Arts: Give Us A break Guv

What do Sick Boy from 'Trainspotting' and Kira from 'This Life' have in common with Baby Spice? They've all been in 'The Bill'. And they're far from the only ones

Pick A theatre programme, any theatre programme. Flip through to the actor's biographies, examine their TV credits and the phenomenon is unmistakable. If they've got an Equity card, chances are they've appeared in The Bill or Casualty.

Staff at the Manchester Royal Exchange still smile at the memory of a Julius Caesar in which all 18 members of the cast, from pleb to emperor, had crossed the paths of Sun Hill's boys in blue. Seven of the Twelve Angry Men in last year's West End revival had either been nicked on The Bill or wound up bloody and traumatised at Holby City Hospital.

Any long-running serial is bound to have a high turnover of actors. But the longevity of Carlton's The Bill (1,200-plus episodes since 1984) and BBC1's Casualty (200-plus since 1986) and their multi-storyline formats, relying on an endless stream of cannon-fodder characters who will never be seen again, puts them in a league of their own. The Bill needs seven casting directors, working all year round, to fill all its bit parts.

An exclusive, if unscientific Independent on Sunday survey reveals just how high a proportion of the actors we see on stage in Shakespeare, Ayckbourn or Miller have taken their turn as muggers, druggies, accident victims, fraudsters, burgled shopkeepers and householders, accident victims, grieving parents or, um, accident victims.

The programmes for 50 plays, chosen at random and staged in London or Manchester over the past two years, give the biographies of 591 actors. At least 30 per cent (172) had appeared in The Bill, and at least 16 per cent (93) in Casualty. At least 55 - roughly 10 per cent - had "done the " with parts in both programmes.

"At least" because theatre-programme biogs are only comprehensive for the most junior cast members. The percentages would undoubtedly be higher if the figures included actors who have been in The Bill or Casualty but who have moved sufficiently far up the ladder that they no longer need to let the public, or any watching agents, know.

Going through the programmes, you find it is invariably the freshest- faced actors whose cvs still list Bill or Casualty credits, and whatever you think of the serials' artistic merits, there is no denying their immense value in providing well-paid, prime-time TV exposure, however fleeting, for those just out of drama school. Time will tell if planned changes to The Bill in 1998 - to storylines that put a greater, soap-style emphasis on the private lives of the regular police characters - are going to put a squeeze on those bit part opportunities.

Casualty can boast before-they-were-famous appearances by, among many others, Kate Winslet, Robert Carlyle, James (Dance to the Music of Time) Purefoy and Liza Walker, currently making her name at the National Theatre as Alice, the stripper in Patrick Marber's Closer. And ex-soap stars have a habit of turning up in the cells in The Bill: this year alone has seen Letitia Dean, aka Sharon in EastEnders, as a hairdresser-arsonist; Luisa Bradshaw-White, Kira in This Life, as a drug-dealer's girlfriend; Nicola Stephenson, who, as Julie Hicks, shared That Kiss with Beth Jordache in Brookside, as the mother of two children abducted to Pakistan by their father; and, in the same epi-sode, another ghost of the Close, Brian Murray, aka Trevor Jordache, the bloke under the patio, as a Special Branch Sgt.

Those who have done the double include Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy in Trainspotting, and now the traumatised officer in Regeneration) and Ray (Nil By Mouth) Winstone (one Casualty, two Bills). Directors also reap the benefits of working to rigid formats and extremely tight shooting schedules. In 1992, Peter Cattaneo, director of The Full Monty, notched up two Bill episodes.

Last, and undoubtedly least, subscribers to UK Gold should look out for a repeat of a 1993 episode of The Bill called "Missionary Work". Pay attention during a youth-club scene and you'll glimpse Emma "Baby Spice" Bunton. Her part as Janice should have been larger, but The Bill's computer database puts a sad and, with the release of the Spice Girls' movie only weeks away, ominous phrase against her name: "Edited to no dialogue."

THE ACTOR'S TALE

Jason Hughes (left), best-known for playing Warren, the gay lawyer in This Life, had done the double, appearing in both The Bill and Casualty, within two years of leaving LAMDA.

MY VERY first TV was in London's Burning, then I was turned down at two Bill auditions, before being offered a part at my third, in 1993. I played Craig. Me and another lad had to hassle a fast-food van owner, kick him out and start helping ourselves to his burgers. A WPC came along and tried to handcuff us but we did a runner - leaving some money for the burgers. That was my glorious part!

There's no question that The Bill's a production line. I found it really weird that there was no rehearsal. We did a line run, blocked the moves and then started filming. The technical crew are amazing - all the actors have to do is turn up and say the lines. It was pounds 600 for a couple of day's work, easily the best pay I'd had at that stage.

It's a running joke among actors when you hear a friend's doing The Bill. You say: "Congratulations, mate! Get down there and have a laugh."

