One of the most successful ITV drama series of the 1990s, Heartbeat followed the exploits of a country policeman in the 1960s - the era of the Beatles, Mods and Rockers, flower power, emerging youth culture and the sexual revolution. But not for PC Nick Rowan and his wife Kate who decide to turn their back on the bright lights of London and begin a new life, returning to Kate's roots in the peaceful North Yorkshire Moors area of Aidensfield, where she takes up a position as GP and he as a 'local bobby.' With this simple premise and a soundtrack that emotively recalled the era, Heartbeat soon became a firm favourite with viewers, regularly challenging Coronation Street in the weekly ratings war with 17 million viewers throughout the decade. Although this period saw the show reach its peak, by 2010, when the last of its 372 episodes had aired, it still boasted a steady audience of 6 million UK viewers and countless more in the estimated 25 countries world-wide where it was shown.
The story of how Heartbeat came to be one of the nation's favourite TV shows is an interesting one. In the early 1980s Yorkshire Television bought the rights to a little-known series of books-the first of which was 'Constable on the Hill'-written by a serving country policeman, Peter Walker, using the pen-name Nicholas Rhea. But the proposed series never got off the ground, possibly because Yorkshire TV thought the setting of an era-based rural drama series was too close in format to that of the BBC's successful All Creatures Great and Small. For the next three years Yorkshire TV continued to pay a very disappointed Peter Walker an annual fee for the abandoned project. But in 1988 Yorkshire took up a second option on the books. By now Peter Walker had retired from the police force as an inspector in charge of public relations and had published no less than eighty-one books, including fourteen in the 'Constable' series.
Yorkshire TV's head of drama and the executive producer of Heartbeat, Keith Richardson, sat down with his team and made some changes to the original characters. PC Nick Rowan's wife was orinally written as a traditional (by 1960s standards) policeman's wife who stays at home and looks after the children. "To get that bit extra", Richardson said in interview "we started to think of what else always attracted huge audiences." The answer they came up with was hospitals and medicine. "We decided we would give our bobby a doctor wife." The title of the show was chosen as it represented the medical side with heart and the beat side for the policeman's beat. The Buddy Holly song Heartbeat was chosen as the show's opening and closing theme. But the 1960s soundtrack which was widely credited with helping to make Heartbeat such a success came about completely by accident.
During the filming of the first series there were a number of scenes of people listening to a radio in their homes, in the local pubs or in their offices. Naturally the songs played had to be in keeping with the era and so some 1960s songs were found to play on the soundtrack. Gradually, 1960s songs were dubbed onto the soundtrack in various scenes, even when there was no radio in sight, and this helped give the series its distinctive and authentic feel.
Cast in the main roles of PC Nick Rowan and his wife Kate were Nick Berry and Niamh Cusack. Woodford born actor Nick Berry had just finished a five-year stint on the popular BBC soap EastEnders playing cockney heartthrob Simon Wicks. Dublin born Niamh Cusack, the daughter of the late Irish actor Cyril Cusack, was appearing in her first leading role. The series also featured a strong ensemble cast. Bill Maynard played the loveable rogue Claude Greengrass (a character in the original books), a small-time crook who lived off poaching and handling stolen goods. Derek Fowlds (The Basil Brush Show and Yes Minister) was Nick's immediate superior, Sergeant Oscar Blaketon, a career police officer who believed in doing eveything by the book - his main goal in life appeared to be to oversee the incarceration of Greengrass - in fact, this determination often clouded his judgement. William Simons played PC Alf Ventress, who, although at the time appeared to be biding his time and just waiting for retirement, stayed in the role for the series entire 18-year run. The cast of the first series was completed by Mark Jordon as young PC Bellamy, Stuart Golland as George Ward, landlord of the Aiden Arms and Tricia Penrose as his probation-serving niece Gina, who has been sent to Aidensfield from her native Liverpool to keep her out of trouble. Gina is a real swinging chic of the sixties!
When Niamh Cusack decided to leave the series in 1995 the decision was taken by the writers to kill her off. Tragedy struck when Kate discovered, during pregnancy, that she was suffering from leukaemia. She kept the information about her illness a secret-even from Nick and failed to seek treatment because she was worried about its possible adverse effect on her unborn baby. She died from related complications shortly after giving birth to her daughter Katie. She wasn't the only character to be subject to cruel fate. Constable Phil Bellamy was written out of the show in Series 17 after he was shot dead. Nick Berry stayed with the series until 1997 when, shortly after remarrying, his character accepted an offer to join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and left Aidensfield to go to Canada. (The storyline was the basis of a one-off special episode called Heartbeat: Changing Places). Several replacements for Nick were bought in during the series later years. Jason Durr as PC Michael Dunstan "Mike" Bradley, later acting DC (1997–2003), James Carlton as PC Stephen "Steve" Crane (2002–2004), Jonathan Kerrigan as PC Robert "Rob" Walker (2004–2007) and Joseph McFadden as PC Joe Mason (2007–2010). In 2000, ill-health forced actor Bill Maynard to leave the series - he was replaced by an equally loveable rogue - Vernon Scripps, played by actor Geoffrey Hughes.
In 2003, unashamedly exploiting a winning formula, Yorkshire Television produced The Royal, a series set at St Aiden's Royal Free Hospital not far from Aidensfield. The first episode saw the return of character Claude Greengrass - as a patient in the hospital. Amid falling ratings both Heartbeat and The Royal were 'rested' according to ITV in 2009. In the case of Heartbeat there was allegedly "a large backlog of un-broadcast episodes to be cleared" before production could be started again. However, in spite of continual rumours over the last two years there is no sign of the series returning. The lack of new shows prompted protests from Heartbeat fans around the world as well as from communities in the YTV region where the series was filmed and where the Heartbeat-themed tourist trade is seen as an important part of the local economy. In 2005–07 Hornby Railways based a Skaledale Model series on Goathland railway station, part of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, which features in the show as Aidensfield Station. The same station is used in the series of Harry Potter films. However, period dramas of this type are still popular with viewers as was clearly illustrated by the BBC's 1950s drama Call the Midwife, which aired in 2012. Perhaps Heartbeat can still be revived...
Review: Laurence Marcus 24 March 2012
for Television Heaven