Thursday, 11 February 2016
335 Grange Hill
First viewed : 8 February 1978
This is another milestone. Although it's not quite the last children's programme in this list it ended up being the only one I was still watching into adulthood.
Grange Hill replaced A Traveller In Time as the Wednesday serial in February 1978 but was a very different beast. For that we have to credit one of my least favourite people. "Professor" Phil Redmond who's done more than anyone to debase the whole concept of higher education in the UK. Nevertheless , Grange Hill was a landmark in childrens' programming and should always be regarded as a feather in his cap.
Grange Hill was set very firmly in the present day and the first series ( of 9 episodes ) followed the fortunes of what we'd now call a Year 7 class as they entered a comprehensive secondary school for the first time. And so we were introduced to lovable rogue Tucker Jenkins ( Todd Carty ), long-faced moaning Cock-er-nee Trisha Yates ( Michelle Herbert ), shy swot Justin ( Robert Morgan ) and deprived black football ace Benny ( Terry Sue Patt ) in the form class of typically bland geography teacher Mr Mitchell ( Michael Percival ) with his naff clothes and even naffer jokes . Some of the others introduced in the first episode ( in which nothing remotely interesting happens ) like Judy, Ann and David have vanished from my memory banks. My favourite was big fat Alan ( George Armstrong ). He started out as a minor character , one of a pair of henchmen for Tucker's escapades; the scriptwriters didn't even give him a consistent surname in the first series before settling on "Humphries". However, Alan clicked with the audience and, whereas the other lad didn't make it to the second series , he became a strong character in his own right. Towards the end of the series the first villain was introduced in Michael Doyle ( Vincent Hall ) a shifty-eyed blonde lad but he was a bit weedy compared to his successors and always fairly easily outwitted by Tucker.
It took just four episodes before the first real controversy arose when Tucker and his mates dropped the benches into the swimming pool and parents and teachers became concerned about copy cat behaviour. Some primary kids were said to be terrified by the series.
Nevertheless it returned the following year and in a big way , now twice weekly with a run of 18 episodes. Ann was dropped but the class was fleshed out with some new characters mainly girls like goody-good Susi McMahon ( Linda Slater ) who was often compared at our school to the girl I fancied, posh redhead Penny ( Ruth Davies ) and bright Asian , Sudhamani ( Sheila Chandra ). The series also acquired its first sex symbol ( Trisha actually had an older sister Carol who was quite nice but didn't feature enough ) in buxom Cathy Hargreaves ( Lindy Brill ). I actually preferred her dark haired sidekick but she never had an individual storyline. Justin got a mate called Andrew who had family problems and Tommy, who'd barely had a line before, got a new head and a beefed up role as another mate of Tucker. There were more adult regulars, such as new headmaster Mr Llewellyn ( Sean Arnold ) prissy English teacher Mr Sutcliffe ( James Wynn ) and hard but fair games teacher Mt Baxter ( Michael Cronin ). I don't think I saw much of this series first time round but my sister started following it.
Series 3 saw a split focus between the old class , now under form teacher Miss Peterson and a new crop of Year 7's including good-looking Duane Orpington ( Mark Baxter ) and charmless fat boy Pogo Patterson ( Peter Moran ) . Their form teacher was the too-good-to-be-true Mr Hopwood ( Brian Capron ). Redmond started pushing the envelope a bit more with this series which included Susi having problems with a bra, Cathy having period pains and Sudhamani's dad fretting over her Westernisation. There was also a nice storyline for Alan who started a romance with Susi towards the end of the series. I think my viewing was intermittent to begin with but became more regular towards the end.
