Arthur finds a new challenge

IT'S taken ten years and an awful lot of rejected job offers to get Bill Treacher working in television again after leaving EastEnders. But today he faces a new challenge.

IT'S taken ten years and an awful lot of rejected job offers to get Bill Treacher working in television again after leaving EastEnders. But today he faces a new challenge. WIL MARLOW speaks to one of Suffolk's most famous faces.

It's been a decade since he was in EastEnders, and ten years since he's been on television, but Bill Treacher is still approached on the street by people who remember him as the soap's Arthur Fowler.

There are even some who think he's still in the show.

"They never stop talking about him [in EastEnders], do they?" exclaimed Bill.

"I think that's why, he's still a strong presence. Pauline's getting married? Thank God for that. Maybe people will leave me alone," he laughed.

It's unlikely. During his 11 years on EastEnders, Bill Treacher helped create one of the soap's most popular and enduring characters. Such was the viewers' love for Arthur that even when Bill handed in his notice to producers in 1994, he ended up working for another year.

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On paper it's hard to see why the character was so well-loved. Arthur was a down-on-his-luck family man, henpecked by his wife Pauline, who merely strived to have a quiet life with his wife and three children. Nothing special there.

But his awful run of unforgiving bad luck endeared this unassuming old man to viewers. In a desperate move caused by his family's financial struggles he famously swiped the Christmas club money, leading to him having a breakdown and ending up in prison.

It was his first time there, but not his last. Later he was framed for embezzlement by the wily Willy Roper and was incarcerated once more.

Even when he had an affair with the domineering Mrs Hewitt you felt it wasn't his fault - when he went to tend to her gardens he didn't stand a chance resisting the extra demands she started making on him.

Come 1994, Bill, who's now 75, had had enough. The storylines had taken their toll on the actor and he'd decided it was time to leave the soap for good. But EastEnders wasn't going to let him go easily.

"I put my notice in on November 94 but they kept shifting the goalposts and I didn't leave until a year later," the actor said. "Even then I only managed to leave because I accepted an engagement at the end of November, just to stop them.

"But the storyline was left up in the air and Joe Public, who loved him, misery that he was, wanted to know what was going to happen to him. So I went back for a week in April 96 just tie up the storyline and finally kill him off."

It took Bill a while to recover from Arthur's relentless bad luck, and the actor even suffered from depression in the months after he left the show.

"Well, wouldn't you?" he said, laughing off the question. "What Arthur had to put up with, it was a lot of hard work. But I am very grateful to Arthur and EastEnders, it put my kids through university.

"And we had an easier time of it [because of the regular income]. Usually an actor goes from one job to another and it's like, Oh my God, the phone bill, how are we going to pay that? But EastEnders took that away, thank goodness."

It's taken ten years and an awful lot of rejected job offers to get Bill working in television again. But when old friend Alison Davis - a producer on The Bill who worked with Bill on EastEnders - asked if she could send him some scripts for the cop drama, he said yes.

"I felt I owed Alison in a way because she was very kind to me when I was on EastEnders," said Bill. "Once I'd read the scripts I rang her straight away and said I'd love to do it."

For four episodes Bill is playing old lag Morris Leatherhead, the cellmate of imprisoned police officer Sergeant Dale 'Smithy' Smith, who has been wrongly accused of murder.

"Morris has been inside for some time and he's been asked, on the QT, to keep an eye on Smithy," explained Bill. "Smithy is a policeman but he doesn't know all the rules about what goes on inside, so Morris tries to show him the way."

Once Bill had said yes, however, he began to worry a little about what he'd taken on. His life since EastEnders has become very relaxed, almost like a semi-retirement.

He spends much of his time with his wife, actress Katherine Kessey, in their countryside house in Suffolk. They have two grow-up children - Jamie, an actor, and Sophie, a film co-ordinator, and has only worked intermittently in the odd film.

Working in TV again seemed like a big undertaking.

"I did wonder how I'd get on because I'd not done television for a long time," says Bill. "I wondered if the words would go in. It doesn't matter on film so much because there's not such a tight schedule.

"But I was so pleased I said yes, because there's a lot of energy at that studio. It's all youngsters and there's a lot of wit and camaraderie. It really lifted me."

Bill's post-EastEnders career has possibly been the most varied of all the former residents of Albert Square. Not long after he left the soap he decided to try theatre again, something he'd not done for 15 years.

"Every night I thought, oh this is a joy," he said with no little sarcasm. "It was a play called Not A Game For Boys and we put it on at the Derby Playhouse, with a view to taking it to the West End.

"But in 15 years things had moved on in the theatre. There's a lot of effing and blinding now which I didn't know about. In my day if you said sod, it was shocking. And I had to say all these words.

"The people who came to see me, my blue rinse brigade, they were getting up and walking out."

So Bill decided to concentrate on film, starring in the likes of The Musketeer with Catherine Deneuve and Mena Suvari, which was shaping up to be a hit until 9/11 happened, and George & The Dragon with Patrick Swayze.

"Did he teach me any dance moves? Well as a matter of fact there was a lot of waiting between scenes and I remember one time we were waiting by some gates, just resting on our broadswords, and we got so bored we started dancing around our swords," laughed Bill.

The Bill doesn't herald his return to TV, however. At 75 he's much happier sitting in his Suffolk garden sipping on his favourite tipple, a gin and tonic.

"I'm not concerned any more," said Bill. "I said to my wife, I hope this doesn't start people asking again. I don't want it."

Name: Bill Treacher

Born: June 4, 1930

Significant other: Married to actress Katherine Kessey

Career high: Making Arthur Fowler one of EastEnders most enduring and popular characters

Career low: EastEnders became a strain towards the end due to Arthur's relentlessly depressing storylines

Famous for: Playing Arthur Fowler in EastEnders for 11 years

Words of wisdom: "Working on a soap is like getting on a fast bus, and to get off is like stepping off a fast bus. It takes a while to adjust."