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7 January 2022

Why Grange Hill was, to my generation, the most important and beloved show on TV

For many of us, this was the first time we’d seen our schools – ugly, noisy and crowded – our teachers, and our selves on screen.

By Rachel Cooke

As a teenager, I had a lost year. I drank a lot and went to clubs a lot, and was generally never to be seen in school, and because I was extremely good at lying, and the teachers often helped by being on strike (to their days of action, I would add my own imaginary ones, should I be asked any awkward questions at home), I was able to get away with it for a while. But though I was, for a nice middle-class girl, really quite badly behaved – bad enough eventually to have to start my A-levels all over again in a different school – there were still some things I would not do. Serious drugs? Never. On that score (no pun intended), Zammo McGuire, the miniature smackhead played by Lee MacDonald in Grange Hill, had taught me – he had taught all of us – to say no. Even now, I’m still a little haunted by him. The slumped back. The heavy eyelids. The tiny teeth that seemed to belong to a boy half his age. His skin made you think of oyster shells.

The TV series Grange Hill, which ran on BBC1 from 1978 until 2008, was the creation of Phil Redmond, the man who would later invent Brookside for the newly launched (in 1982) Channel 4, and who is, somewhat bizarrely, apparently planning to revive it (Grange Hill, I mean) in the form of a feature film. And yes, it is hard to explain now the role it played in the lives of children right across the UK in its glory years (I think they ended in about 1988, but by then I’d gone to university; I’m not really in a position to judge). For my generation, it was, without doubt, the most important and beloved show on TV. No kid in their right mind who was allowed to watch it – we’ll come back to those who weren’t – would ever miss it. Boing-boing-boing. Up in your bedroom, you’d hear the weirdly springy opening notes of its theme tune (“Chicken Man” by Alan Hawkshaw) blasting out – a sign that one of your siblings, fully primed, was already sitting cross-legged on the carpet in front of the telly – and within seconds, you were there too. Budge up! My brother liked it almost as much as I did, which in itself made it remarkable.

Of course, we had no choice back then but to all watch the same thing. There were only three (later four) TV channels, and ITV’s programming for children was generally rubbish compared with that of the BBC (not to mention frowned on by some parents). Even so, Grange Hill was, at first, a revelation – and we drank of its excitements deeply. Most of us were used to shows that were, if not always about the kind of Edwardian children who had governesses, then inevitably about children who sounded like they might be Edwardian (the voices of child actors were then, almost without exception, laughably posh).

But in Grange Hill, the children sounded like themselves: they had London accents, because they were from London, where the series was set (though their voices, in their way, were just as exotic to me as those of the E Nesbit types: I was a teenager before I ever set foot in London). As for their school, it was not straight out of, say, Enid Blyton, and nor did its staff have anything to do with, say, Goodbye, Mr Chips. It looked very much like my comprehensive school – which is to say, ugly, modern, shabby, noisy and crowded – and in the main, its staff strongly resembled my teachers, who were neither smartly dressed nor particularly strict. Truly, it was uncanny. Every time the school’s long-serving head, Mrs McClusky (Gwyneth Powell), walked into a classroom, I could almost smell the Nescafé and Silk Cut on her breath.

People talk of the way Grange Hill tackled “issues”, and it’s true that, across the years, it dealt with such things as addiction, divorce, homelessness, Aids, teenage pregnancy and pupil-teacher relationships (long before Zammo fell for heroin, Fay Lucas had an exciting little fling – don’t judge me: this was pre-#MeToo – with Mr King, who taught maths). But because the school and all who sailed in it was wholly recognisable, we did not receive these storylines as lectures; even if they occasionally had an effect on our behaviour (see Zammo), the series was closer to a soap opera than anything else, and thus, such scenarios were more akin to gossip for us.

They weren’t even, to be honest, that far out. I knew no heroin addicts at school, but one boy in my class used to sniff glue to the point where he fell asleep at his desk in lessons (and went absolutely nuts when the teacher had the temerity to wake him up); several girls in my year left before they’d taken their O-levels, having fallen pregnant (they were quite happy about it); and in the sixth form, a new girl appeared who was, it was rumoured, still involved with a teacher from her old school. Teachers, and all of their affairs, were already fodder for our keen interest; we must have looked like the tricoteuse at the guillotine as we watched from the window on the morning Miss S arrived at school, not in Mr R’s Citroen, but in Mr B’s Volvo. Grange Hill, in other words, was just an extension of all this, only with slightly more pacy storylines. (The scripts were good: Zammo’s descent into hell was written by Anthony Minghella, who later directed The English Patient).

Thanks to all of the above, and to the fact that my mother, a teacher herself, often used to watch it with us, thrilling to the same things that we did, I was always slightly amazed that for some of my friends, it was forbidden fruit (though this gave it extra cachet, of course). At J’s house, where the pelmets were ultra-luxurious and the all-pine country-style kitchen was entirely crumb-free, Grange Hill was strictly verboten – as I was gutted to discover when I happened to be there on a night it was on (this was pre-video: the episode was lost forever).

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How peculiar that she was allowed to wear stretch jeans with heels to school (I was still making the case for these items), and yet she was not permitted ever to clap eyes on Tucker Jenkins, Suzanne Ross and Alan Humphries. She must have felt so left out when we used to shout “RO-LAAAND!” in sing-song voices at some poor boy we’d identified as being particularly Roland-like (Roland Browning, who was rarely to be seen without a bag of crisps in his hands, was a character we found all kinds of hilarious). Her parents’ strictures, though, did no good. What happened to her? Ah, yes… I remember. If only they’d let her watch it! But that’s another story, and certainly not one for your ears (or not today).

[See also: The best TV of 2021]

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