Series 4 is the one where I was most committed to watching the series. The younger class was expanded with goodie-two-shoes Clare ( Paula Ann Bland ), her rebellious mate Suzanne ( Susan Tully ), likely lad Stewpot ( Mark Burdis ), giant black girl Precious ( Dulice Liecier ) and the show's most notorious villain, Gripper Stebson ( Mark Savage ) . New adult characters were headmistress Mrs McCluskey ( Gwyneth Powell ) , sexy IT teacher Miss Lexington ( Allyson Rees ) and the supremely irritating caretaker, Mr Thompson ( Timothy Bateson ). This series saw the show becoming much more soap-like with story arcs stretching across a number of episodes. One of these saw Cathy forming a band with two sidekicks , one of whom , ( either Ruth or Gerry, I'm not sure ) was a dark-haired beauty but she never got a surname or an individual storyline. That story ended with them getting the cane ( Note for CP fetishists ; it's not worth you checking it out ) for bunking off which reminds you that we were still in the corporal punishment era here. However in what was the most memorable episode of all , a transient PE teacher Mr Hicks, played by serial TV villain Paul Jerricho, oversteps the mark and gets walloped by Mr Baxter , a scene we'd been waiting for since Kes twelve years earlier. This was the last series written ( in the main ) by Redmond who had his hands full with Brookside which debuted later in the year.
One year on, I was in the sixth form and no longer watching kids TV ( I took part in a sketch based on Willo the Wisp in the Sixth Form Review despite never having seen the programme ) but was drawn back to Series 5 by all my class mates talking about it and one character in particular, the hapless, hopelessly obese Roland Browning ( Erkan Mustafa ) and the main target for the ever-nastier Gripper. He was part of a new year 7 intake, along with the too self-regarding to be likable prankster Jonah ( Lee Sparke ), his slightly dim sidekick Zammo ( Lee McDonald ), bubbly croaky-voiced blonde Fay ( Alison Bettles ) and slappable spoilt brat Annette ( Nadia Chambers ). The one thing Roland had going for him was a self-appointed guardian angel Janet ( Simone Nylander ) who followed him around over-enunciating his name as "Ro-land" but alas her passion was unrequited. Episode 15 "Despair", where all Roland's difficulties come to a head is a junior equivalent to "Yosser's Story" in Boys from the Blackstuff, a remarkably harrowing 25 minutes for a children's TV slot. The only significant addition to the teaching cast was long-haired , sociology-spouting leftie Mr McGuffie ( Fraser Cains ) who was something of a caricature.
With kids preoccupied by impending O Levels not offering too many dramatic possibilities , the original class were reduced to cameo roles in this series ( Tommy and Susi didn't appear at all ). Apart from Tucker making a couple of re-appearances as an adult many years later, this was the last series to feature the survivors from the first one ; Alan, Trisha, Benny and Justin ( who'd been pretty redundant from series 3 ) all took their final bows.
Having baulked at killing Roland off in the previous series the only way for the writers to go in Series 6 was to make him a bit more comfortable in school and that necessitated getting Gripper off his back. The way they did that was to make this the most violent and controversial series of all as Gripper became preoccupied with racism and set up his own version of the BNP in the school which would eventually lead to his expulsion. Some light relief was had with three episodes taking place outside the school precincts on a field trip to St Alban's and an Outward Bound course in Wales. Educational politics, which hadn't been a major part of the series before, reared their head with the new teacher Mr Smart ( Simon Heywood ), fresh from public school with a head full of inappropriate ideas and approaches.
By Series 7 I had left school myself and was at university but there were plenty of other Grange Hill fans in my Hall of Residence and I saw most if not all of the series. The major newcomers were a raffish rogue Jimmy McClaren ( Gary Love ) , love interest for Zammo , Jackie ( Melissa Wilks ) and the obnoxious Jeremy Irvine ( Vincent Matthews ) who'd appeared briefly in the previous series as the now-departed Jonah's cousin. He provided the series' main talking point when , after a few close calls in previous series the writers , bolstered by Redmond's return ( at least the credits for each episode say so ) , went the full hog and killed someone off, Jeremy not re-surfacing after arsing around in the swimming pool . Gripper had a small , rather disappointing cameo in one episode. This series was the end of the line for most of the second wave of pupils. Duane and Pogo departed along with Suzanne who provided another of the series' iconic moments when she turned up dressed as Boy George and gave Mrs McCluskey a mouthful in the corridor ( wildly cheered in our TV room ) having already left the school.
