By Paul “Kirky” Kirkley
Flippin’ eck – can it really be 40 years since the bell first rang at Britain’s most famous comprehensive school?
Making its debut on 8th February 1978, Grange Hill rolled a hand grenade into a children’s television landscape still dominated by what creator Phil Redmond called the “Enid Blyon, middle class” school of drama.
With its unflinching (by 5pm standards anyway) approach to issues ranging from racism and bullying to first bras and sex education behind the bike sheds, Grange Hill was a TV show that spoke to kids about their own lives – a chronicle of inner-city adolescence as far removed from the Blyton / Billy Bunter world of midnight snacks and lashings of ginger beer as it was possible to imagine.
Middle England, naturally, clutched its pearls in horror, with questions asked in the House of Commons and Redmond summoned by BBC bosses to explain why he was filling the airwaves with yobs, vandals and hooligans. In other words, it was a massive hit.
The show ran for 30 years, providing early TV exposure for such future stars as Alex Kingston (Jill Harcourt), Susan Tully (Suzanne Ross), Amanda Mealing (Tracy Edwards) and Georgia May Foote (Alison Simmons).
Though its 70s/80s glory days were long gone when the axe finally fell in 2008, Grange Hill still rules the TV skool for generations of viewers. So, from Tucker’s first day to Danny Kendall’s tragic last stand, here’s our pick of the show’s most memorable moments…
The flying sausage (S1, 1978)
Hundreds of students passed through the corridors of Grange Hill over the years – but few were as iconic as the “flying sausage” – that famous banger-on-a-fork that was jabbed into the face of startled diners in the show’s original comic strip title sequence. This pop-art masterpiece was the work of Bob Cosford, who also designed the titles for the likes of Juliet Bravo and the classic, Jimmy Hill-era Match of the Day.
Footnote: The original funktastic theme tune was a piece of library music called Chicken Man, recorded in 1975 by Alan Hawkshaw. For several years, it also doubled as the theme for ITV’s charades-based quiz Give Us A Clue. Following a short-lived late 80s remix, in 1990 Grange Hill eventually got its own, bespoke signature tune – which viewers couldn’t help but notice sounded exactly like the theme to Cagney & Lacey…
The first day (S1, 1978)
The first pupil through the gates of Grange Hill was football-mad Benny Green (the late Terry Sue-Patt), who couldn’t afford a school uniform because his dad was out of work after falling from a crane and busting his back. But the series’ first iconic moment came seven minutes in, when loveable ragamuffin anti-hero Peter “Tucker” Jenkins (Todd Carty) flicked a rubber band at Trisha “Pongo” Yates (Michelle Herbert) in morning assembly, setting up one of the great TV rivalries of the age. (They totally fancied each other really, though.)
Footnote: Tucker’s friend Alan (George Armstrong) is called Alan Turner in the script, but listed as Alan Hargreaves in the credits, and later mysteriously became Alan Humphries. Probably easier just to call him Alan.
Antoni falls to his death (S3, 1980)
Antoni Karamanopolis (Vinny Mann) was from a Greek family, and juggled homework with shifts in his dad’s kebab shop. While mucking about on top of a multi-storey car park, he was dared to walk around the perimeter – and promptly fell to his death.
Though such cautionary tales were not unfamiliar to a generation of kids traumatised by endlessly replayed public information films warning of the dangers of everything from ponds to loose carpets, it was still shocking – even if no-one at Grange Hill ever really mentioned poor Antoni again.
Footnote: Now a third year, this was the series where Tucker swapped his Grange Hill uniform for the trademark leather jacket he’d later carry over into his own spin-off show, Tucker’s Luck.
Bullet Baxter KOs Mr Hicks (S4, 1981)
Tucker and co were always legging it from the clutches of no-nonsense PE teacher Geoff “Bullet” Baxter (Michael Cronin). But when he discovered that “ruddy head case” and full-on sadist Mr Hicks was putting the physical into physical education, Bullet took matters into his own fists and lamped him in the changing rooms. “Slip on the wet floor did you?” he taunted the prostrate bully-boy. Firm but fair, that’s Bullet.
Footnote: Michael Cronin went on to write three acclaimed children’s novels, set in an England under Nazi occupation, which were published by Oxford University Press.
The zoo trip (s5, 1982)
Grange Hill’s most memorable school trip was to Chessington Zoo (none of your ‘World of Adventures’ back then), where Zammo McGuire (Lee MacDonald) and Jonah Jones (Lee Sparke) got into a punch-up with another school (though not arch rivals Brookdale or Rodney Bennet, sadly). Attempting to retrieve his lobbed bag, Jonah took a headlong dive into the water in the sea lion enclosure, and didn’t even get rewarded with a fish. Plus, at 6:20, look out for some classic #bantz between luckless bully-magnet Roland Browning (Erkan Mustafa) and his earnest would-be saviour Janet St. Clair (Simone Nylander). Altogether now: “I’m trying to help you Row-land…”
Footnote: In his autobiography, Russell Brand relates how he briefly lived with Simone Nylander, until the day she threw all of his possessions out of the window in bin-bags. She surely wasn’t the last…
Precious stands up to Gripper (S6, 1983)
Norman “Gripper” Stebson (the appropriately named Mark Savage) was the most notorious of all Grange Hill’s school bullies, forever duffing kids up and nicking their dinner money. But he went too far with his racist taunting of Precious Matthews (Dulice Liecer). “Let’s get this straight, you pathetic little runt,” she said. “If you make one more remark about me being black, or a monkey, or anything else, I’m going to get my brother down here, and by the time he’s finished with you, no-one will know whether you’re black, white or sky blue pink!” As a crushed Gripper slunk silently away, millions of viewers punched the air in unison.
