Having played the role of PC Tony Stamp for 25 years in the long-running ITV police drama ‘The Bill’, Graham Cole has plenty of experience of life on the beat. The 57 year-old actor was part of the show since its beginning in 1984 and clocked up 1317 episodes during his time there. The decision to axe his character last year sparked uproar from many viewers, with online petitions attracting thousands of signatures to ‘Save Our Stamp!’ ‘It’s very easy being a baddie. I tried to play Tony as an ordinary cop, like the guys and girls on the street, but to make him interesting too’
‘I thought they might move Tony up to Sergeant but they had other ideas,’ he admits, with a tinge of sadness. ‘But I enjoyed my time on The Bill beyond belief. To have fans from little kids to old grannies is hugely humbling.’ Having started on the show as an extra in fight sequences, Cole eventually became one of the show’s most popular characters and the last of the original cast to leave. ‘I was hoping to get into the Guinness Book of Records as the longest serving TV cop,’ he chuckles.
Since leaving The Bill, Cole has successfully released his autobiography, ‘On the Beat’ which has received favourable reviews. ‘I didn’t do a Jordan,’ he smiles, ‘It’s all my own words.’ Several other new projects are also in the pipeline, with a role in Ben Treblicook’s film ‘Vauxhall Crossed’ as Head of MI5 Sir Edward Jago, as well as the possibility of West End theatre roles and a return to his theatrical roots. A visit to the Oxford Union, at which he spoke eight years ago in a Law and Order debate, is another idea he welcomes.
Cole’s route into the world of acting was an unconventional one, not attending drama school. Yet from a young age his heart was set on a career on the stage. ‘From the age of eight and going to Saturday morning cinema I knew I wanted to be an actor’, he recalls fondly, ‘but my Dad wanted me to do something sensible. I was useless at everything at school except for English and Sport. Everyone thought I would go to university to study English and become a teacher but I knew I didn’t want to do that. The only thing I’d really done outside of school was Saint John’s Ambulance so I got a job working in the NHS as an Orthopaedic Technician in Middlesex. At the age of 21 I went to my Dad and asked him, “Can I go and act now Dad?”
He became a Butlins Redcoat, a job he describes as ‘a great way into the industry’. Successful auditions for pantomimes led to parts in repertory theatre around the country and began a passion for researching a character that would greatly influence his time on The Bill as Stamp.
‘During my time in rep I would always go to reference libraries for research. On the Bill I would talk to as many policemen as I could. I used to go out with them in their cars on their ten hour shifts. When an episode comes up, the chances are you’ve been there before.’ However, Cole did far more than merely observe the workings of the police, taking part in the Hendon police training programme on eight occasions.
‘I only had to do the fun bit, which annoyed some people,’ he laughs. Gaining qualifications with the Institute of Advanced Motorists enabled him to drive in chase sequences and perform many roles usually considered too dangerous for an actor. ‘It’s a case of boys and toys. I never used a stunt double in 25 years. I was the only actor allowed to do all their own stunts,’ he proudly reveals.
In 2002 Cole took on what was perhaps the most controversial and distressing storyline ever featured in The Bill. Stamp was wrongly accused of sexually abusing a young boy whoM he had taken under his wing and was forced to prove his innocence over a series of six episodes. Both on and off-screen the strain and emotional impact of the events was extreme.
‘One time I was driving home and I had to pull into a pub car park and have a cry, just to let it out. The directors told me that they didn’t want to have Stamp breakdown on-screen, but they wanted it just below the surface. To watch a big man fall apart is special. On TV acting is all about the eyes. If you’re going to get the eyes right then you’ve got to get your gut right. Your audience invest in you and if you’re doing it properly your mailbag should be bulging. When TV stops eliciting emotion then it’s time to pull the plug. But filming the show hour by hour, it takes a lot out of you.’
‘The storyline had all the gambits of emotions. On all of the occasions when Stamp was accused, the audience knew he wasn’t guilty. I know many people who have been put in a similar position, accused and having to try and prove your innocence. The response I had from schoolteachers in particular was incredible.’
When told by producers about the plotline they had in mind for his character, Cole saw the opportunity to integrate one of the causes close to his heart into the programme. ‘At the time I’d been with ChildLine for 15 years, that’s 23 years now. ITV brilliantly agreed to put up the organisation’s logo after every show for children who were affected by the story to ring.’
Cole’s commitment to his charitable work is evident, being President of The National Holiday Fund, a patron of ChildLine and heavily involved with The Police National Memorial Fund as a few examples. He attended 84 charity events last year.
One of his more unusual commitments is his role as King Rat, the Head of the Grand Order of Water Rats, an entertainment industry charity established in 1889. Stars ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Sir John Mills have been members of the fraternity and Cole describes the title as ‘a huge honour’. Their London headquarters, the Water Rats’ Pub, was the location for Oasis’ first gig in the capital and many new bands perform there today. ‘It’s fantastic to have the old and the brand new trying to make their way in the industry come together’.
The connection between Cole’s achievements, both professional and personal, and his extensive charity work is obvious. It is by no means a box to be ticked on a public relations checklist. For him, using his celebrity in order to do good is a moral duty. In his own words, ‘If you’ve been blessed with a wonderful career and family, I do believe that you must pay something back. By just turning up, a famous face can double the gates.’
Yet what is his abiding feeling about his 25 years on The Bill, the programme that defined his career and created this ‘famous face’ that has so greatly contributed to his charity work and its success? A simple sentence is all Graham Cole needs. ‘I absolutely loved it.’
Graham Cole’s autobiography On The Beat is published by www.splendidbooks.co.uk and is out now.