Grange Hill’s Lee ‘Zammo’ MacDonald: “I gave Nancy Reagan a copy of Just Say No. She threw it under her chair”

The man who was Zammo tells Paul Kirkley about life at Grange Hill, meeting Nancy Reagan, the accident that derailed his career and why he's now happy to be a locksmith first and an actor second...

Lee MacDonald as Zammo in Grange Hill

This article was first published in December 2015

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Who are the greatest Grange Hill characters of all time?

Like your choice of Doctor Who, the answer to that question probably depends on when you were born. For many, it will be the original intake of Tucker, Trisha, Benny and co; if you’re a bit younger, you might look back fondly on the Danny Kendall versus Mr Bronson years. But BBC4 has made its choice: this week, as part of an evening celebrating classic children’s TV, the station has opted for a 1986 Grange Hill episode focusing on Samuel “Zammo” McGuire and Roland “Row-land” Browning.

“It’s great news,” says Lee MacDonald, who played Zammo for five years between 1982 and 1987. “Erkan rang me to tell me it’s on, and we’re really excited.” Erkan is Erkan Mustafa, who played Row… sorry, Roland. After 30 years, the pair are still good friends who speak to each other most weeks.

You can understand the BBC’s thinking: over three decades, hundreds of pupils passed through TV’s most famous comprehensive school, but only one – Zammo – made real-life headlines (including a Newsround Special, no less), inspired a hit single and secured himself and his cast-mates an invitation to meet Nancy Reagan at the White House. More on all that later.

MacDonald’s route to Grange Hill has a sad story behind it: as a child, he’d been badly affected by the death of his older sister, Karen, who had been disabled since birth. “It knocked me for six,” he says. “At primary school I was very quiet – I didn’t really mingle or talk to people.”

To help build his confidence and social skills, a teacher recommended he try evening classes at the local Anna Scher community theatre school in North London, which led to “bits and pieces” of TV work, including playing Mike Reid’s son in a children’s drama called Noah’s Castle. But when he suggested joining his Anna Scher classmates Susan Tully and Mark (Stewpot) Burdis in auditioning for Grange Hill, his mother put her foot down, insisting he couldn’t afford to take time out of his first year at secondary school.

Twelve months later, satisfied his academic career was on track, his mum agreed to let him try out for a part (though she later got a job as an on-set chaperone in order to keep an eye on him). “They were looking for two characters, Jonah and Zammo,” recalls MacDonald. “Jonah was the good looking one with all the chat, and I was the beefy sort of one; I turned up with a skinhead, and I did boxing, and I just fitted the role.”

Was he already a fan? “Oh god yeah. I loved it. I can remember running home to watch it when Tucker was in it. I was a massive fan.”

One of his first scenes, as it turned out, was with Todd Carty, making one of his final appearances before heading off for his own spin-off show, Tucker’s Luck. “That was amazing. To be in a scene with him, at that time, was unbelievable. He was like my icon. Suddenly being in Grange Hill and working with Todd, it was unreal.”

After just one episode, the 13-year-old found he couldn’t walk down the street without being recognised – and admits he “loved every minute of it”. “The worst years, when you’re growing up, are probably 14 to 18, when you’re shy and it’s all a bit awkward,” he reflects. “But because of Grange Hill, that was all different. I remember going to a museum with my school, and getting chased by all the girls from a girls’ school. The security guard said, ‘Sorry, he’s going to have to leave,’ and I was escorted outside. When you’re 14 or 15, being chased by girls… well, let’s just say I’d love it to happen now.”

He enjoyed being part of the Zammo-Jonah double act, but when Lee Sparke left because his parents wouldn’t agree to his character drowning in a swimming pool (a fate that eventually befell Jonah’s cousin, Jeremy), Zammo was paired with a girlfriend instead.

Jackie Wright (Melissa Wilks) was the object of many a schoolboy crush (or, er, so RadioTimes.com understands) – and it turns out MacDonald was no exception. In fact, he virtually got to handpick his love interest himself.

“She was at Anna Scher’s with me, and I used to fancy the pants off her,” he reveals. “Even before we did Grange Hill, I used to check she was going to be in my lessons and stuff. So when they asked me if there was anyone I’d like to play my girlfriend, I said ‘She’s brilliant, get her.’”

“I used to check the scripts to make sure she was in them, and for years I’d get butterflies in my tummy when she was coming in. I had a real big crush on her.”

Presumably he kept a keen eye out for kissing scenes… “Oh yes. I remember there was one in a lift once. I used to love scenes that were just me and her, because I knew then I had her full attention. I was smitten, absolutely smitten.”

But the romance never spilled over into real life? “No, no, I was too nervous to ask her out. I was petrified. And then we worked together so long, we just became really good friends.”

In 1986, Zammo suddenly changed from being a loveable scamp to a shifty, thieving wrong ‘un only too happy to sell his mates – and even the lovely Jackie – down the river. Then, in scenes that shocked the nation, Roland discovered his friend slumped in an amusement arcade toilet in a dead-eyed heroin stupor.

The BAFTA-winning storyline had been developed as part of the BBC’s Drugwatch campaign by the late Anthony Minghella, who served as Grange Hill’s script editor before finding fame as the Oscar-winning director of The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley.

“Anthony spoke to my parents and said they were going to do this drugs story,” MacDonald recalls. “At the time, I wasn’t really aware of drugs at all. It was only when we started going to rehabilitation centres for research that I realised what it meant. It was good for me as an actor, I really enjoyed doing it.”