The big break happened now for me . 90% of the students in the Hall left at the end of the year either because they'd graduated or preferred to house share in the bedsit land nearer to the campus. The handful of us that chose to remain divvied up the vacant roles on the Junior Common Room Committee between us ( I was Treasurer ) but perhaps inevitably we were bitterly resented by some of the incoming students saddled with a team they'd had no say in electing. And so we tended to huddle together for mutual protection and thus began the ritual of trying to be first in for dinner at 5.30pm. This meant queuing from 5.00 pm, outside the doors where there were some comfy chairs to sit on ; we were later satirised for this in the Hall newsletter although nobody was personally singled out. By the time Grange Hill came back round for Series 8 in February 1985 the habit was too ingrained and so I stopped watching it.
And so I missed Mr Smart's conversion to a good guy, the entrance of the fearsome Mr Bronson ( Michael Sheard ) , Zammo's love triangle with Jackie and rival Banksy ( Tim Polley who she would certainly have picked in real life ) and most famously of all Zammo's drug habit in Series 9. I was aware of all the tabloid hype and of course the "Just Say No" single and having left the Hall by then could have gone back to the series but I didn't.
That was the series' zenith ; though it marched on it would never enjoy the same high profile again. Once the hysteria had died down I thought little more about it except for when a familiar face would pop up in something else.
Then in April 1993 the Beeb started repeating the series starting from the beginning on a Sunday morning on BBC2 to celebrate the show's fifteenth anniversary. This was irresistible , to wallow in something from what I already deemed the golden period of my life and so I watched Grange Hill all over again with far greater loyalty than I had the first time round ! I didn't stop until the end of the drugs series which they reached in 1996. There was no reason to continue beyond that point so I signed off for good. I don't recall that I had any real consciousness that the series was still going strong on the other channel.
I remember reading about its cancellation in February 2008 and once I'd got over my utter amazement that it had still been going for all those intervening years I felt as much sadness as for the passing of Top of the Pops and Smash Hits, those other totems of my youth that todays generation had discarded. For a couple more years there will be school children who dimly remember the series then the lights will go out.
As with the wrestlers, I'm not going to attempt to trace the subsequent careers of all those I've mentioned . Inevitably many of them didn't stay in acting and have long since vanished from the public eye. Some of them we'll meet again in a spin-off series further down the line. In 2005 Justin Lee Collins featured Grange Hill in his Bring Back... series despite the series not having finished yet but he concentrated almost solely on those involved in the Zammo storyline including Erkan Mustafa who'd had a little brush with the law over drugs himself ( not sure if it went to court ) Alison Bettles who was now just a happy housewife after a brief spell in The Bill and Lee McDonald who did some reality TV on the back of the show and seems to be the one most enthusiastic to return to the public eye.
They're not the ones who really hold a place in my heart though. I was sad to hear of the passing of Terry Sue Patt last year. My favourite , George Armstrong was last heard of working as the theatre manager at a public school. His lost love Linda Slater has long since vanished . Sheila Chandra had a brief pop career as lead singer of Monsoon and managed to sustain a low-key career in world music until she fell seriously ill a few years ago and had to retire. The lovely Lindy Brill gave up acting when she turned 30 and now works in personnel at a finance company .In case anyone's interested ( and let's face it guys we are ) I think just three of the actresses I've mentioned above have subsequently disrobed, Paula Ann Bland in The Fruit Machine ( 1989 ) , Rudi Davies in A Sense of Guilt ( 1990 ) and The Lonely Passion of Judith Herne ( 1987 ) and Melissa Wilkes in The Advocate ( 1993 ).