Lee McDonald interview: Zammo, Grange Hill, Just Say No and The White House

He captivated the youth of the nation as Zammo Maguire in Grange Hill. And now he's talking to Den Of Geek. Mr Lee McDonald...

Zammo from Grange Hill...

Lee McDonald is known to a generation of Grange Hill fanatics as Zammo, the centre of the show’s Just Say No campaign. We rang him up for a good long chat about the show, and what he’s up to now…Can we talk about how you got started? Your mum was a chaperon on Grange Hill. Is that what got you involved, hanging around the set?

No, no. Initially the reason I got involved with TV work was that when I was a lot younger – about five or six – I had a sister who died. And my school, my teacher – Mr Moore – he said that Lee’s really quiet and needs to interact with kids more. The Anna Scher school did an after school workshop, and he said take Lee along.

I initially started that with him, and my dad took me to boxing to try and get me to interact. With the two it brought me out a bit, and when I was about nine I went up for an audition for a series called Noah’s Castle, which was for Southern Television, to play Mike Read’s son. And I did. I did various work between then and about eleven.

But then the Grange Hill audition came up, and my mum said no, there’s no way. You’ve just gone into secondary school. Give it a year, if you’re still okay and there’s a part for you, then fair enough. So that was Stewpot’s year. And the second year was obviously Zammo, Jonah and Roly. I was still looking young and still quite small, so I auditioned for that. And the reason I got the part of Zammo was at the time they were looking for a tough character and I had the bovver boots, and the skinhead and boxed, and I just feel I fitted into the part. The reason my mum was a chaperon was when I got to the latter stages, she wanted to keep an eye on my work. When I was fourteen, fifteen, she wanted to make sure that my education wasn’t suffering. So she got a job there to keep an eye on me! So that’s how it came about her getting involved with it, more so than the other way round.

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You say you were a quiet kid, though. Were you reluctantly pushed into this?

No, not at all! The boxing I loved, absolutely adored it. They were reluctant to let me go, and I went into the gym and my dad immediately wouldn’t take any notice of me. Not in a nasty way, but just didn’t want to push me. So I did that, and when I went to the drama classes, she would do improvisation, and one of the things was boxing. So she would say “oh Lee’s a boxer, let’s do a bit of shadow boxing”. So everyone would do a bit of shadow boxing. I would excel at that, and that gave me loads of confidence.

So no, I used to love going to the classes after school with the boxing and the TV. My parents were so anti-pushy: if I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t have to do it.

Even in the early days, the character Zammo was one of Grange Hill’s most distinctive. Did you quickly become aware of that when you were going out and about?

Yeah, the first day it was on, I went for a run and got recognised. It was the first evening that it was broadcast. As from then, it got … well, at the time, viewing figures were between nine and twelve million I think. It was only ITV, BBC2 and Channel Four, so the kids only ever watched that. It was the only programme that kids could relate to.

I realised probably four or five weeks after the show had been on, but I knew previous to that because it had been running with Tucker. Everybody of our age knew Tucker, and knew what was going on.

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Was it a blessing or a curse to be recognised so young?

Oh, it was lovely! It was a blessing in the fact that I wasn’t your Brad Pitt of a kid if you know what I mean, just your run of the mill teenage kid. But with all the attention it did help with the girls. On the downside, when I was boxing, it made it awkward because all the guys wanted to beat Zammo and Lee McDonald if that makes sense. It was a double-barrelled thing. It was hard.

On the whole, it was great times.

Did you win more than you lost at the boxing?

I did! I won the Junior ABA, was the schools champion, boxed for London, and even Kevin Hickey – the England manager then – said watch out for Lee McDonald in the future Olympics.

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I wanted to turn pro, and I remember seeing a couple of promoters. Was offered good money, because obviously I got bums on seats, But I had a car accident, and couldn’t box anymore. A couple of people died in the accident. The police were chasing a car and it hit me. So it all came to an abrupt end.

Boxing was the thing you chose to do after Grange Hill?

Absolutely. Grange Hill was something I was doing while I was at school, it was good fun. But the boxing thing was something – I’ve even got the Henry Cooper Golden belt, which is one of my best fights and it’s on YouTube. I’m really proud of that!

On Grange Hill, presumably you were watching the show with the rest of us before you got the part?

