Hurray, Grange Hill is back! But please don't put the kids in masks – Aidan Smith
The school which produced Tucker Jenkins, Gripper Stebson and Zammo Maguire – and not forgetting Mauler McCaul, Grimbo Pipe and Togger Johnson – is reopening for the Covid era.
But I sincerely hope that Grange Hill: the Movie is not going to be a complete, nth degree update to 2022 otherwise the children will all have to be in masks.
The fantastic kids’ TV drama which ran for 601 episodes from 1978 to 2008 is being revived by its creator, Sir Phil Redmond, who never shied away from issues and indeed would explode them all over teatime like fiendish chemistry-class bombs, for a feature-length one-off.
But while a global pandemic won’t scare him, imagine if his pupils were required to have their faces covered and think of all the humour – and all the humanity – that would be lost as a result.
“Dystopian” – this is what another brilliant storyteller and inspirer of young minds, Julia Donaldson, thinks of the masks-for-schools rule. The author of The Gruffalo is worried that face coverings in class are becoming “normalised”.
She says: “Pupils and teachers must be able to read each other’s expressions and teachers need to gauge how children are reacting, who is enjoying the lesson, who is bored, who is upset, puzzled, agrees or disagrees.” Masks encourage quieter pupils to hide and their voices can disappear. Donaldson stresses she’s not anti-vaccination but adds: “Children are children for such a short time. They shouldn’t be sacrificed like this.”
I have one child relieved that Donaldson’s Gruffalo doesn’t wear a mask concealing his black tongue, poisonous nose wart and “terrible teeth in his terrible jaws”, another who’d be the optimum age for Redmond’s Grange Hillif it was still the BBC accompaniment to fish fingers at five o’clock – and two more who have to cover up for high school.
My 13-year-old daughter, yet to experience secondary education without masks and now midway though her second year, is still discovering what some pupils beyond her group of friends look like when faces are revealed in the street. The mystery extends to the staff. “It was a long time,” she says, “before I found out one teacher has a really funny nose.”
You can imagine the little darlings of Grange Hillexploiting the comic potential of masks, though if they were to make up a nickname for the nasally prominent these days this would probably result in the master going off with stress or complaining to their union.
After all, in the years since Tucker, Gripper & Co have been off our screens, another famous fictional seat of learning, the Beano’s Bash Street, has had a visit from the schools inspectorate (woke division). Last year Fatty started answering to Freddy and last month Spotty reverted to Scotty. (At the time of going to press, publishers DC Thomson had not changed their name to PC Thomson).
I’ve always been envious of the generation which grew up with Grange Hill because TV for my lot seemed almost entirely populated by adults. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because with only three channels available we ended up watching a lot of programmes for grown-ups such as Horizon, Civilisationand Man Alive and therefore got to become super-intelligent (though not quite swotty enough to be the irritating little cleverdicks on the quiz Ask the Family).
There was a school-set drama on ITV calledPlease Sir!but it cast actors in their 20s as the pupils as if real kids weren’t allowed on screen – and while gazing at Penny Spencer as sexpot Sharon Eversleigh was never a chore, Todd Carty was just 14 when he joined form 1A as Tucker, with Grange Hill’s ingenious cameras shooting all the malarkey at the pupils’ eye-level.
Grange Hill was an antidote to Blue Peter which was so earnest it occasionally felt like homework. One programme was about making things, the other could often be about – hurray! – breaking things.
At other times it reassured kids: school can be tough, you’re not alone. If satchels were flung into the hall with extra venom because of, say, a trying day at the hands of the class bully, then the put-upon could laugh at Gripper getting his latest comeuppance. (The Grange Hill oppressor, by the way, was the favourite character of David Cameron).
Or, if the trying day had been at the hands of a sadistic teacher, then there might be the vicarious pleasure of watching Grange Hill’s deputy headmaster, Maurice Bronson, having his bumptiousness pricked and his wig left hanging at an odd angle. One of TV’s all-time great ogres, Bronco was played by the Aberdeen-born actor Michael Sheard, who also impersonated Hitler no less than five times in his career (and Heinrich Himmler on three occasions).
Like Gripper’s rolling of theGrange Hillversion of Fatty down a corridor, the show was unstoppable in its search for the grittiest issue: shoplifing, smoking, truancy, then later racism, pornography, teacher-pupil affairs and drugs.
Redmond outraged Mary Whitehouse but he was only giving kids what they wanted. Determined that Grange Hill should be as authentic as possible, the Beeb visited real schools and asked the potential audience to suggest gripping plots. How about one involving a child-snatcher? Or a boat-race on benches in a swimming-pool? The latter, when in turned up in the show, was criticised for being wildly improbable, but came from another of the junior storyliners who’d remembered it happening in his school.
So welcome back, Grange Hill. The reboot will begin with a plan to knock down the old comprehensive and replace with a new “superschool”. I hope Tucker’s successor objects to that. And if masks are still required come transmission, I want him to spark a playground protest where they’re all torn off.
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