Footnote: Dulice Liecer went on to play a CIA agent in Bond film The Living Daylights.
Jeremy drowns (s7, 1984)
When Lee Sparkes left the show (apparently because his parents were unhappy about plans to kill him off) Vincent Matthews was brought in as Jonah’s doomed, cannon fodder cousin Jeremy. Sure enough, the bus fare-dodging prankster met a tragic end when he climbed into the swimming pool to retrieve Fay Lucas’s (Alison Bettles) bangle – and drowned. With Bullet’s efforts to resuscitate him proving in vain, it was left to his teacher to explain to his classmates that “Jeremy’s heart just wasn’t as strong as most people’s.”
Footnote: Alison Bettles’ son Albert played the eponymous gas-masked Empty Child – of “Are you my mummy?” fame – in the 2005 Doctor Who classic.
Just Say No (s9, 1986)
By 1986, Zammo McGuire had fallen in with the wrong crowd, Grange Hill pulling no punches in its depiction of the one-time cheeky scamp’s wretched descent into heroin addiction. In a scene that shocked the nation, Roland discovered Zammo slumped against a wall in the back room of an amusement arcade, surrounded by drug paraphernalia, his eyes fixed in a dead-eyed stare.
It was strong stuff for 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and the cast expanded on the anti-drug message with a hit single, Just Say No, and – unlikely as it seems – a visit to meet Nancy Reagan at the White House.
Footnote: The drugs storyline was the pet project of then-script editor, the late Anthony Minghella, future Oscar-winning director of The English Patient.
Imelda Davis is expelled (S10, 1987)
Imelda Davis’ (Fleur Taylor) reign of terror as Grange Hill’s tormentor-in-chief finally came to an end when she was expelled by head teacher Bridget “the midget” McClusky (Gwyneth Powell) for “flipping ‘er lid” and attacking Veronica “Ronnie” Birtles (Tina Mahon). Poor old Imelda was a troubled soul who was seeking help from an educational psychologist for her anger management issues. Or, as Hollo Holloway (Bradley Sheppard) so sensitively put it: “She’s a flippin’ maniac!”
Footnote: Another memorable character from this era of the show was Harriet the donkey, who lived in a shed on the school grounds. It’s a long story.
Danny Kendall’s death (S12, 1989)
Mr Bronson (Michael Sheard) – the fearsome, borderline fascist deputy head with a syrup like a dead ferret – subjected poor, sickly Danny Kendall (Jonathan Lambeth) to years of sadistic torment. After their final stand-off, Danny stole Bronson’s Austin Maestro – leaving only a cheeky, CSI-style chalk outline in the school car park – and was later found dead in the back seat, having suffered a fatal brain haemorrhage. A much-mellowed Bronson later ditched the toupee, found love and moved to the Isle of Wight.
Footnote: Michael Sheard played Adolf Hitler five times* in his career, including in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (*Six, if you count Bronson.)
Chrissy goes into Labour (S15, 1992)
When Chrissy Mainwaring (Sonya Kearns) discovered she was pregnant, playground gossips pointed the finger at swoonsome teacher Mr Van Der Groot. In fact, the daddy turned out to be spiky-topped bad(ish) boy Ted Fisk (Ian Congdon-Lee), former lieutenant to own-brand Gripper, Francis “Mauler” McCaul (Joshua Fenton). As if going into labour in the girls’ loo wasn’t tricky enough, Chrissy also had to cope with hyperventilating science teacher Mr Hankin. Thankfully, you could always rely on Justine Dean (Rachel Victoria Roberts) to keep a cool head in a crisis.
Footnote: Julie Buckfield originally auditioned to play Chrissy, but instead won the role of Natalie Stevens, fending off competition from her twin sister Clare. Roles were reversed a couple of years later when Clare beat Julie to the part of Jenny in the sitcom 2point4 Children.
Final bell (S31, 2008)
In 2008, six years after production had switched from London to Phil Redmond’s native Liverpool, the school bell tolled at Grange Hill for the final time (and Alan Hawkshaw’s original “Chicken Man” theme was revived for the first time since 1987). With Patrick “Togger” Johnson (Chris Perry-Metcalf) all set to throw in the towel, it fell to his uncle – one Tucker Jenkins – to persuade him to stay on for another year.
“If it hadn’t been for this place, I’d have been written off,” said Tucker, making one last, impassioned plea on behalf of the British comprehensive system. “You can be anything you want to be. Every year is a fresh start. Grange Hill is for everyone.”
Wasn’t it, though?