ITV kills off The Bill (so how will actors get their first break now?)

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In its heyday, it attracted an avid prime-time following and helped to launch the careers of a generation of actors.

These days, The Bill is better known as a rest home for actors whose stars have long since waned, with Les Dennis and Gillian Taylforth popping up in the past few years, and storylines which have strayed from the realms of gritty and realistic police drama to the somewhat banal.

When ITV executives finally applied the axe to the long running show yesterday, it did not come as a total surprise. But the announcement did mark an end to the show's 26-year run – an achievement in itself in a world where shows rarely see that kind of lifespan.

ITV said its decision reflected the changing tastes of viewers, but pledged to carry on investing in "high-quality drama" to fill the same slot. It was clear that the decision was a creative one, rather than a money-saving exercise.

Even when its popularity drooped, executives at ITV were reluctant to give The Bill the chop. The show was given a major revamp last year after losing audiences steadily, with viewing figures slipping from around 7 million five years ago to fewer than 4 million in recent months.

Peter Fincham, ITV's director of television, yesterday offered thanks to the 90-strong production team as he described the show – based around the fictional Sun Hill police station in east London – as one of the great institutions of television drama.

"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," he said. The show's last episode will air later this year.