Thirty Years of Grange Hill – Part III
25 Apr 2009 3 comments. tbs.pm/2234
Simon Luxton passed away on 3 March 2009. Before he died, he completed this article – part three of his series on Grange Hill. It is dedicated to his memory.
1982 saw major changes to Grange Hill, off-screen and on. After two years of filming at Willesden High in North London, the school ‘moved’ to what was then Holborn College in Greyhound Road, Fulham.
The new school looked very different from the previous two Grange Hills. It was in a more built-up area with space at a premium. However the new studio sets at Television Centre were a loving recreation of Holborn’s interiors. Phil Redmond stepped down as Grange Hill’s executive producer to form his own production company in Liverpool, which would produce a new soap for the forthcoming Channel 4. He also came off Grange Hill’s writing team. Colin Cant handed over the reins to new producer Susi Hush.
Grange Hill’s third crop of new ‘first years’ brought with them more of the anxieties we all felt at secondary school – cheeky chaps Zammo Maguire and Jonah Jones filled Tucker’s shoes nicely (he and his mates were now limited to cameo appearances in the new series, also his last), while Roland Browning was the archetypal fat boy and his lot was not a happy one. So much so that, in a harrowing study of the psychological effects of bullying, he throws himself under a car to escape torment from an increasingly malevolent Gripper Stebson. Whether he meant to end it all or just give himself a break is unclear but Grange Hill made a point of showing the vicious circle that caused Roland to comfort-eat when he was unhappy which ironically, would just make it worse for him.
Series 5 was also the point at which Grange Hill became more openly political. A shortage of textbooks meant pupils had to share both in class and for homework. The parents had different ideas on how to overcome this. In a heated parent’s meeting, Stewpot Stewart’s socialist father insisted it was the state’s responsibility to provide enough to go round while Claire’s mum was all for parents buying the books. Then the end-of-term school revue organised by wild card English teacher “Scruffy” McGuffy, failed to impress Mrs McClusky with its biting satire of how she was running her school and of education in general. Finally the contentious issue of s-e-x raised it head, sex education in the third year divided pupils and parents and the prudishness of Mrs Scott backfired when Claire kept a diary fantasising about imaginary exploits with Mr Hopwood. Mr Scott was soon on his way to Grange Hill to knock ten bells out of Hoppy but Claire was left with egg on her face. Life was no easier for her best friend Suzanne Ross. A minor player in Series 4, Suzanne was thrust into the spotlight with her constant rebellion against the reintroduced school uniform and her regular ‘bunking off’. Suzanne also did not relish having “that flippin’ curse” for the next 30 years.
It is said that what made Grange Hill captivating was escapism. Children could watch their contemporaries do all the things they’d never get away with themselves. This is what got me hooked when I saw my first episode in 1983. By now Gripper Stebson’s bullying had gone from bad to worse as he resorted to hardcore racism against Grange Hill’s large community of black and Asian pupils. As a nine-year old at the time, the racist element went over my head during this initial viewing but to see Stebson making life a misery for all and sundry and – gasp – back-answering teachers like Bullet Baxter was something I would never have dreamt of doing. Unfortunately Gripper’s exploits were causing a wave of copycat behaviour throughout the land and Stebson was expelled from Grange Hill in episode 14. No sooner had I found Grange Hill than the main attraction had gone – but at least it brought to an end two years of misery for actor Mark Savage who was constantly being threatened with violence.
Gripper’s racist thuggery signified the hardening of Grange Hill, overseen by new script editor, the late Anthony Minghella in his pre-film-director career. It was during Minghella’s tenure that Grange Hill produced its most memorable storylines including Zammo Maguire’s descent into heroin addiction. Minghella did not bank on a spanner being thrown in the works when planning the 1984 series. The main event was to have been the drowning of Jonah Jones in the school swimming pool. Actor Lee Sparke was unhappy with the plans and refused to sign up for the new series, forcing a major rewrite but one not too far away from the original idea. Jonah’s cousin Jeremy Irvine, previously a Rodney Bennett pupil returned, this time as a Grange Hill pupil, to take Jonah’s place at the bottom of the water. Jonah himself was packed off to Wales with his father’s new job. Vincent Matthews, who played Jeremy, told fan website Grange Hill Gold that the drowning of his character was intended to cause maximum impact because the departure of Tucker Jenkins had dented Grange Hill’s ratings slightly.
Grange Hill was now entering its highest-profile period. That brought its own problems – hordes of fans disrupting filming caused Grange Hill to move between real schools three times already, but plans were in hand to avoid the need for that. In 1983 the BBC purchased ATV London’s former studios at Elstree for the purpose of making a new twice-weekly soap opera. The site had more than enough space for other projects so Grange Hill could have a new permanent base there which was closed to the fans. The changes needed to be explained on-screen, so in Series 7 foundations were laid for Grange Hill to amalgamate with rival schools Brookdale and Rodney Bennett to form a new super-school. The merger was confirmed later in the series and paved the way for Grange Hill to make its periodical ‘refresh’ the following year.
So in 1985, the new Grange Hill opened as a split-site campus. The Upper School was the old Grange Hill building, the lower school the old Rodney Bennett campus. If the Lower School building looked familiar, it’s because it was in fact Neptune House at what was now BBC Elstree Centre, the plan being to move the entire production to Elstree in due course. With the new school came new ‘first years’ Gonch, Hollo, Ronnie, Calley, Jane and Trevor Cleaver who apart from having to overcome the usual insecurities of starting secondary school also had to step into rivalry between former Rodney Bennett and Brookdale pupils, now brought together under one roof. Mrs McClusky suffered a humiliating demotion to deputy head but the new head was hardly ever around, so her job changed little. Other new faces appeared in the staffroom, including a French master who would become the epitome of Grange Hill – one Maurice Bronson, very vocal in his opinions against the merger and who from the outset developed a penchant for picking fights with pupils, the first being Zammo Maguire. “You boy!” became Bronson’s war cry.
Zammo had other worries. No school drama would be complete without an epic romance. The Romeo and Juliet of Grange Hill were Zammo and Jackie Wright. Their pairing had more obstacles than Shakespeare’s young lovers – she was a Brookdale pupil. Once the schools merged, Zammo had a rival for Jackie’s affections in ‘bovver-boy’ Steven “Banksie” Banks. Actor Lee MacDonald chose his screen girlfriend himself when the BBC auditioned at the Anna Scher Theatre School and picked Melissa Wilks, at this point best known for her “Grand Pricks” faux pas on It’ll Be Alright On The Night. Over four series the Jackie/Zammo/Banksie love triangle remained compelling but it was always Zammo the viewers wanted Jackie to win and Zammo and Jackie’s union would have far more serious obstacles to overcome.
A fourth article was planned in this series on Grange Hill, which would have looked at Zammo and Jackie’s relationship in further detail, and other aspects of the series. However, with the sad death of Simon, it is here that this series must end.