In Casualty, I was a junkie who's trying to come off smack and gets his goody-two-shoes brother into trouble. I loved playing that part. There was this great police chase, with me running into traffic and bouncing off a car bonnet. Excellent.

These shows are really important, especially if you haven't had much TV-acting training at drama school. The Bill and Casualty are the TV equivalent of rep.

When you start out you're very nervous and ill at ease, but I quickly got used to being around a film crew. I got a chance to watch myself on TV and see what I was doing wrong. All that definitely helped when it came to This Life.

THE CASTING DIRECTOR'S TALE

Angela Grosvenor, a freelance casting director, has worked on The Bill since 1989, and completed a five-year stint on Casualty in 1996.

When I started on The Bill they had a rule which said no actor could ever appear twice. That made things really tough, because Bill characters do tend to be slightly similar and there are only a limited number of people you can consider for each particular type. Then the producers said actors could come back after two years and now, thankfully, they can be cast again after a year. There's a two-year rule for Casualty.

A hell of a lot of young actors do their very first telly on these dramas. If you've acted in them people in the industry reckon you must be all right - because you need to be very professional to perform with virtually no rehearsal.

I'll sit down with a director, make sure I'm on their wavelength in terms of the age and looks they're after for each part, and then give them a choice of actors. Basically, the less familiar the face the better, as the small parts are meant to be ordinary people. On Casualty, some of the directors were happier with better-known faces; they felt an element of audience recognition created a stronger emotional hook.

Some of the people I meet at casting sessions for other shows complain: "I'm the only actor in the world who hasn't been in The Bill!"

ANOTHER CASTING DIRECTOR'S TALE

John Cannon worked on The Bill before becoming deputy head of casting for the RSC.

Seeing someone on The Bill or Casualty is almost like having them come in and do a mini-audition piece. There's no substitute for observing someone on stage, but when you watch them on TV you get a real flavour for what they can do.

The Bill was much simpler to cast than, say, Henry V for the RSC. I was asking people to do two or three days' work, for good pay and nice expenses - plus they would get a videotape for their agent to send to other casting directors. At the RSC we're asking people to commit to up to 18 months' work for a less-than-fantastic salary.

Our drama schools are still very slow at introducing good tuition for TV technique, so it's good that so many young actors learn so much from being part of the well-oiled Bill and Casualty machines."

THE WRITER'S TALE

Peter Bowker was a special-needs teacher in Leeds; then, in 1992, Casualty gave him his big break. He has since co-written the BBC1 police series, Out of the Blue, and his four-part alien invasion drama, The Uninvited, was screened on ITV in October.

I WAS on a screen-writing course at the University of East Anglia, and had written a play about two con artists who claim they've found a cure for Aids. I had already accumulated 10 years' worth of BBC rejection slips, but I sent the play on spec, to Sally Haines, then a Casualty script editor, and now its producer.

She called me in and asked me what sort of stories I'd like to do. They were on series seven so there were still a few unusual accidents left, and two of my suggestions had not been done. I wrote five spec storylines and they approved two - my first professional commissions.

My first episode, "One Step Forward", included a pensioners' love triangle featuring Lionel Jeffreys. It felt great seeing the tape in advance, but when I watched it again on TV on the night and thought about 10 million people doing the same, it was like seeing every mistake you've every made in your life writ large.

I wrote three more episodes for that series, including "Boiling Point", where the department is burnt down by rioters [it attracted 17m viewers and hundreds of complaints]. After that, every medical drama was after me and I was soon writing for Medics and Peak Practice.

The pay was great [fees vary from pounds 3,000 to pounds 8,500 an episode]. Starting on Casualty was a brilliant way to learn about structure: you're on a restricted production budget, everything must happen within the timescale of a hospital shift, you need three set-up scenes and then you have to make sure the emotional and medical fall-out takes place in the department.

Thanks to being very well edited, I also learned how to write to length. Looking back, I think the initial draft of my first episode was longer than A Dance to the Music of Time.

KING OF THE BILL?

I tell you, sarge, that Eddie Marsan's got a record as long as your arm.

Currently appearing in BBC1's sanatorium sitcom, Get Well Soon (left) and as an RAF conscript in Chips With Everything at the National, Marsan, with his cockney accent and boxer's face, was classic Bill material.

But four visits to Sun Hill in as many years may be unprecedented:

June 1992 - "Human Resources": first offence, as con man Martin Price.

August 1993 - "Unreliable Witness": has his collar felt again as Ray Kilby, a motorcyclist involved in an accident and trying to fiddle compensation from a pedestrian.

May 1995 - "Big Boys' Rules": moves up in the underworld as Dean Stacey, the foreman at a haulage firm with a nice sideline in Class A drugs.

August 1996 - "Road to Recovery": on the straight and narrow at last, as psychiatric patient Gary Vaughan.

And, in case you were wondering, yes, Marsan has also appeared in Casualty. !

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