Believe it or not, popular Merseyside TV series Z Cars started life on a scriptwriter’s sickbed.
Creator Troy Kennedy Martin was so bored when he was laid up with mumps that he tuned into police messages on his radio to pass the time.
It gave him the idea for the gritty northern police drama that ran from January 1962 to September 1978 and made household names of actors Frank Windsor, James Ellis, Stratford Johns and Brian Blessed.
The title came from the programme’s fictional Z police division based on Kirby in Lancashire. It was renamed as Newtown in the series and Seaforth was recast as Seatown.
Real Lancashire police divisions at the time started in the north with the letter A and worked south through B, C and so on.
So producers reckoned they were on a safe bet picking the letter Z!
Many thought the title Z Cars referred to the Ford Zodiac and Zephyr driven by the main characters – but it wasn’t so. The Z merely reflected the name of the division.
The Zodiac and Zephyr were too big and highly powered to be standard patrol cars anyway. In reality they plied their trade in the fast lane – as motorway patrol vehicles!
Many of the car shots in the TV show weren’t even real. They were filmed in a special cut-away car on the Z Cars’ set in the BBC studios. A moving picture projected on a screen behind the actors gave the illusion of travel!
Fake cars were just the job for the young Brian Blessed who played PC Fancy Smith. He couldn’t drive – and only passed his test a year after the series first aired.
Z Cars writer Kennedy Martin was keen to make his stories more realistic than the more homely and comfortable TV series Dixon of Dock Green.
Each episode, the first of which were broadcast live, dealt with tough issues and the main characters were far from perfect.
There was a distinctly rough edge to burly Inspector Charlie Barlow, played by Stratford Johns, and Detective Sergeant John Watt portrayed by Frank Windsor.
And the ever-present Bert Lynch (James Ellis) was known to dish out a thick ear or two, even after he’d completed his rise from PC to Inspector.
In all, Ellis featured in 629 episodes of Z Cars – an all-time record for appearances by any actor in a TV police series.
It’s unlikely his achievement will ever be matched.