Looking back at Grange Hill

Grange Hill. The only school kids ever seemed to be interested in. Us included…

At your school, did anyone die in the swimming pool? Did you have to contend with vicious bullies (and we’re talking about the teachers!)? Did everyone have London accents coarse enough to strip the paint off the classroom doors? Yes? Flippin’ ’eck, you must have gone to Grange Hill!

If you grew up in the 1980s but don’t have a fondness for Grange Hill, there’s probably only one explanation: you were banned from watching it. Yep, for those of us who could get away with it, this rites-of-passage drama series about the pupils of a north-London comprehensive was must-see television, but by parents and teachers it was generally despised. It all started in 1978, and continues to this day (just about), but its golden age was undoubtedly the 1980s. Back then, Grange Hill was a phenomenon.

For many, just the first few seconds of the title sequence are enough to bring on the misty eyes of nostalgia. Who could forget that montage of comic strips? Our favourite bit was where the boy in the dinner hall looks on aghast as an extra sausage flies in from nowhere towards his plate. And who could forget that theme tune (‘Chicken Man’, by Alan Hawkshaw)? This sounded as if it’d been played on a plastic comb and a Casio keyboard (and we say that with great affection). It was unbeatable stuff.

The classic Grange Hill of the ’80s spanned two fairly distinct eras (with a bit of overlapping). Most of us tend to associate ourselves with one or the other. The first was the Peter ‘Tucker’ Jenkins era. Tucker (1978-1982, played by Todd Carty) was an absolute star (as was Todd) and is still regarded by many as the show’s poster child. A loveable rogue, he was instantly recognisable by his cheeky grin, black drainpipes, and black leather jacket (clearly he modelled himself on The Fonz).

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Tucker’s loyal buddies for much of this period were Alan ‘Al’ Humphries (1978-1982, George Armstrong) and Tommy Watson (1978, James Jebbia; 1980-1981, Paul McCarthy). Together, this trio were always shirking homework, outrunning the bullies (or not outrunning them!), or masterminding some scheme. One of the most memorable episodes was the (aborted) trip to France, where Tucker and Al tried to get Tommy across the border as a stowaway. They were rumbled by a French customs official. The three were so popular with viewers that, when they left the school, they starred in their own spin-off, Tucker’s Luck (1983-1985).

The second ’80s era was dominated by Samuel ‘Zammo’ Maguire (1982-1987, Lee MacDonald). Controversially, we saw him degenerate into a heroin addict, despite the efforts of his girlfriend Jackie Wright (1984-1987, Melissa Wilks) and his friend Kevin Baylon (1984-1986, Mmoloki Chrystie). Although this story caused outrage among parents, it led to UK involvement in America’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign. Zammo and company made a memorable hit single and accompanying video. It’s unknown whether this campaign ever saved anyone from taking drugs, but one thing’s for sure: everyone remembers it. Here’s a refresher…

Grange Hill has always been an ensemble show, of course, and there are several other pupils from the Zammo period we’d be remiss not to mention. How about Roland ‘Roly’ Browning (1982-1987, Erkan Mustafa)? Continually bullied, he was always one of the series’ best-loved characters. Popular, too, was Fay Lucas (1982-1987, Alison Bettles), the pretty blonde who had a relationship with her maths teacher. Then there were Luke ‘Gonch’ Gardner (1985-1989, John McMahon), always up to some (usually doomed) money-making scam, and Eric ‘Ziggy’ Greaves (1986-1989, George Christopher), a bit of a Tucker lookalike. No doubt you have your own favourites.

But why was Grange Hill so popular? Well, a key ingredient was that nothing like it had been seen on UK TV before (especially not on children’s TV). As Todd Carty told the Daily Mirror in 2007, ‘Before Grange Hill, kids’ TV dramas had all been jolly hockey sticks and Billy Bunter.’ Grange Hill was gritty, realistic, and wonderfully working-class. Many of the pupils were from council estates. Speech was full of dropped aitches, ain’ts, and flippin’ ’ecks. We lapped it up like puppy dogs! Here was an ‘us and them’ tour de force – played out, crucially, from the perspective of children.