Initially, MacDonald tells RadioTimes.com, the producers had planned to kill Zammo off, before having a change of heart. Even so, the story had a powerful effect on viewers. “That pan-out, with no music, where I was sort of overdosed in the toilet, was really hard-hitting – especially at five past five in the afternoon on a children’s show.”

To help raise awareness of the issue, it was decided the cast should release a charity single, Just Say No ­– a cover version of a song previously recorded by La Toya Jackson as part of an anti-drug campaign in America. Except the kid at the centre of it all wasn’t actually allowed to sing on it.

“They took me off to a room and asked me to sing a few lines,” recalls MacDonald. “And the woman slammed the piano lid down, stood up and said, ‘Okay, you won’t be singing on the record’. I was mortified. So I don’t sing on it, and I can’t dance either, which is why I’m doing weight training in the video.”

The single caught the attention of the people behind the original US Just Say No campaign – named in honour of Nancy Reagan’s advice on how schoolchildren should respond if offered drugs – which is how a handful of Grange Hill pupils found themselves being flown across the Atlantic, performing at New York’s Yankee Stadium and, surreally, meeting the First Lady herself at the White House.

“I gave her a copy of the record, which she swiftly threw underneath her chair,” laughs MacDonald. “I didn’t really appreciate it at the time but, looking back, you realise what a massive thing it was to do. It was just mad.”

In recent years, it has mischievously been suggested that some of the cast may have undermined the anti-drugs message by smoking funny fags in the Presidential residence, but MacDonald is having none of it. “Honestly, if you’ve ever been to the White House, there’s a security guard following you everywhere – even to the toilet – and if they smelled puff… It’s just not even feasible. And my mum was there!”

Did the Americans know who they were? “They didn’t have a Scooby!” he laughs. “I remember they organised a press conference in the hotel. There about 60 chairs, and only two people turned up. No-one had a clue who we were.”

Eventually, it was time for a now clean and sober Zammo to move on from Grange Hill and make his way in the world. Was MacDonald sorry to go?

“You knew it was coming, obviously. And I had no intention of being an actor – I wanted to box. But the last day was really, really sad. It had been part of my life for a long time.”

Boxing had been part of his life for even longer: it was another activity he’d been encouraged to take up to help him cope with losing his sister. For a while after Grange Hill, he was a real contender, winning the Junior ABA, boxing for London and even being tipped as a future Olympian. But, just as he was on the verge of turning pro, his van was hit by a car being chased by the police; both people in the car died, and MacDonald was thrown 47 feet through the windscreen. He needed 43 stitches in his head, and suffered serious concussion. It was the end of his boxing career.

“Even months afterwards, I remember going into a garage and I couldn’t work out the change from a pound,” he recalls. “I went home to my dad and cried, because I couldn’t focus properly. It was soul-destroying. It put me out for about two years before I was back to normal.”

Through his dad, he’d got a job working for a locksmith’s. It was only supposed to be temporary, until he’d established himself as a professional boxer but, after the accident, he ended up staying for “years and years and years”.

“I remember getting a call saying John Alford [who played his Grange Hill contemporary Robbie Wright] was in London’s Burning, and that felt like a real blow. I was like, ‘Christ, what am I doing working here?’. Then when I was about 28, I met a girl and she said, ‘What are you doing with your life? You’re working in a warehouse, you need to sort yourself out. When you’ve done that, come back to me.’

“So I did. I used a bit of money I’d saved up from Grange Hill to buy a flat, and I got a new job. Then,” he says with a rueful chuckle, “I phoned her up about a year later and she said, ‘Nah, it’s alright, I’m getting married’.”

Still, it was the kick up the backside he needed. In 2000, he bought his own locksmith and key-cutting shop in South London, where being the bloke who used to be Zammo has proved useful: having spent a long time trying to distance himself from the role, these days he has a picture of his younger self, resplendent in his Grange Hill uniform, in the shop window, while his website advises customers to ‘Choose the best – and Just Say No to the rest’.

“It gets me work,” he says. “Estate agents ring me up and say, ‘Is that Zammo? Can you do a job for us?’ It’s great.”

Now, at 47, MacDonald is only too happy to do interviews and public appearances – often with his mate Erkan – and is back in touch with several of the old Grange Hill gang through Facebook. He’s also done various reality shows, including Sky’s Cirque de Celebrité and BBC3’s Celebrity Scissorhands, and tells RadioTimes.com he’d “jump at the chance” to be in the I’m A Celebrity jungle. He’s even got himself an agent and started picking up the odd bit of acting and presenting work, including fronting a property show for Sky.

“My agent wants me to drop the shop,” he says. “She says I should try and push myself as an actor and not a locksmith. But I’m quite happy to say I’m a locksmith, ’cos that’s what pays the mortgage!”

Today, MacDonald lives with his partner, Jess, who he met on a dating website, his son Harry and Jess’s daughter, Katie, both 7. He seems relaxed and chirpy, and says life is good. So how long did it take him to ’fess up to Jess that he was Zammo?

“Well… I’ve got to be careful what I say here,” he laughs. “Jess comes from quite a posh family – who are lovely, but I’m not sure they watched Grange Hill. So she didn’t really know who I was. Even now, she finds it really weird when people say hello or ask for selfies.”

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As for MacDonald, he’ll happily pose for as many selfies as people want. “For years I hated it,” he admits. “Until I was in my late 20s or early 30s, I didn’t want to be associated with Grange Hill. But not now. I’ve got so many good memories of my time on the show. I loved every minute of it.”