News & Current Affairs

September 24, 2008

10 life lessons from Grange Hill

10 life lessons from Grange Hill

It’s been a week since TV’s most famous school closed its gates. For three decades it held a mirror up to life in the classroom and playground. What did it teach us?

When it burst on screen, Grange Hill was like no other children’s TV show. For the average British schoolkid, this was a chance to see characters who spoke like them (albeit with more sanitised language) and went through similar experiences.

It broke new ground by tackling contemporary issues such as bullying, teenage pregnancy and drug addiction from a child’s point of view. But amid the serious storylines, there were other lessons for teenagers – and their parents.



Ruth Carraway, Lee McDonald, and Lisa York during recording of Just Say No!

Zammo and friends sing out

The year was 1986. Grange Hill took one of its best-loved characters, Zammo Maguire, and reduced him to scrabbling on the floor trying to retrieve his heroin. A powerful half-hour of children’s TV ended with a close-up of Zammo and the sound of police sirens. The message that drugs were dangerous had got through to millions of young viewers.

To back it up, the cast recorded the single Just Say No! – it reached number five in the chart, and saw the participants invited to visit Nancy Reagan in the White House, and to sing live in front of 80,000 bemused Americans at Yankee Stadium.

For those who saw the video, the anti-drugs message got lost among the aerobics fashions and dodgy backing vocals (lead singer Fay Lucas just about escapes criticism). Zammo himself does not sing because, as actor Lee McDonald later admitted, record producers heard his voice and decided to spare fans further trauma.

Four years later, the end-of-term show featured Veronica Birtles and Fiona Wilson’s rap duo Fresh ‘n’ Fly, who tried to be GH’s answer to Salt ‘n’ Pepa. Just say no, kids!



Gripper Stebson (Mark Savage) in bullying action

Gripper in action with Pogo

In the early 1980s, even the threat of the Cold War held no fear compared to the prospect of encountering a real-life Gripper Stebson.

Gripper (real name Norman) was first suspended for beating up Pogo Patterson for refusing to do his homework. He found a more compliant victim in rotund Roland Browning, from whom he demanded dinner money, and then targeted black and Sikh pupils at a time when the National Front was a live issue in many playgrounds.

Only one person could end his reign of terror. Hard-as-nails games teacher Bullet Baxter broke up what threatened to be a full-on race riot and led Gripper away to be expelled.

In subsequent years, Imelda Davis and her Terrahawks girl gang badly injured Ziggy Greaves by forcing fibreglass down the back of his shirt. In 2000, we learned teachers could be victims too as Keiran Osbourne intimidated Mr Hankin. And Grange Hill’s most recent bully, Mooey Humphries, was played by Jonny Dixon, now cast as the much nicer Darryl Morton in Coronation Street.



Grange Hill pupils protesting

Pupils fight for “Scruffy” McGuffy

It may have been a good display of democracy in action but series two got politicians so worked up it led to a parliamentary debate.

Just weeks after the Student Action Group earned a referendum on the uniform issue thanks to a boycott of sports events and a school office sit-in, the programme showed another success for militant students – a canteen demonstration earned a rethink on “free school meals” segregation. MPs feared it could lead to revolting pupils up and down the land.

That was underlined when Grange Hill pupils marched in support of sacked teacher Mr McGuffy and stormed the school hall. After a repeat screening in 1995, a similar protest was staged in support of a teacher at a real school.

From then on, Grange Hill protests were played for laughs – Gonch Gardner and Robbie Wright played cricket in white skirts to highlight the intransigence of the school handbook and, recently, Tanya Young held a suffragette-style protest against swipe cards – but forgot the key to unlock the chains.



Hollo Holloway and Gonch Gardner

How much for this ball?

Grange Hill’s pupil roll has featured more would-be entrepreneurs than a double bill of The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den. None ever got rich quick.

The trailblazer was Pogo Patterson, who persuaded the local newsagent to sell the school magazine with a 5p mark-up and charged curious classmates 10p to peek at a sex education textbook.

