The Bill stops here
11 Oct 2010 1 comment. tbs.pm/2252
It was the summer of 2004. I’d just bought a house in south west London and was exploring the area in a roundabout fashion before heading to the pub.
Wandering around an industrial estate I noticed a rather odd-looking building looking very much like a police station. But it wasn’t. The signs at the front had all been covered up – the whole place in darkness. It was like the Metropolitan Police had just mothballed an entire police station. But the whole place just looked strangely familiar.
Next door was something even weirder. A large sign on a door was marked “Accident and Emergency” and there was a small ambulance bay. Yet this was no hospital – it wasn’t big enough.
Stepping over the low chain fence I wandered up to the darkened door of the police station and peered inside. It was only then that I realised. I knew this place. I’d seen it before. This was no normal police station. This was Sun Hill Police Station – home of The Bill.
Arriving on our screens in 1984 as a one-off police drama called Woodentop, The Bill ran for 26 years as a key fixture in ITV’s schedules until the programme was killed off in the summer of 2010. Originally filmed at a set near Wapping, industrial unrest at News International’s plant interfered with programme production, and the programme moved a few miles away to a former depot a few miles away.
Redevelopment of the site saw The Bill on the move again and under the guise of a car bomb, the police station was “refurbished” and moved to its new home in an old warehouse in Merton, a short distance away from Wimbledon.
In 1990 what is now Merton Studios (and for a period, TalkBack Thames Studios), were opened. Had I just gone round the corner I would have noticed the rather 1980s looking sign pointing me to the “THAMES TV CAR PARK” where the building looks distinctively more TV-like with car park slots reserved for Location Directors and, in recent years, a sign welcoming you to FreemantleMedia’s buildings.
Almost as soon as I’d realised I was living in Sun Hill, The Bill link suddenly answered lots of mysteries, like why did my local newsagent in a small housing estate near a petrol station stock Broadcast? And why were there police cars being driven around with their logos clumsily hidden with black tape, and their lights covered by cloth?
And then the filming became more noticeable too. Wandering past the studios, especially in the week, the average pedestrian could usually pass a few off-duty “coppers” smoking under the hallowed station entrance, and every now and then a small clutch of fans could be seen waiting for their favourite stars to appear so they could get their autograph.
It also made sense as to why the pub I’d been visiting had a picture of Kevin Lloyd – the actor who played DC Tosh Lines – sat at the end of the bar. For many years the pub had been the closest to the studios and many of the cast and crew would frequent it.
Although east London was generally preferred as a filming location, The Bill did film frequently around Merton. Several nearby shops and pubs would occasionally shut at random times to facilitate filming, whilst those living nearby would sometimes receive mailshots from Thames Television whilst they were trying to find locations.
Filming could often be a nuisance. I came home one evening to find a sizeable film crew cluttering up my quiet cul-de-sac with one lorry blocking off my drive. True I didn’t have a car, but what if I had? It was rather tempting just to open my kitchen window and start playing music loudly in protest. Not that I did, but it brought to mind the well-known tale of one woman who, upset with portrayal of council estates in the show, disrupted filming by stationing herself in shot with an ironing board, an iron and a big basket of laundry.
Still, filming sometimes had its benefits as to clues to for future storylines. Walking past one autumn Sunday in 2005 several fire engines were lining the streets and (real) police officers were stationed either side of the studio ready to stop traffic. The front of the building was a blackened mess, and remained so for many months. The cause was nothing real but a storyline where the station was hit by a van load of explosives. Notably after the explosion the producers used the opportunity to build a small “extension” to the station for exterior shots. Basically built as a giant wall, it had windows and fake doors inside and was wide enough that someone could just about stand inside if needs be.
When not seeing filming on the streets, the local area was often very visible on screen. Flicking around one evening I spotted several police officers standing in a blood splattered subway which just happened to be one I used regularly to get to the tram stop! And when a derelict pub nearby suddenly had its old signs painted over in green, the reason was eventually revealed to be TV related when I spotted it being used as a “former hotel” being used for wild parties.
Merton Studios didn’t just house The Bill. Between 1999 and 2005 the studio complex became home to Channel Five’s soap opera Family Affairs, which moved from its original home in Hayes, west of London. A backlot was created included fake shop fronts, a pub and a bus stop.The two studios in the building were also often used for commercials, whilst several parts of the Sun Hill police station and the next door hospital set were hired out for use on other programmes.
Since the final episode was filmed in June 2010 the studios have fallen silent and some equipment removed. Whilst there has been no official announcement about the studios themselves has been made at the time of writing, its website at mertonstudios.co.uk has disappeared and replaced by a redirect to FreemantleMedia’s website. Ultimately its facilities are rather bespoke in nature and closure, possibly even demolition, seems likely.
The building remains still as it was when the last used. The Sun Hill signs remain, covered up as usual. But there’s no more actors cadging cigs. No more trucks parked across my drive. In some ways Merton just isn’t the same any more.
Shortly after this article was written it was announced that the studios have been bought by a company which intends to continue to use them as television studios, making the most of the specialist sets within the building.