Yeah, yeah! I used to run home to watch it. Obviously when I was going for the auditions, I didn’t in my wildest dreams imagine that I would be in it. You know, just go along to the auditions and then you get to the next audition and the next audition. And being in it, I remember Tucker nicking my Mars Bar was the best part for me. I ran home and told my mum I can’t believe it! She was a bit oblivious to it then. But yeah, I used to rush home. I was a big fan.

Was it a nervous moment when you start and you see all the people that you’ve been watching for the last year or two?

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Probably if I was older. If I was to do something like EastEnders now I’d be probably very nervous and worried. But when you’re eleven or twelve, you’re full of confidence anyway and just go bounding out.

Would you want to do something like EastEnders now?

Well I’ve just started again, and talked to a couple of people, producers and stuff. I’m just getting the pictures done and getting the CVs out. I’ve had some good response from a couple of people, high profile producers and stuff. Over the next year probably do some stuff. I actually present for Sky at the moment, on in the morning. But yeah, I’ve got an agent, my shop’s doing well, and over the next eighteen months I might give it a go, send out CVs and see what replies I get.

For us watching, there was no-one more scary than Mr Bronson. How was Michael Sheard in real life?

No, he had an aura about it. When he was there, you knew he was there. He had a presence about it. But no, he was a lovely, lovely man. Because he was the one who got killed by Darth Vader in Star Wars!

Did you all tease him for that?

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I didn’t know until I’d left unfortunately. But I spoke to Michael a couple of times after. Sadly, he died. Really lovely man, really lovely man.

Reading around, it said you were considering walking from Grange Hill when they came to you with the Just Say No storyline?

No, no. Not sure where that came from. I was happy to keep doing Grange Hill until I was sixteen, or whenever they said leave. Definitely not. When they came to me for that, it was another storyline and it was a nice one. I know my mum sat down with Anthony Minghella [who was the show’s script editor at the time] and they discussed it and stuff. But no, I was really excited about taking it on.

Presumably you had no idea about the scale it was going to be. Was it just presented as just another thing at that point?

Absolutely. It wasn’t until I started going to rehabilitation centres and speaking to people. A couple of researchers they had were ex-drug addicts. Then it sort of dawned on me, because at that time, drugs weren’t as rife as they are now, with kids anyway. I was boxing and training, as far as all the drugs go they were completely oblivious to anything. So it was a real opener for me, a really good storyline.

Once that storyline kicked off, it’s called the golden age of Grange Hill, and that’s the story that most people remember. In the midst of it at the time, what was it like working on it, and when did the campaign element kick in?

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I think it was like a guy called Eric who produced the Just Say No campaign. I think it was an idea that they had. We finished the show, and there was no talk of that or anything. And all of a sudden they said that there might be a record going on, and it went from there. The record obviously turned into a number five single, and off the back of that, we went to America to do the Just Say No campaign.

And you went to the White House…!

We did indeed. That was absolutely manic. We sang at Yankee Stadium in front of 80,000 people…

… you’re kidding!

We sang in the park in New York, we went to Boston. We went all round, we toured round. And then we finished in the White House, with Nancy Reagan, and gave her a copy of the record. We sat in the White House and had a chat with her. It was amazing for a sixteen year old.

And presumably you’re at an age then when you can appreciate it too?

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Yeah, course you can. By then I think I was fifteen bordering sixteen. And you knew what the big things were. We were going round to malls in New York. At the time, we were speaking to people, kids, who were saying they know people on drugs, or they know people who do drugs. And the gun culture. People were saying to us at the time that England’s going to be like this in twenty years, and I said no way. And now, y’know, if we were to go to primary schools or secondary schools in the inner cities of London, most of them will know somebody who puffs, and there’s gun crime. So exactly what they said, and I think New York’s brushed up a lot. I think London’s in a worst state than New York was more than 20 years ago.

Was it Mmoloki Christie on the Bring Back Grange Hill TV show implied…

Ah, to be honest, with Mmoloki, I had some really great times. But that is absolutely pony. If you’ve ever been to the White House, or lucky enough to go, you have security guards follow you around everywhere. I mean I went to the toilet, and I was followed to the toilet.

Really?

Obviously they didn’t come into the cubicle, but they came into the toilet, and were there, all mic-ed and stuff. “Are you okay, Mr McDonald?”. “Yeah, I’m having a ….”. There’s no way in a million years you could have puffed in the White House. Obviously he’s got his film company and he’s trying to promote it. But if he doesn’t want to get involved with the Just Say No thing that was on recently, then don’t bother, but don’t come on and slag it off. If there was stuff that went on outside the White House, then I don’t know, but not in the White House. Definitely not.