It was ground-breaking and, like anything that upsets the status quo (think of rock ’n’ roll!), parents hated it. That was largely because it was an issue-led show, and some of those issues were hard-hitting. Vandalism, truancy, racism, theft, molestation, pupil strikes, underage drinking, religion, glue sniffing, death by misadventure – all these were covered in the programme’s early years. If the producers had also tackled terrorism, they’d have had the full set! There was a good deal of bullying, too, of course. Remember ‘Booga’ Benson (1980-1981, David Lynch), ‘Gripper’ Stebson (1981-1985, Mark Savage), and the ‘Brookies’ (pupils from rival school Brookdale)?

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Teachers weren’t fans, either. That was despite the fact that Grange Hill’s teachers were often portrayed as being quite nice – too good to be true, in fact. Headmistress Mrs. ‘Bridget the Midget’ McClusky (1980-1984, 1986-1991, Gwyneth Powell) was strict but fair and approachable, for example, and games teacher Mr. ‘Bullet’ Baxter (1979-1986, Michael Cronin) was a real hard-case with bad guys but a bit of a lamb with everybody else. They were nothing like the teachers at our school! And no real-life teacher in the history of state education has ever been as racy as Miss ‘Sexy Lexy’ Lexington (1981-1984, Allyson Rees)!

Let’s not forget too the most memorable teach to walk the corridors of Grange Hill. Mr Bronson, played brilliantly by the late Michael Sheard, surely single-handedly scared a generation of kids off secondary school, even if he did soften up as the years went on. From the toupee, the scream of “You boy!” and Danny Kendall dying in his car, his decision to leave the show left it with a crater that it simply couldn’t fill.

 

Grange Hill changed UK TV for ever. It finally pushed children’s programming into the post-war era, something that had happened to most other types of media in the ’60s or even ’50s. Phil Redmond, the show’s creator, clearly understood the changing moral zeitgeist. Here was the first generation where young females fully expected to be treated as equals – exemplified best, perhaps, by the ‘gobby’ Trisha Yates (1978-1982, Michelle Herbert). Here, too, was the first generation who accepted mixed-race society as a matter of course (for the most part!).

The programme lost its way in later years, coming to an end in 2008 for good (although Tucker came back to help finish things off). For those who remember the era, series one to four are available on DVD at the time of writing, and if you get the chance, check them out. They’re very, very watchable – age has weakened them much less than you might imagine. They’re fast-paced, well-written, and brimming with Raleigh Grifters, over-the-shoulder Adidas sports bags, and fabulously ridiculous hairstyles.

Flippin’ ’eck, how can you resist?

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Did you know?

* Mrs. McClusky’s first name was assumed to be Bridget – hence ‘Bridget the Midget’. However, in episode six of series four, the plate on her office door clearly reads ‘Mrs. M. McClusky’. Perhaps her first name was actually Midget, then…

* Grange Hill’s first theme tune, ‘Chicken Man’, was also used between 1979 and 1982 by gameshow Give Us a Clue. Grange Hill used Alan Hawkshaw’s original, while Give Us a Clue used a re-recorded version with a different arrangement. Most bizarre.

* Gwyneth Powell (Mrs. McClusky) had a memorable role in A Touch of Frost. She played Kitty Rayford, and for a few episodes in 1997 she shacked up with David Jason’s DI Frost. But what was her occupation? We’ll remind you – she was a former brothel keeper. How the mighty fall! From headmistress to madam in six short years! Things must be looking up a little now, though, as Gwyneth has recently been playing pub landlady Ivy Trehearne in Echo Beach.

 * Michael Cronin (Mr. Baxter) is now a successful children’s author. His trilogy of books about a hypothetical Nazi Britain is very highly regarded. He still keeps his hand in with a spot of acting, though, so keep your eyes peeled…

And finally…

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