Grange Hill: The original kids’ TV soap – and still the best

You remember... The Grange Hill title sequence.

You remember… The Grange Hill title sequence.

Cast your mind back: You’ve just trudged home from school. Mum says your tea won’t be ready ‘til half past five so you nick a Wagon Wheel, pour yourself a glass of Alpine pop and slump down on the settee in front of the telly.

You hear the jaunty music and suddenly a sausage skewered with a fork flies across the cartoon strip on the screen.

It’s Grange Hill and children’s television will never be the same again.

Thirty five years ago this month Phil Redmond’s ground-breaking soap set inside a ‘typical’ comprehensive first aired.

It went on to run for 31 series over three decades before its final episode was screened on September 15, 2008.

Grange Hill came into its own in the early to mid-Eighties powered by characters whose names are synonymous with my childhood and anyone of a certain age.

Characters such as Ronnie Birtles; Roland Browning; Ziggy Greaves; and Danny Kendall.

Back then if you weren’t out playing football or reading the latest issue of Look-In there were no game consoles, no mobile telephones and no internet to distract us.

This was even before the advent of Channels 4 and Five and so the attention of impressionable teenagers after half past three of afternoon was very much focused on ITV or BBC.

Cartoons fought for ratings with straight-laced shows like Blue Peter and John Craven’s Newsround.

Then Grange Hill arrived and everything changed.

Here was a show for kids in which kids who were (sort of) like our classmates were the stars.

Spotty oiks like us who (naming no names) endured debilitating crushes on members of the opposite sex, bunked off school, hated homework (and the cross country course) and got into trouble for wearing trainers, swearing, fighting, smoking and having dubious magazines in our rucksacks.

Crossroads and Corrie were for grown-ups but Grange Hill was for us because we understood it: We knew exactly what the stars were going through. We could identify with strict, long-suffering headmistress Mrs McClusky and fierce, wig-wearing fascist Mr Bronson.

Every school, including Holden Lane High where yours truly was scraping by, had its Gripper Stebson-type bully who we all hoped we wouldn’t bump into in the toilets or on the stairwell.

Every school had its likeable Tucker Jenkins-style rogue who all the girls quite fancied and the boys wanted to emulate but didn’t dare (and didn’t have the jacket either).

Every year group had its annoying Pogo Patterson figure – constantly coming up with hare-brained money-making ideas (scams) which invariably failed but kept him busy for five years.

Every class had its Jackie Wright, THAT girl who was Premier League to all us fourth division lads but who somehow ended up dating a total loser who we could all have happily hit with a shovel.

Not that I had anything against Zammo Maguire. In fact, he was my favourite character until the whole post-heroin addiction Just Say No record debacle.
That’s another reason Grange Hill was so exciting, of course.

As well as dealing with the usual teenage angst, first loves, raging hormones and exam-related woes, its storylines were often edgy and controversial.

People died. Kids got bullied. Teachers had dubious relationships with pupils. Drugs were a very real problem.

These were issues which TV executives and even magazines editors had shied away from tackling but which the producers of Grange Hill faced head-on.

Over the last 30 years or so there have been many imitators such as Byker Grove and Tracey Beaker which have attempted to distil what it is that makes teenagers tick.

But Grange Hill was a pioneering thing of its time to which all such shows owe a debt.
The original and still the best.’

