Scotsman Obituaries: Gwyneth Powell, actress who played Grange Hill's best head teacher
Gwyneth Powell was familiar to an entire generation of schoolchildren and teenagers as the stern headmistress of the titular secondary school on Grange Hill, the long-running BBC drama series set in a London comprehensive.
And if Powell was totally convincing as a teacher, then so she should be, because not only was she a very capable actress, but she had also trained as a teacher before opting for a life on stage and screen.
Grange Hill ran for 30 years, 601 episodes, from 1978 to 2008, and Powell played the headmistress Mrs McClusky, aka Bridget the Midget, for a decade from 1981 to 1991, more or less... Mrs McClusky had a brief stint as a deputy head after Grange Hill was merged with Brookdale.
But she was back in charge before too long when the new head was killed in a road accident, a perennial danger for characters on both adult and juvenile soaps.
She was Grange Hill’s third head, but probably the most memorable.
Powell was only 35 when she took the role and her character, although fictitious, inspired many female teachers to aspire to the top jobs in education.
“I was told by lots of people she was a great fillip to young women teachers who started applying for headships,” she said in an interview with the BBC at the end of Grange Hill’s long run.
“The show had repercussions in all kinds of ways and the character did too. My period did coincide with the Thatcher years. I think Mrs McClusky became memorable because we had a prime minister like that.”
“Like that” meant rather prim, no nonsense, authoritative. She was a woman in charge in what was still largely a man’s world.
And for the prim, no-nonsense elements Powell could draw on a background in the Plymouth Brethren, against which she had to rebel to become an actress in the first place.
Like Mrs Thatcher, Mrs McClusky was both a symbol of women’s advances in society and of conservative values, not averse to caning her charges on occasion.
When Powell did move on from Grange Hill it was not to take on any cutting-edge feminist projects, but to adapt EM Delafield’s 1930s novel Diary of a Provincial Lady into a one-woman show, which she chose to launch at the Edinburgh Fringe.
She first came across the book in an Oxfam shop near the studios where Grange Hill filmed. It centred on an aristocratic woman’s experiences of life in rural Devon.
Following an enthusiastic reception in Scotland, Powell toured extensively with the play over several years.
“It was lovely stuff, very funny and completely different to anything I’d done before,” she said. “I then discovered that there were actually three other books in the series and I went on to do two more.”
The daughter of a factory worker, Powell was born in Manchester in 1946. She began acting at school, but was in the Plymouth Brethren, which disapproved of her acting ambitions.
“They don’t allow you to wear make-up, you can’t go to the theatre and school plays are wicked,” she said. One of her teachers was more encouraging, which led to London and the National Youth Theatre.
“The Brethren were not keen on me going to London, neither was my mother. But I went. It was like the road to Damascus in reverse. By the time I came back I had dropped religion.”
Although Powell hoped for a career as a professional actress, she was persuaded to train as a teacher first. She completed her training and then accepted a short-term job as an assistant floor manager with the Connaught Theatre repertory company in Worthing.
It was there that she met her husband Alan Leith, who survives her.
Within a year she was playing lead roles on stage and in 1971 she landed a starring role in The Guardians, a dystopian political drama series set in the near future.
Other television followed, including briefly recurring characters in Emmerdale and Coronation Street, but it was undoubtedly Grange Hill with which Powell made the biggest impact.
“Grange Hill did have social impact because people were talking about it. It was the first series that dealt with real problems in a real way without being patronising. I'm not saying it would change society, but maybe it helped a lot of young people,” she said.
It tackled all sorts of issues, including bullying, racism, obesity and drug abuse. Zammo’s heroin addiction storyline made national newspaper headlines during Powell’s stint on the show.
“But I don't think Grange Hill was just about issues,” Powell told the BBC. “It was about characters. There was lots of humour in there and I think it was a very entertaining show.
"Most people watched it for the fun.”
After Grange Hill, as well as the Delafield projects, she played David Jason’s character’s lover, a former sex worker, in A Touch of Frost, she was Greg Davies’s mother in the comedy series Man Down and this year she appeared in episodes of Not Going Out and Grace.
But it is as Mrs McClusky that she will be most readily remembered.
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