In Conversation With Filmmaker, Author and Podcaster, Oliver Crocker (Part I of II)
Talking The Bill, Witness Statements, The Bill Podcast, Z Cars and Lots More
Welcome to the companion newsletter for episode one of our conversation with producer and host of The Bill Podcast, Oliver Crocker.
In amongst an impressive CV, Oliver’s current successes are his books Witness Statements - Making The Bill Series 1-3 and All Memories Great and Small, with more to come; and, of course, The Bill Podcast. With around 200 000 listens as of August 2021, it’s loved not only by fans of the show around the world, but also by the artists and crew behind it.
The Bill was an iconic ITV police series, which ran for nearly 2500 episodes, from the pilot, Woodentop, featuring Trudie Goodwin (June Ackland) and Mark Wingett (Jim Carver) in 1983, through to 2010. (You can link via their names directly to their individual interviews on The Bill Podcast).
Having interviewed many of the actors and key creative talent behind the show, over nearly 80 podcast episodes (at the time of writing), additional Patreon content for subscribers, and for Witness Statements, Oliver is able to give us some fascinating insights into the making of the show throughout its 27 year run. He generously shares some of those insights with us, including securing the very first interview for the podcast, with key actor from the early years, Jon Iles (DC Mike Dashwood).
We find out about the unique perspectives of some of the prominent writers of The Bill, including Barry Appleton, who was also technical adviser, and who based storylines on his personal experience as a police officer. We also explore the often fraught relationship between actor and producer, and discuss the role of the producer more generally, for better or worse, thanks in part to some insights gleaned from Oliver’s interviews with Jon Iles, Larry Dann (Sgt Alec Peters) and Andrew Mackintosh (DS Alastair Greig). Comments from producer Tony Garnett (1936-2020) (Cathy Come Home, Kes, This Life) from BBC’s Hard Talk programme, about the general treatment of actors, even those well established, seems particularly pertinent.
We also take a little diversion into a previous long running police drama, Z- Cars (801 episodes 1962-1978), continuing with the on vs off-camera dynamic. Z-Cars began during a time when studio segments were performed and broadcast live, and contributing writer Alan Plater (A Very British Coup, Fortunes of War), in a 1989 interview with the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, recalled all kinds of disasters, like equipment malfunctions meaning that filmed exterior segments would not cut in on cue, and one memorable occasion when a door was opened in a studio set to reveal at least one camera taking up position for the next shot. In the context of changing times, we look at the evolution of police drama, and how both Britain and the audience might have changed between Dixon of Dock Green, Z-Cars, The Sweeney, and then The Bill which found its early success in the 1980s of Margaret Thatcher.
Oliver also talks us through the tricky and at times nerve-wracking process of securing key interviews, such as John Salthouse (DI Roy Galloway), and the importance of gaining and then honouring the trust of the interviewee to get the best results. We also recall John Salthouse’s unforgettable, intense performance in one of the most watched and acclaimed television plays of all, Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party (1977), of which a significant part was improvised. The complete play is available on YouTube, link here.
There’s also a lovely anecdote about Oliver’s conversation with Robert Hardy (Siegfried Farnon), for All Memories Great and Small, which emphasises just how much preparation and research can make a difference to a key interview.
Along with John Salthouse’s DI Galloway, one of the characters that shaped The Bill in its formative years was DS Ted Roach, played by Tony Scannell (1945-2020), in 237 episodes. Just one of many highlights to be found in The Bill Podcast’s catalogue is this tribute episode.
Oliver discusses some of the changes in The Bill over its 27 year run, some well received, some not, and in this context, one of the more enlightening interviews in The Bill Podcast catalogue is with Todd Carty, who played PC Gabriel Kent and was part of a polarising storyline with Trudie Goodwin’s June Ackland. Todd’s interview gives us a much better understanding of the acting challenges that arise from an extended and confronting storyline.
One actor we mention only fleetingly is Philip Whitchurch ( Chief Inspector Cato) who created another legendary character, Captain ‘Sweet William’ Frederickson, in Sharpe.
One of many memorable Frederickson moments involved Sergeant Harper (Daragh O’Malley), a terrible toothache, a horrendous pair of pincers and some detailed instructions on improvised, battlefield dentistry. You can see that eye-watering scene thanks to the official Sharpe YouTube channel, here.
There are so many legends of The Bill we didn’t mention in this conversation with Oliver, but there’s a very good chance your favourite will already be in The Bill Podcast’s extensive back catalogue. Or may well appear in the future!
We continue our conversation in part II, shifting focus to Frank Williams, Dad’s Army and some of the very talented and fascinating people Oliver has worked with, but in the meantime, here are a few more notes and links to some additional and thoroughly recommended reading, viewing and listening;
Find the complete Hard Talk interview with Tony Garnett here. The accounts of his early life are quite harrowing, and it’s a fascinating look at one of the great talents of all in post-war British cinema and television, and how his life experiences informed some of his most acclaimed work. (Thanks to BBC World Service)(https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csy990
One of the behind-the-scenes insights into The Bill Oliver shared with us, was the fact that on more than one occasion, entire episodes would be reshot if, for whatever reason, the episode was not up to standard or a guest actor proved to be unsuitable. Here’s a little more background on The Negotiator, which was recast and reshot with Roger Lloyd-Pack as the principal guest;
Ben Peyton played a key role in the creation of the The Bill Podcast, and was the second interviewee, following Jon Iles. He played PC Ben Heyward in 55 episodes from 2000 to 2002. He is currently a film writer, and you can connect to his website and link to his social media here.
Oliver credits Toby Hadoke as an influence on his interviewing style - link to Toby’s website at www.tobyhadoke.com
The incredibly clever final episode of Z Cars to feature Ian Cullen (April 1975), thanks to Archive TV Musings. It features Ralph Bates (Poldark) and Lois Baxter (When the Boat Comes In) in guest roles.
You can also link to Oliver’s interview with Ian for the Z Cars DVD Extras here.
Check out Oliver’s books at www.devonfirebooks.com
There is additional content, including early access to new podcast episodes, commentaries and behind the scenes discussions with key production talent, and lots more, accessible with a small subscription at Oliver’s Patreon Channel.
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Thanks to Steve Collins for technical support. Podcast theme and incidental music written and performed by Gainesville.