His successor as the school’s budding Arthur Daley was maths whizz Luke “Gonch” Gardner. His scams included selling dental appointment cards to would-be truants, charging first year pupils for a guided school tour and selling toast to undercut the school canteen. He even had a visionary computer dating service (this was back in 1988) but came a cropper when he matched fearsome Mauler McCaul with Big Tel.

In 1992, Jacko Morgan coined it in with his car-washing service for teachers – until it was revealed he had slung mud over the cars to create the demand.



Duane Orpington and Pogo Patterson

No copying!

Exam invigilators hoping to spot enterprising ways pupils might cheat only needed to watch Grange Hill.

Among the most low-tech methods were those of the perennially workshy Pogo Patterson – including writing answers on his shirt sleeves or on chewing gum papers. When he struck lucky and stumbled across a set of exam papers, his scheme to sell them backfired when it was revealed they were from the previous year.



Dai Hard Jones

PE teacher Dai “Hard” Jones

As in all schools, Grange Hill’s teachers were given nicknames. Early on, there was Hoppy, Sooty and Scruffy (Hopwood, Sutcliffe and McGuffy), while recently Mad Max Hargreaves and Dai Hard Jones both revelled in their nicknames.

But no pupil dared whisper the nicknames Bullet, Bronco and Bridget the Midget within earshot of Mr Baxter, Mr Bronson and Mrs McClusky respectively.



Francesca Martinez

Francesca Martinez has gone on to appear at the Edinburgh Festival

Grange Hill has introduced characters with deafness, Asperger’s Syndrome, epilepsy, ME and agoraphobia – helping young viewers to understand people are not defined merely by their disability.

And it broke new ground when Francesca Martinez, a young girl with cerebral palsy, joined the cast in 1994 for five years, often getting involved with amusing storylines that made no reference to her condition. In real life, Francesca went on to establish a career as a comedienne.



Miss Carver and Mr Robson

Mr Robson found love in the staffroom

When Peter Robson arrived as Grange Hill’s new PE teacher, he was the complete antithesis to predecessor Bullet Baxter – his philosophy was that sport should be about taking part. Football captain Freddie Mainwaring responded: “England have got Bobby Robson, we’ve got Wally Robson!”

But his caring attitude helped him build a good relationship with pupils and he became deputy head. He was passed over for the top job three times before finally becoming Grange Hill’s seventh head teacher in 1998.

Viewers followed his descent into alcoholism after a critical Ofsted report – a rare storyline centred on a teacher – and he recovered to remain in charge until 2003.



Laura Sadler as Judi Jeffries

Actress Laura Sadler, who played Judi Jeffries, tragically died in 2003

Deaths of central characters have always been rare in children’s TV, but Grange Hill wrote a few out in the most permanent way.

Antoni Karamonopolis, a classmate of Tucker Jenkins, died when he plunged from a car park roof, but the first death on school premises came when young prankster Jeremy Irvine threw Fay Lucas’s bangle into the school swimming pool and drowned as he tried to retrieve it.

Danny Kendall, the artistic young rebel with a cause, was found dead in the back of his nemesis Mr Bronson’s car. The death shocked the overbearing teacher Bronson into changing his ways.

Gang culture featured in 1993 when Justine Dean’s boyfriend Liam Brady was killed on his way to a fight. Judi Jeffries fell to her death from a burning building and last year Baz Wainwright slumped over during a football match and died.



Kelly George as Ray Haynes

Ray Haynes’ cafe was The Arches

A perennial problem for Grange Hill scriptwriters was that, after several years building a character’s popularity, they then had to write the pupils out.

Tucker Jenkins was granted a spin-off series, Tucker’s Luck, which followed him in his quest to avoid the dole queue.

But it was a full eight series before the school’s sixth form was featured, giving a stay of execution to some. By 2002, Nathan Charles stretched it further as he was shown at university. In recent years, Kathy McIlroy stayed in situ during seven years of schooling and then became a member of staff.

But Grange Hill’s prize for special attendance goes to actor Kelly George. He first appeared in 1987 as a pupil from rival school St Joseph’s. He later returned as Grange Hill pupil Ray Haynes, from 1991 to 1993. And then from 1997 to 2002, he played a cafe proprietor dispensing snacks and useful advice, and employing several pupils part-time. But like all alumni, his time at the Hill had to end one day.

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