streetwalker in ‘Brownie Points’ that she returns as one in Series 6, brought in by Roach and Datta after being found soliciting in public with her child in tow. “Have you ever tried bringing up a kid on your own on child benefit?” she demands. “Vote Labour next time,” advises an unsympathetic Roach, and receives a clout on the head. And it’s worth noting the two appearances by a young ‘Leonard’ Collin, who as Len Collin authored no less than thirty-five episodes of the show over the next two decades (including a couple in which he also appears, the busy man). He’s first seen as a chirpy odd-job man giving Galloway backchat in ‘Some You Win, Some You Lose’. Then two years later he crops up again in ‘Private Wars’, as a security guard at a factory where Burnside has been given a kicking by another guard who supposedly mistook him for an intruder. Knowing his face, Burnside realises that he is an ex-con out for revenge, and asks the other man how difficult it is to land one of these security jobs. “Difficult? You must be joking. There are two qualifications: you need to be breathing, and available tomorrow.”