Kent Character - Graham Cole
PUBLISHED: 10:46 22 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:28 20 February 2013
There were petitions to 'Save Stamp' when his character was axed from The Bill, but the police drama's longest-serving actor is embracing fresh challenges now that he's no longer playing PC Tony Stamp every week. Meet Kent's Graham Cole
While the recession continues to be a feature of our daily lives, its easy to forget its impact on the world of entertainment. But for Kent actor Graham Cole, who played PC Tony Stamp in ITVs The Bill for 25 years, it was when the popular police drama was cut from two one-hour episodes a week to one that the unthinkable happened. Staff and actors were shed, Graham included.
Instantly recognisable as he strides into the Bromley hotel where we meet, theres a bit of a stir in the lounge and a couple of people come up to shake his hand and wish him well. Does that happen a lot?
Graham smiles ruefully: I get calls and texts daily to check Im OK, it comes over you in waves really. My daughter was crying, but it was because she wouldnt be seeing Tony Stamp again. Apparently there are 13-odd Save Tony Stamp websites!
The response from his legion of fans (who include members of the police force itself) is hardly surprising. Graham, 57, joined the show after just eight episodes, so has become something of a national treasure. PC Stamp has 34 years of service under his belt, while Graham notched up 1,217 episodes, making him the longest-serving character on the show.
Originally a one-off play, the British public quickly took The Bill to its heart. It was the first show to do bobbies on the beat, the first show when the camera arrives as the police do, so the audience comes along with you, says Graham.
PC Stamps last episode took place on 5 November , so I think the whole country will be celebrating - send a rocket up for Stamp! he jokes. But his character doesnt die in a blaze of glory, instead he goes off to teach policemen to drive cars very quickly.
Its not a bad way out - Graham, who holds a racing licence, is very proud of the fact that he has never been doubled in a stunt and used to dub anyone sitting next to him on a chase scene the white knuckle brigade. Nevertheless, over the years, the script writers gave him at least 12 on-screen accidents, including running down a pedestrian - and PC June Ackland.
However, because so much of the programme is filmed out of sequence, Stamps last scene actually took place without half the crew realising its significance. Once wed shot it, the crew all got on the bus and took off, because I wasnt needed at the next location, and that was hard, he admits.
Doesnt the exit also suggest that the door is being left open for a return? It does give the script writer the chance to bring me back for a few episodes, he agrees. Television is changing, and we have to change with it. Some papers have gone down the ageism route, but theres thousands in my position and its been amazing to have been part of a programme and employed as an actor for 25 years.
Strangely enough, in the police force itself theyre bringing back the old guys and programmes like New Tricks are not only absolutely brilliant, but very popular.
Ive never grown up people shouldnt be surprised actors are not very good at real life
He is quick to add: But I have been very fortunate with my character, the writers have used PC Stamp a great deal to smooth over the cracks when there have been changes. I was a bit of a father figure to the younger members of the cast and got known as Daddy Cole!
Graham had suggested that Stamp could be made a sergeant, to give the character some longevity, but his producers didnt want to go down that route. Stamp has always been the frontline cop, the guy who goes over the wall first, who runs in then starts to think, now what do I do? he laughs.
I am curious to know if it has not been a little challenging to play the same character for quarter of a century? Graham looks horrified. In 25 years Ive never once woken up and thought oh no, not again its so unique, were out and about all the time, filming in and around the iconic buildings of London. The Bill is very quick we shoot and go before people are aware of us.
And as for rehearsals, well, you can forget that luxury. You have to know your lines and just shoot it it keeps The Bill exciting, and you on your toes, he says. You are continually learning, theres never a script further than four feet away from you at any time.
Graham, who was born in Willesden, has always lived in the south, as has his wife Cherry, whom he met in 1974. We had flats all over the place, but always where we could get to parks I love the elements and love working in the wind and rain, 98 per cent of my time on The Bill Ive been outdoors and I rarely wear a coat. To film in natural light is lovely.
The couple moved to Bromley 25 years ago, for the good schools and Keston Ponds. Its beautiful up there, he beams, and 10 minutes away youre into all that glorious Kent countryside.
Members of the National Trust, the couple regularly go to Chartwell just for tea, accompanied by their Yorkshire terrier Jazzy Fizz, less so these days by their grown-up children. Matthew, 25, works in the City and Laura, 23, is a trained actor. Is that not a bit of a worry, another actor in the family?
I wouldnt stop anyone acting I was five when I started singing and eight when I knew I wanted to be an actor, it was Saturday morning cinema that inspired me, says Graham, who started his working life in the health service, where he qualified as an orthopaedic technician.
It didnt last long. I used to write, direct and perform in hospital shows all the time. I was always mucking about, singing to the kids, and got quite a reputation.
At 21, Graham left the NHS to work as a Redcoat in Rye (where he met the young Cherry, on holiday with her family) and swiftly moved into music hall, having sung in choirs and with folk and rock groups from an early age.
In his early career, he appeared as the Emperor of China in a record-breaking season of Aladdin at the Grand Theatre in Swansea. Other pantomime appearances (16 and counting) have included the role of Beast in Beauty & The Beast in Gravesend, his most recent being Fleshcreep in Jack and the Beanstalk, at The Assembly Halls in Tunbridge Wells. A huge fan of the genre (there is no greater thrill than taking 1100 people on a journey), it is a source of some regret that he didnt have time to organise a panto for this Christmas to cushion the blow.
Graham has also performed in numerous West End musicals, from Jesus Christ Superstar to Cabaret, and was one of the first Cybermen and Marshmen in Doctor Who in the early 1980s. He also made a guest appearance in the final series of Sooty and Co, as a policeman called Maurice, and presented and narrated the police video programme Police Stop!
A regular on Noel's House Party in sketches with fellow Bill actor Andrew Paul (who played PC Dave Quinnan), he became so well known for the punchline I had chips with mine, that children would shout it out after him in the street.
Graham is a member of the showbusiness charity The Grand Order of Water Rats and is the present holder of the title King Rat. He supports many childrens charities, including Childline and the NSPCC, the National Holiday Fund, Children with Leukaemia, and laughs: Im a big kid at heart, playing cowboys and Indians, thats what we do as actors and Ive never grown up people shouldnt be surprised were not very good at real life.
One of the big projects for Graham this year has been writing his autobiography, On the Beat, which he started in March. It launched in October and has proved extremely cathartic, as well as keeping him busy at a difficult time. Its about me, not someone Im playing, and some of it is painful, some of the characters Ive worked with have faced horrendous times, he admits. But there are no mighty revelations, its about being an actor.
So whats next for Graham? I actually like change, thats why I act for a living I rarely plan, he says. I did police documentaries for years and would love to do some more. Id love to go on tour around the UK- theres a tour of Porridge and Id love to do the Ronnie Barker role, the complete other side of the coin from Stamp! Ive always through the big money should be in live theatre that thrill, the marrying up with the audience, you cant beat it.
Graham also tells me hed love to be part of a big film, one with lots of money being thrown at it, and his dream might just have come true. He has joined the cast of spy thriller Vauxhall Crossed, playing GCHQ director Sir Edward Jago in the new film, which stars Dannii Minogue and Hugo Speer and is on release later this year.
Theres life beyond The Bill after all.
On the Beat My Story, 17.99, is available from Splendid Books, tel: 0845 625 304 or at all good bookshops.