Looking Back At GRANGE HILL - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At GRANGE HILL

Tony’s going back to school. In a highly socially distanced way.
To understand Grange Hill, you have to understand two things.

First, you have to understand British soap operas. We say this because there may well be non-Brits reading this, and soap operas in Britain are a unique phenomenon. Whereas in some more optimistic nations, soap operas are full of glamour, glitz and aspiration, in Britain, when you talk about soap operas, you’re talking about gritty reality, ordinary lives and the relationships, dramas and traumas that make them up, and sharply drawn characters you can follow for a generation.

And the second thing you have to understand is that Grange Hill was the first real soap opera AIMED AT CHILDREN.

Grange Hill was created by writer Phil Redmond – who would later go on to make his mark on adult soap operas with both Brookside (including subjects as gritty as wife beating, spousal murder, alcoholism and, in a landmark move, the first on-screen lesbian kiss before the watershed in British television history), and Hollyoaks (including a controversial male rape storyline). At first, he had enormous trouble convincing TV bosses to take the idea of a soap opera for children seriously – which in hindsight seems absurd.

But nevertheless, it took him roughly three years to get the BBC to host a pilot series of Grange Hill, the soap opera set in a realistic London school.

The show went on to run for 30… years, and a handful of distinct ‘generations’ of pupils and their exploits. If you were looking for a test of whether children would be interested in gritty soap operas that reflected their own lives back at them, that’s got to be a fairly definitive answer, right?
The generations of Grange Hill each had their stars, and their killer, hook-laden storylines. Among the first generation, a small gang of likely lads led by Peter “Tucker” Jenkins became firm fan favourites. Tucker, played by Todd Carty as a kind of Artful Dodger, with a loveable grin and little long-term hope, first found a solid friend in Benny Green (Terry Sue-Patt), a poor, black student who shared his sense of humour. That sounds like nothing in the 21st century, but in 1978, a bi-racial best friendship might well have been common enough in reality, but was rarely seen on TV, let alone on children’s TV. By the time Tucker and Benny hit Series 3, they were joined by Alan Humphries (George Armstrong). It was there, while Tucker was doing work experience on Alan’s dad’s building site, that the trajectory of his character began to change, showing more positivity and a determination to do the right thing.

Tucker would eventually get his own spin-off series, Tucker’s Luck, showing his exploits while on the dole in Mrs Thatcher’s Britain of then-record unemployment.

But early Grange Hill wasn’t all about Tucker and the boys. In fact, if you wanted a real rebel in the early years of Grange Hill, Tucker was small potatoes compared to Trisha Yates, played by the entirely marvellous Michelle Herbert. A flouter of school rules from the very beginning to her last appearance in Series 5, Trisha was constantly in conflict with the authorities of the school, particularly over the relatively minor issue (except when you’re of school age!) that was school uniform. While Tucker found his way towards a positive outlook when exposed to the real world, Trisha found ways to work within the system, joining the student council – only to use it as a platform for her anti-authoritarian views.

While the first four years of Grange Hill established it with strong characters, and storylines that its audience could not only identify with but believe in, it’s fair to say it was years 5-10 that really marked the peak of national obsession with Grange Hill.

Not only were those the years that gave a young actress named Susan Tully her first prominent role as Suzanne Ross (Tully and Todd Carty would go on to play brother and sister in grown-up soap, Eastenders). They were the years of looming bully ‘Gripper’ Stebson (Mark Savage), the years of Roland “Roly” Browning, his chief, but by no means his only, victim.

But more than any of that, those years were the era of Samuel “Zammo” McGuire, played by Lee MacDonald.
In a two-year storyline (Series 9-10), Zammo went from a fairly unassuming though reasonable student to a heroin addict who gradually left everything that had been important to him behind in search of a fix. While (spoilers – it’s only been around 34 years…) the story has a much happier ending than you might imagine, the writers really put the young audience through the wringer and pulled only a very few punches in Zammo’s journey into drug hell. Witty as a Trainspotting, it is not, and it’s all the more realistically grim because of it.

But just as for every Tucker Jenkins, there’s a Trisha Yates, it would be a mistake to focus only on Zammo’s harrowing journey into heroin addiction (and the only slightly less harrowing awareness-raising single, Just Say No, that went with it). At least it would while there’s a Fay Lucas on the scene.

