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Interview with Carol Williams

Carol Williams was head of scripts at Yorkshire Television from 1977 until she left to work freelance in February 1998. She had been involved with Heartbeat right from the start and continued to work as a script consultant. In 1998 she talked to Susie Holland about what it is like behind the scenes of such a hugely popular TV series.




How did it all begin?

"In the early 1980s, our then head of drama, David Cunliffe, was very keen on the series of Constable books written by Nicholas Rhea and bought the television rights from his agent. We held on to those rights for about ten years before being able to go ahead. Finally Keith Richardson, who had succeeded David Cunliffe, asked the experienced writer Johnny Byrne to read the books and come up with a plan of how best to translate them to the screen. Johnny, who'd worked on series All Creatures Great and Small, came up with the idea of structuring a drama series around Rhea's characters, utilising many other aspects of the popular books. Armed with Johnny's 'bible', Yorkshire Television got the commission from the ITV Network.

"Because the books are largely anecdotal in style, the stories are not all suitable for straight adaptation to the fifty minute drama slot, so we commissioned a number of writers to come up with their own original ideas for stories integrating some of Rhea's characters and settings."

What is your role?

"For the first seven series, I was responsible for finding the writers, and commissioning the scripts. Filming has just begun on the eighth series and Anna Davies, who has been a script editor on Heartbeat, has taken over this role.

"Once we are told a new series is definitely going ahead, a production schedule is set with various deadlines we must meet. I contact literary agents to see which of our previous writers may be available to work on the show again, but of course we are always on the lookout for new talent as well.

"The basic structure of an episode is a main story involving the police, a secondary story involving Greengrass, and one or two other sub-plots which will take care of any continuity stories for the regular characters of Aidensfield and Ashfordly. After a series of meetings with writers, storylines are submitted, and once a story is agreed by the producer, we go ahead and commission the script.

"Heartbeat is a drama series, not a serial, which means we need at least two new stand-alone stories every week. It is essential we maintain character continuity and each individual's characteristics. For instance, if one week Greengrass went into the Aidensfield Arms and ordered a gin and tonic, viewers would immediately cry 'but he only drinks whisky!'.

"Likewise Ventress's penchant for the surreptitious cigarette plus the importance he places on the contents of his daily lunchbox, and Sgt. Blaketon's habit of barking, 'In my office, now.'

"Sometimes, personal stories will run over a number of episodes such as Dr. Kate Rowan's death, Sgt. Blaketon's illness and subsequent retirement to the Aidensfield Post Office, Nick and Jo's wedding, and the arrival of PC Mike Bradley in Ashfordly and his progression to the Aidensfield Police House."

Who are the key people in putting together a series of Heartbeat?

"To begin with there's executive producer Keith Richardson, producer Gerry Mill, and associate producer Pat Brown. Keith and Pat have been with Heartbeat from the beginning and Gerry has produced the last three series. Then there's head of scripts, Anna Davies, with her two script editors, Jonathan Critchley and Sharon Houlihan. The directors come in when the script is in final draft, about four weeks before shooting. But there are numerous other people, besides the cast, who are vital to the production, such as the production co-ordinator, production assistant, casting director, art department and the technical and location crews. In all, around 70 people are involved behind the scenes, and every one of them has an important role to play."

When the first episode of Heartbeat was screened on 10th April 1992, did you envisage it becoming such a huge success?

"We had hopes, but to be honest, no. Obviously, we were all delighted. We had set out to make a television series entertaining to the family as a whole, rather than targeting a specific group, and we succeeded. But if you'd told us we'd still be here making series eight, I don't think we'd have believed you."

In the U.K., Heartbeat attracts a weekly audience of 16 million, that's almost a third of the population. It beats all other drama series hands down, and is even more popular than the soaps Eastenders, Emmerdale, and Brookside. Only the weekday episodes of Coronation Street attract slightly higher audiences. Why is it such a success?

"If I knew the answer to that, I'd be a millionaire by now! But I do know Heartbeat contains a number of ingredients which have made it come together so well. I'll try and give you some of them: The time slot, 8pm on a Sunday, is perfect for Heartbeat. The feel-good factor - good stories, happy endings (mostly). The characters that inhabit the village and through whom we tell the stories. The glorious scenery associated with the North York Moors, the 1960s period setting which brings back great feelings of nostalgia expressed in the fashion, period décor, old cars, steam trains and so on. I must also mention the music. I don't need to emphasize how popular the 60s music still is. Audience research has shown that people switch on to see all of these things."

Does the success of Heartbeat make your job easier or harder?

"Definitely harder. To maintain the high standard we've set is incredibly difficult and we're always on the lookout for imaginative and original storylines. We start each new series with a certain amount of trepidation, wondering if it can be as successful as before. So far, thank goodness, it has been, and we are very grateful to our following of loyal fans. Of course it can't last forever, as natural law dictates that one day the viewers will tire of it and want something different. The last thing we can afford to be is complacent, and we aren't. Everyone works extremely hard to make the programme the success it is."

What do you think of the actors who play the key parts?

"Brilliant. We're very lucky to have such a talented cast. It was an enormous bonus to get Nick Berry to play the part of PC Rowan - he had previously been a very popular member of the EastEnders cast, and Niamh Cusack, who played his doctor wife, was also excellent. Derek Fowlds (Sgt. Blaketon) and Bill Simons (PC Ventress) were both well-known and experienced actors before they came to Heartbeat, which was also a huge plus. Mark Jordan was a relative newcomer and has really developed in his role as PC Bellamy. Then there's Tricia Penrose (Gina), Kazia Pelka (Maggie Bolton), David Michaels (Dr. Neil Bolton) and our newest regular cast member Jason Durr (PC Mike Bradley), all of whom are very popular characters. Sadly, we lost the character of Auntie Eileen, beautifully played by Ann Stallybrass, when 'Nick and Jo' married and left for a new life in Canada. Philip Franks (Sgt. Craddock) was introduced in the final episode of series seven and will become a regular member of the cast in series eight.

Unforgettable, of course, is the irreplaceable Bill Maynard who has made the part of Claude Jeremiah Greengrass his very own. Without him, Heartbeat would certainly not be the same, but there is no fear of that because although he suffered a mild stroke at the end of the last series, viewers can rest assured that Bill is in excellent shape again and has been given a clean bill of health. Happily, this is just what he wanted to hear, as did we all.

"Heartbeat has a reputation for quality which means we also attract a very high standard of guest artists. We've had well-known names like Annette Crosby, Frank Finlay, Frances de la Tour, John Alderton, Thora Hird, Una Stubbs, Stratford Johns, Nicholas Ball, Jenny Agutter, Peter Barkworth, Julie T. Wallace, Phyllida Law, and Dora Bryan, to name but a few."

Does the programme suffer when big stars like Nick Berry leave?

"With the greatest respect to Nick, the answer is no. Nick was not in the last four episodes of series seven, but we still finished with our regular figure of 16 million viewers, which is a credit to all the other actors.

"Nick gave us plenty of warning that he wanted to leave and so we were able to concentrate on developing the other characters to lessen the impact of his departure. Initially, Heartbeat relied on PC Rowan driving the plot, whereas towards his departure we had made it more of an ensemble piece, with other characters featuring more prominently. Nevertheless, we were all very sad to see Nick and Juliette Gruber (Jo) go. There were lots of leaving parties - off screen!"

How long do you think Heartbeat will go on?

"It's impossible to say. We concentrate on one series at a time and are just thankful each time we get commissioned to make another. Although no series can run for ever, we'll continue making Heartbeat as long as people want to watch it."



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