The Bill stops here 

11 October 2010 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.

The front of the fictional Sun Hill Police Station

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.

The front of St Hugh's Hospital, next door to Sun Hill

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.

Thames TV Car Park sign at Merton Studios

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?

Merton Studios reception

Round the side of the building is the Merton Studios reception

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.

The front of the fictional Sun Hill Police Station

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 backlot

The backlot at Merton Studios with pub frontage, garage, bus stop (for London bus route 120) and telephone boxes. The storage warehouse in contrast, is a real business sited on neighbouring premises.

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.

Plaque above Merton Studios reception commemorating 21 years of The Bill

In 2004 this plaque was placed above the studio reception entrance to celebrate 21 years of The Bill

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.

You Say

5 responses to this article

bilal asif 22 February 2013 at 3:04 pm

Is sun hill police station a real place where u can work?

Jason Putt 1 May 2015 at 9:45 pm

are used to work for an office equipment repair for in Croydon and the site of the bill was one of our customers and they are used to have to go and repair machines in the production rooms where a lot of the actors used to hanging out when they where not acting. It was great to be able to talk to the actors face-to-face.

Graham Stephens 16 September 2017 at 10:32 am

A lot of misinformation has circulated about why Thames chose the location in Merton as its third (and final) base for The Bill. As Chief Engineer at Thames from 1987 until Thames went off air in 1992 I was tasked with the job of searching for a new home for the programme. Estate agents were contacted and a few likely contenders pre-filtered by my building team. But after visiting all of these I was in despair. Most of the buildings were far from suitable. Some needed expensive structural repairs, some were in unsuitable locations on main roads. Some looked more suited to Dixon of Dock Green. Finally one location was left, a wine warehouse in Merton. I decided to view it as it seemed to be in the right area, close to Thames Teddington (but not too close) and in an area where a lot of media folks lived but also not too far from some of the deprived areas in South London which would provide many good locations. But I rolled up prepared to be unimpressed. However I was immediately struck by its advantages. It looked like a modern police station, unassuming and low-key. Parking was available, passing traffic was light, Merton station was easy walking distance and, most importantly, there were a few pubs and restaurants around! With The Bills move to a twice-weekly format it was important to keep continuity of talent and support staff by keeping them happy.

The Bill was shot entirely single-camera using EFP techniques. So the Merton base didn’t need any special studio acoustic or multi-camera facilities. Just a couple of edit suites. Every internal scene was shot in the internal office areas, just as though it was on location. These areas needed very little treatment to be convincing as police offices and interview rooms. Most of the money was spent on repairing a leaky roof and constructing makeup and wardrobe facilities.

Of course I only made the recommendation, it was up to the Producer to make the final decision. But it was good to see that he appreciated the sites advantages as I had and so we began the necessary conversion works as soon as the lease was signed. These took about 3 months as I recall and then the programme moved in. The new twice-weekly format (and I like to thing the improved production facilities and location) made The Bill the most popular police series ever aired in the UK,

Julie mcgreavey 12 November 2017 at 1:50 am

What was the name of the pub the actor’s used after filming.

Graham Grigg 21 December 2017 at 11:56 am

I worked in 1987 installing portable buildings in side the warehouse we took part of the roof off to lower the buildings inside
Saw a no of the actors at the time
They had reception inside with numerous people queuing to be interviewed as extras for the show
Always recall the fold up sign above the door with
(SUN HILL POLICE STATION)

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