Just as Zammo was a regular part of the action until he got his major storyline and then got a chance to shine and shock us all rigid with the trauma of his transformation, so it was with Fay Lucas (Alison Bettles).
Fay was always fairly precocious and adventurous, as well as being sport-mad and dreaming, because some people do, of becoming a PE teacher. Being sport-mad and adventurous is one thing, but to maintain the gritty realism in the Eighties, it more or less went without saying that ‘boy trouble’ was never that far away from her.

But when she fell into a hopeless infatuation with her maths teacher, Mr King, it led to a story almost as shocking in its own way as Zammo McGuire’s was. What can we tell you, they were very angsty years, the late Eighties!

While it was no Lolita, the affair-that-really-wasn’t-one between Fay and Mr King had horrible consequences all down the line. Her dreams of becoming any kind of teacher were shattered by stigma – and to be fair, so were his.

While the first four or five years were more or less Grange Hill with the training wheels on (Phil Redmond has said he had to wait until later series to really tackle some of the grittier themes he wanted to get to), years 5-10 were pretty traumatic, angst-ridden times at Grange Hill, and if you watched it at all back in those days, you never wanted to miss an episode. Like all the best soaps, once Grange Hill had you hooked – and back in those days, it had you hooked right from the credits, with a funky comic-book-style semi-animated set of titles and a deeply twangy, bouncy theme tune – it had you hooked for at least a generation of pupils, because while en masse, they all looked like just a normal class of London kids, the more you focused on any one of them and their story, the more they revealed. And while, as we say, the first five years or so got by mostly on the charm of a handful of major characters, there was plenty of drama too – one pupil, Antoni Karramanopolis (Vivian Mann), fell to his death from a rooftop after being dared, in a Series 3 scene that could well have been a Public Information Film from the era of commonplace horrors. So, like life and grown-up soaps in the UK, you never knew quite what to expect of Grange Hill, even in its early days. But certainly, years 5-10 were far more generally angsty, with ongoing plotlines of pain, despair, unrequited love, drug addiction, and an almost ridiculous amount more.

That’s just 10 years, and Grange Hill ran for 30. Are we saying after year 10, it just coasted on its laurels?

No, not at all – no show would survive doing that. But the world of the 90s was not the world of the late Seventies and the Eighties. Grange Hill changed with the times, and it’s hard to argue that it ever regained quite the soaptastic grit and grime of that first ten years. It got a spangly, upbeat, altogether less sarcastic theme tune in 1990, and that gave a clue to a tonal shift in the years that would follow.
In a move that was understandable given the quality of actors who had played some of the teachers in the early years, including the likes of Michael Sheard as Mr Bronson, who was both laughably ridiculous and distinctly terrifying at the same time, there was a shift in the perspective to make the teachers as much a part of the story of Grange Hill as the children. Very fair, very equitable, but more or less deathly to the kind of drama that had kept that first decade of young viewers glued to their screens.

Grange Hill changed again in the early 21st century, and the move was increasingly towards bubblegum kids entertainment, though it still managed the occasional impressive storyline and shocking moment.

You can think of Grange Hill as having three distinct phases, and while fans who tuned in during the 90s will have their own favourite storylines (We’re betting plenty remember Danny Kendall and his unfortunate end – oh yes, don’t get us wrong, Grange Hill kept delivering the kicks beyond those first ten years! And not forgetting it had a gay teacher as early, in TV terms, as 1992). But in filling its first ten years, and years 5-10 in particular, with tight drama, complex characters and serious dilemmas shown without a whole lot of flinching, it provided a brand new model for kid-focused ‘soap’ entertainment, that plenty of writers and series would go on to replicate.

Children’s Ward, by Paul Abbott and Tony Basgaliop, itself grown out of the Dramarama series, would put kids in hospital as a kind of “Children’s Casualty.” Press Gang, written by Steven Moffatt, was a similar school drama, but with the added element of a student newspaper and the people who make it.

And so it goes - before Grange Hill, as Todd “Tucker” Carty has said, shows set in schools were mostly idealised, jolly hockey sticks affairs. During and after Grange Hill, if you didn’t have grit, realism, relationships, strife and even some realistic danger, you just weren’t playing the game, and very probably, your audience would fall away.

Grange Hill is a masterpiece of TV in its own right, and it’s almost infinitely bingeworthy. But it’s also a landmark piece of TV in that it changed what children’s school dramas were like – pretty much forever.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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