Thirty Years of Grange Hill – Part I 

26 October 2008

They say that school days are the happiest of our lives – though few of us seem to think so at the time. A very long school career recently came to an end with the final episode of Grange Hill, the ground-breaking contemporary school drama, which was unleashed on the British public on Wednesday 8 February 1978.

Ground-breaking? With soaps now routinely covering teenage pregnancy, drug addiction and serious illness, it’s hard to imagine that Grange Hill was the first issue-based series specifically made for older children. That Grange Hill enjoyed such a long run was down to the fact that it concentrated on the one collective experience most of us have in life: school. Whether our individual school was a state comprehensive or an elite boarding school life was basically the same – the bewilderment felt by 11-year old newcomers from primary school, adjusting to new rules and teachers, getting in trouble for not doing homework or wearing the right uniform – we can all relate to these things whatever our age.

The education system and society has changed beyond recognition since 1978 and Grange Hill owes its success to the fact that it could remain relevant and keep up with the times. In the absence of much official fanfare to mark Grange Hill’s passing or indeed its 30th anniversary, this is the first of a series of articles looking at the highs and lows of what some regard as the best British children’s TV show.

Up-and-coming screenwriter Phil Redmond (above), a former quantity surveyor from Liverpool, seized upon the fact that children’s television in the 1970s seemed rather middle-class in outlook, and there wasn’t really anything the average Joe with a similar working class background to his own could relate to. Child actors, too, tended to be assertive and well-spoken, even in early attempts at issue-based drama such as ATV’s The Kids from 47A (for which Redmond had written some episodes). As he searched for the idea that would define his career, it was suggested to Redmond that he wrote about school – after all, everyone goes to school – and from that, Grange Hill was born. So in 1976 he devised a drama-documentary set in a large city comprehensive.

Surprisingly, all 15 ITV companies rejected the format – but not BBC Children’s, which had been looking for a school-based format and so gave Phil his commission. Redmond hoped the show could be set in his native Liverpool but circumstances dictated its home would have to be wherever its makers were based – in this case London.

When episode one of Grange Hill (the name changed from Grange Park when the BBC realised there were several schools with that name) made it to our screens, no-one really knew what to expect. The cast themselves were pessimistic about the nine-part series; Robert Craig Morgan, who played school snitch Justin Bennett told a fan site that everyone thought the project would fail. Even the director, Colin Cant, feared children wouldn’t be interested in watching a show about school life after coming home from a hard day’s lessons. Neither could have been further from the truth.

The key to Grange Hill’s success was that it capitalised on the relatively new comprehensive schooling system and the ideology that everyone got the same chances. It showed in the make-up of form One Alpha, on whom Series 1 was almost entirely focused; Justin Bennett had a comfortable home life, Benny Green lived an almost impoverished existence to the point where his parents could not initially afford school uniform; Michael Doyle was a privileged bully who traded off his dad being a local councillor; Trisha Yates was a school-uniform hating but good-natured rebel who would fight for what she believed in. The star of the show, as he would prove to be, was Peter “Tucker” Jenkins (below). He was the cheeky, fast-talking scamp who was forever causing his teachers headaches but, like Trisha, stood up to the bullies while not putting any more effort into school work than was necessary to keep teachers sweet.

Suddenly there were “real” children in a children’s TV show: they spoke coarsely and had the audacity to use such colourful expressions as “flippin’ eck”; they misbehaved and were sent to the headmaster to learn the error of their ways. At the same time many old-style child actors appeared in the early years of Grange Hill and were not out of place as the more middle-class characters like Judy Preston and Ann Wilson.

The teachers could be related to as easily as the pupils – Mr Mitchell was One Alpha’s fair-minded but firm form master with a notable sense of humour; the stereotypical drill-sergeant sports teacher (a chap called Mr Foster; the more familiar “Bullet” Baxter would not be seen until Series 2) and the autocratic head of first year. By keeping it close to real life, Grange Hill hit the mark in a way its makers couldn’t have imagined: the target audience loved it – but not the parents. They thought Grange Hill was too raw and blamed the show for all of society’s ills. So vocal were protests about a storyline in episode 4, where pupils left unattended in the school swimming pools threw benches in the water and larked about in their teachers’ absence, that this episode was withdrawn from the repeat run. Real teachers were furious at being shown as irresponsible – they argued that they would never have left the class unattended even if one boy had a cut foot and needed medical treatment (which was why the boys had been left alone); Phil Redmond hit back saying it was the lesser of two evils as the alternative would have been for the injured boy to bleed to death.

The BBC defended Grange Hill vigorously by making a specific point of showing the consequences of pupils’ bad behaviour. Tucker and Benny got the cane for causing the accident at a munitions dump which left Justin badly injured; Tucker meted out rough justice to Doyle after he stole two antique pistols and in doing so jeopardised the school fete and Trisha got a letter home for her continued uniform violations (which she intercepted). Nevertheless, the experiment that was Series 1 was a resounding success.

The second run was to allow Phil Redmond to make Grange Hill even grittier.

Next time: the period up to 1982

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3 responses to this article

Graham Pearson 13 May 2014 at 7:03 am

There was an episode of Grange Hill from the first series which Cathy was afraid of a man claiming to be her father and she informed Mr Mitchell what happened. Mitchell had to comfort a distraught Cathy and I don’t know for certain whether this guy who tried to stalk Cathy was her real father.

Sue 9 August 2015 at 11:12 pm

Do you reckon the BBC could put the show back on as it will be 40 years old in a few years time. A good chance to re live the excellent tv show.

Joanne Gray 27 October 2015 at 6:45 pm

Graham Pearson – I watched the first 14 series of Grange Hill earlier this year (I’m an insomniac) on YouTube and can confirm that Cathy’s stalker was her real dad. Her mum hadn’t wanted him to have anything to do with Cathy or her brother as he had walked out on them when the kids were little

Hope this help s put your mind at rest ;)

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