You said you did the singing in Yankee Stadium. Were the Americans receptive of it?

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No, they didn’t have a clue who we were! It was so funny! We had a press conference, Virgin set it up. It was lovely, we went on the Virgin plane, they filmed us and stuff. And then there was a big press conference in one of the hotels that had put us up, and we came down at 8.30, and there was 40 seats of press people, and by ten past nine, there was one person. It’s like somebody coming from America who isn’t on English telly over here. You wouldn’t have a clue who they were, so we were a bit lost in that. But it was all good fun.

Was being a child actor on Grange Hill particularly well paid?

To be honest, I can’t remember what I was paid, but it was very good money. You could earn from personal appearances alone £1000 a night, and you could do two or three of them a night if you wanted to. And that’s in ’86. I know a few of the guys were, and they were doing two personal appearances a night, getting £500 a gig, and they weren’t far away, so they were doing four a week. They were getting two grand a week without the Grange Hill money. So the money was quite good!How do you feel now about being involved in the show? Are you surprised at how well remembered the era and storylines are?

I’m not sure. As you grow up, all the time you talk about your childhood. I always go back to kids programmes and stuff. I’m more aware now I’ve got to this age, how fondly people talk of it. I’m probably more aware now of the impact it had on kids at that time.

And how does it impact the business you run now? Is it in a positive way?

Ah, course it is, yeah! I’ve got a picture of me up in the shop window, I use it in my advertising in Yellow Pages, and on the back on that, probably took on five estate agents locally who are in their 30s. They ask is it really you, have a chat, will you take our work on? I’m still using it 20, 25 years on. It’s still really good for me.

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The presenting job I just got for Sky, the only reason I got it was that the woman was a fan of Grange Hill. And the same happened to Todd [Carty, Tucker Jenkins]. I spoke to Todd recently, and the reason he got the part in The Bill – or part of the reason was – that the sister of the producer was a fan of Grange Hill, or something to do with that. Somebody was a fan. It’s what carries on all through your life.

It’s phenomenal really that this has all come out of a children’s programme.

Unbelievable. I think when they said it had finished, obviously I did some interviews and stuff, but I wasn’t aware it was still going. The 80s one, it lost its way, not because we left, but because society overtook Grange Hill by the time the early 90s came.

Did you watch any of the recent Grange Hill?

No, I’ve not had a chance. No from not wanting to see them, just been busy really.

So what do you think about the show finishing?

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Quite sad for two reasons. Sad in the fact that now that it’s finished, there’s going to be no more publicised anniversaries for it. Because while it was still going it was fresh in people’s minds, and sadly secondly was the reason it finished was that society surpassed Grange Hill. If you were to show what went on in comprehensive schools around here in Croydon, the Surrey area or bordering on London, it would have to be shown after the watershed, past 9 o’ clock. I just think that Grange Hill can’t keep up. Even though the big storylines of the 80s. The knife culture, the severe bullying, the drugs.

Behind the scenes, was it a calm programme to work on, or were there all sorts of disagreements?

No. We were just like kids going to school, but not doing any real work! Underneath the BBC, we used to go to the tutor room, and there’d be 30 kids in there. The tutor would go out. We were all from different schools, and different ages, and we’d just turn the light off and throw hangers and boots and shows. It was manic. It was just like there were a load of kids getting on and doing something we had fun with, and didn’t take too seriously.

Are you still in touch with many of them?

I speak to Roland all the time. We met up for the reunion a few years ago, and everybody said we’ll meet up again. But you all move on and do your own thing, don’t you. But me and Erkan probably speak once a week, once a fortnight and do some stuff together. We’ve just finished some stuff for E4.

In 15 years time when you’ve got your own kid by the side of you, and there are some Grange Hill DVDs by the side of the telly, are you going to let them watch it?Absolutely, yes! I can’t for ours to be released on DVD for that purpose! Apart from the drugs, the early stuff, I’d show my child, and hopefully they still stand up. In six, seven years, my baby could be watching the early episodes! They’ll be in prime place on my fireplace!

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And finally, was the story about the Imperial War Museum true?

Yeah, I went with my school! There were two girls schools in there, and our school. And all of a sudden there was a commotion, I got literally chased by two girls schools and got told I had to leave…!

It’s a hard life!

Absolutely! I’d be lucky to be chased by one now, but it was fun at the time…

Find Lee McDonald’s shop right here

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