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

Chip butties, late nights and a few timeless classics

Back in the days before the internet and mobile telephones made the world a much smaller place, the telly was king.
And before the advent of satellite TV a handful of stations dictated what was beamed into our living rooms.
In ratings terms, the 1980s represented the golden era of the small screen in the UK – with shows grabbing mind-boggling viewing figures which today’s TV executives can only dream of.
Take, for example, the infamous snarling Dirty Den divorces Angie in Eastenders on Christmas Day, 1986, which was watched by an estimated 30.1 million people (if you include the repeat showing).
The following year it was Corrie which held us captivated – with 26.6 million viewers switching on to see Hilda Ogden say farewell to The Street on December 25.
I’m not saying TV shows were better during the Eighties because they certainly didn’t have the budgets of many modern-day productions.
But back then, because of the simple lack of choice, most of us watched the same ‘events’ at the same time.
Then we went to school, work or the pub and talked about them with people who had shared the moment.
In truth I was never much of a soap watcher. I had a brief flirtation with Jane from Neighbours during my school days – simply because of the novelty factor of it being an Aussie show which the rest of my class were watching.
The daddy of all soaps, for me, was actually Dallas which I’m delighted to say returns to our screens next year.
The antics of the oil-rich Ewing clan made for mighty fine viewing in the early Eighties – with scheming, larger-than-life characters contrasting sharply with the majesty of the specially-constructed Southfork ranch.
In November 1980 more than 21 million of us discovered who had shot JR (not Hartley) but I suspect Channel 5 would be deliriously happy if a quarter of that number tune in to next year’s reboot. Of course, if it’s rubbish they can always pretend Pam has had another bad dream.
Because I was a lad growing up in the 1980s a couple of other American shows were firm favourites of mine.
Despite it’s frankly ludicrous plot, hammy acting and the fact that 12,000 rounds were dispensed from a Kalashnikov in each episode but no-one ever got hurt – the A-Team was essential viewing in our house on a Saturday night.
I just pity the fool who felt it necessary to trample all over my generation’s cherished memories with last year’s woeful movie.
Another U.S. must-see of mine featured David Hasslehoff and his talking black car KITT fighting for truth, justice and the American perm. To be honest, I grew to prefer Airwolf – sort of like Knight Rider but with a helicopter and a better theme tune – but I have to doff the cap to ‘The Hoff’ for starting the ball rolling.
All of my other favourite TV shows from the decade of decadence were British-made affairs and I won’t have a word said against any of them.
The first was a show whose premise was the unlikely pairing of an elegant English detective and a tough New York cop – both working for an elite unit of the Metropolitan Police.
It may not have been as hard-hitting as other cop shows but Dempsey and Makepeace had a cool bloke and a gorgeous leading lady.
OK. I’ll admit to answering the phone with the word ‘Yo’ for a while in homage to Michael Brandon’s Dempsey but, in truth, I watched it for the love of Makepeace – AKA Glynis Barber – a woman for whom I’d still happily take a bullet.
I’m claiming another crime-fighting show for the Eighties – although it began in the late Seventies.
The Professionals, which centred around a far tougher double-act in Bodie and Doyle (the excellent Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw before he became a luvvie), focused on a fictional counter-bad guys unit.
I well remember my delight on Christmas Day morning in 1982 when my younger brother Matt and I opened up our toy Professionals Crimebuster Kits – complete with all-important CI5 I.D. cards, guns, watches, fingerprint kit and a working black and white camera. Best present ever, that.
The next show reminds me of creeping back downstairs after Matt had fallen asleep on Friday nights in 1983/84 to eat chip butties and watch one of the best British comedy dramas ever made.
As the son of a joiner, Auf Wiedersehen Pet featured working class heroes to whom I could certainly relate and, for a couple of years, this show was the highlight of my week.
In terms of comedy, I enjoyed the anarchic nature of The Young Ones immensely but, in truth, it was the gentle humour of cockney wide-boys the Trotters which made me laugh out loud.
Only Fools And Horses is one of the few shows which genuinely deserves the label ‘a timeless classic’.
It is little wonder we consider David Jason a national treasure.
Last but by no means least on my list of favourite 80s shows is another comedy which managed to fuse history and razor wit together to create one of the most quotable sitcoms of all time.
Rowan Atkinson’s sneering, morally-ambivalent Blackadder is a work of genius which I can watch over and over again.
Indeed, part of the fun is pre-empting the laugh lines and still finding them hysterically funny.
I sometimes wonder what Edmund would have to say about the television comedy on offer these days.
Not much, I suspect. Other than to blame Baldrick and punch him in the face.

Euro-drivel shows how different we really are

It is fair to say that, like my late Sentinel colleague John Abberley, I have no great affection for the European Union.

With its straight bananas and accounting anomalies which dwarf our MPs’ expenses scandal, it is both absurd and corrupt.

What’s more, I fail to see the benefit we Brits actually gain by being part of this great bureaucratic blancmange.

In fact, it seems to me that we pour inordinate amounts of cash into an institution which exists only to line the pockets of politicians and prop up small countries with basket case economies.

If we are being honest we have absolutely nothing in common with our European counterparts – as evidenced so neatly by Saturday’s televisual treat, the Eurovision Song Contest.

If ever there was an advert as to why being part of the EU is a bad idea, Eurovision is it.

Conversely, if there was one thing that was guaranteed to cheer up crestfallen Stoke City fans after the anti-climax of the FA Cup Final it was this annual crime against music and decency.

Eurovision is billed as a celebration of all that is good about Europe: A meeting of minds and a blending of cultures.

In truth it simply serves to underline how different we are to every other country which is separated from us by the sea.

Yes, even Ireland.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not completely xenophobic.

In fact, I still have a poster of Port Vale’s Austrian international Andreas Lipa stuck up in my shed. (Although, to be fair, he was rubbish too).

I have also driven to France, wandered into a patisserie and murdered the French language by ordering a baguette.

In spite of these clear demonstrations of the entente cordiale, I just don’t feel European and, after sitting through the Eurovision love-in once more, I think I understand why.

This isn’t sour grapes, by the way. I never expected the United Kingdom’s entry to win – no matter how much Duncan James pouted at the cameras.

Granted, it didn’t help that their song was eminently forgettable, but the boys in Blue surely deserved better than to finish 11th behind such musical power-houses as Bosnia/Herzegovina and Greece.

For my money, all of the finalists in Stoke’s Top Talent are of a higher standard than many of the artists representing their nations at Eurovision.

Take, for example, Italy’s entry – The Madness of Love by Raphael Gualazzi.

