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ITV axes 'The Bill'

Long-running police drama The Bill is to be axed by ITV after more than a quarter of a century, it was announced today.

The show - set in the fictional Sun Hill - was given a major revamp last year to win back viewers but audiences have fallen steadily in recent years.

ITV said today that the series was being axed to reflect the changing tastes of viewers, but pledged to continue investing in "high-quality drama".

The move, which will see the show end this year, was said to be a creative decision rather than simply to save costs.

Audiences have slipped from around seven million viewers five years ago to under four million in recent months.

Peter Fincham, ITV director of television, said: "The Bill has been a fixture on our screens for more than 25 years and has been the home of some of the UK's best serial drama storylines, and a great showcase for terrific scriptwriting and fine acting talent.

"Thanks to a superb production team, it's been one of the great institutions of television drama.

"But times change, and so do the tastes of our audience. This is reflected in the mix of what ITV1 will offer as a channel, with an increased focus on new and varied drama commissions for the 9.00pm slot.

"Whilst The Bill will come to an end in 2010, we will continue to invest more in drama programming than any other commercial broadcaster in the UK and viewers can look forward to a wide range of high-quality drama on ITV1."

At one stage The Bill was being screened three times a week. Last year ITV bosses refocused the show to create a one-hour episode screened after the 9pm watershed.

The format of The Bill has been tweaked a number of times since it launched as a series in 1984.

Initially there were just 12 hour-long self-contained episodes and by 1988 the programme was switched to three half-hour shows per week.

A decade later the drama - which created well-loved characters such as June Ackland, Reg Hollis and Jim Carver - returned to 60-minute shows but twice a week. Then in 2009, it dropped to just one hour.

ITV1 has been concentrating on shorter run dramas such as this year's Collision which drew more than seven million viewers when it was screened over five nights.

The broadcaster has pledged to maintain its drama budget and has said it will increase investment in brand new drama commissions in peak time.

Future new commissions include a serial in development from novelist Anthony Horowitz, who created the Alex Rider books and also wrote both Collision and Foyle's War.

Other new ITV dramas include updated versions of The Prisoner and A Bouquet Of Barbed Wire, plus Wild At Heart, Midsomer Murders and Lewis continue to perform well.

ITV1 scored the top five best-performing new dramas in 2009 with Whitechapel topping the list with nine million viewers.

Over the years The Bill experimented with two action-packed live episodes. It has also seen some of its best-known characters killed off in major storylines.

Earlier this month it was shortlisted for a Royal Television Society award in the Best Soap/Continuing Drama category. It was beaten by EastEnders.

The show was rooted in a one-off drama Woodentop in 1983, which so impressed ITV bosses they developed it into a series with the same central characters, Pc Carver (Mark Wingett) and WPc Ackland (Trudie Goodwin).

MP David Davies, who has worked as a Special Constable with the British Transport Police, said today he felt The Bill reflected police work more accurately than shows such as Police, Camera, Action!

Davies said: "I think it did a better job than some of the programmes that you see at the moment, because they're heavily edited. Police, Camera, Action! that sort of thing, they send somebody out with a camera and every two minutes something incredibly exciting is happening.

"I actually remember thinking the first time I went out in uniform, is it going to be two minutes or ten minutes before the first fight, and fairly often nothing very much happened at all.

"And I think The Bill got that over slightly better. But even still, in order to keep people interested it had to inject rather more action than day-to-day policing.

"My experience, which isn't as extensive as a regular serving police officer, is that you go days without anything happening and then suddenly it all happens at once, but is over in five minutes, and television never seems to convey that very well.

"But television is television, isn't it? They've got to have drama and action every two minutes to keep people entertained."