It was, if I am being kind, music to shop by: The kind of tedious warbling and piano-twinkling you used to have to put up with when navigating the frozen vegetable aisle.

In spite of this, Raphael finished second. Enough said.

Then there was Moldova’s entry which consisted of a pretty girl dressed as an icicle and riding a unicycle surrounded by half a dozen blokes wearing Marge Simpson wigs screaming inanities and grinning maniacally.

All of which was better than Ireland’s entry.

I don’t know… we bail them out of an economic crisis and they give us Jedward.

Next year I may try to persuade Jonny Wilkes to have a go.

On second thoughts, our Jonny is way too good for Eurovision and, in any case, unless he entered on behalf of a former Soviet state he wouldn’t stand a chance – given the block-voting that goes on.

The slogan this year was ‘Feel your heart beat’.

I dare say Terry Wogan’s heart almost gave out when he saw the Ukraine garner 10 points or more from each of its neighbours – Georgia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia and mother Russia.

Let’s face it, the Eurovision Song Contest is 30 per cent surreality and 70 per cent fix.

I reckon the other countries take it in turns to keep the top prize away from the UK amid the kind of voting shenanigans which go on when FIFA is deciding where to stage the World Cup.

So determined are the Eurodrivel power-brokers that the country which gave the world Buck’s Fizz is never again to hold the crown that they have started giving it away to places which aren’t even in Europe – such as Israel.

I have nothing against Saturday’s winners – Ell/Nikki from Azerbaijan who amassed an impressive 221 points.

But I just can’t see their song making Q magazine’s top 100 anytime soon. The only saving grace was that it was in English.

Eurovision’s own website bills it as “without doubt Europe’s favourite TV show”.

Only because they can’t get Corrie in Azerbaijan.

Panto star Wilkesy has had his day? Oh no he hasn’t…

It’s A straightforward question: Do you want Jonathan Wilkes back again this Christmas at the Regent Theatre?

‘Oh no we don’t!’ cry a vocal minority. ‘Oh yes we do’, answer his legion of fans.

And so the debate rumbles on in The Sentinel’s letters pages.

As we struggle to get to grips with the worst recession since the ’30s, I suppose who stars in this year’s premier Potteries pantomime is hardly a pressing issue.

Then again, you’d be surprised how exercised people can become when threatened with the Chuckle Brothers or Joe Pasquale.

This will be Wilkesy’s fifth year taking the starring role at the Hanley venue.

Critics say they’ve had enough of Baddeley Green’s finest and they want, nay deserve, a change.

They claim his local-boy ‘Ay up, me ducks’ is wearing thin and point to other cities where the cast is fresh every year and a new headliner attracts first-time theatregoers.

Well, even if I didn’t know the bloke, people would have a hard time convincing me that his star is waning just yet.

We could go round in circles debating the quality of the pantos. (I think last year’s was Wilkesy’s best to date.)

However, the facts speak for themselves. The 2008 production of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs broke box office records for a Regent panto for the fourth year running.

And isn’t that, ultimately, what it’s all about? Yep… bums on seats.

If the Ambassador Theatre Group which runs the Regent thought for a second that Wilkesy couldn’t bring home the bacon, don’t you think he’d be looking for work elsewhere over the festive season?

Of course, the Regent isn’t alone in having a star return year after year.

Other examples include Gerard Kelly in Glasgow, Billy Pearce in Wolverhampton and John Barrowman in Birmingham.

It is also interesting to note that when the Regent surveyed 100 random pantomime ticket buyers this year, none of them said they wanted rid of Wilkesy.

It seems that here in the Potteries, the punters keep on coming because they love the star turn and are happy with the parochial nature of much of the comedy.

I think they have learned to appreciate the huge amount of work and the incredible attention to detail which gears each production to the local audience.

Presumably they also love the use of upcoming talent in the form of local youngsters who take on the roles of dancers, etc.

Certainly, the warm reception afforded to the winner of the inaugural Stoke’s Top Talent competition (Daniel Hewitt), who went on to star alongside Wilkesy for three months, underlined the appetite for home-grown performers.

Indeed, I think the unique selling point of the Regent’s panto is that it is, perhaps more than any other festive theatre show in the UK, tailored to its audience and brimming with talent from North Staffordshire.

Sure, you still get the fantastic costumes, the slapstick humour and the singalongs, but we also get video messages from the likes of Robbie Williams (the genie of the lamp), or a magic mirror voiced by Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor.

If we didn’t have Wilkesy, we could, of course, have a big name from soap land to head the cast.

But, hang on a minute… we had Corrie’s Shobna Gulati in 2007 and the lovely Claire Sweeney last year.

So, for my money, we are getting the best of both worlds.

In short, I’m not really sure what the detractors are bleating on about.

More to the point, they can boo and hiss all they like – Wilkesy will still be compering Stoke’s Top Talent in September and stepping into Dick Whittington’s well-worn boots this Christmas.

And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s no bad thing.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel