The impact of 'Grange Hill' on UK TV: ‘Without it, there would be no Ant and Dec’

Jayne Cherrington-Cook
·5-min read
Grange Hill, which ran for 30 years, created a whole new era of children's TV (Images: Getty Images)
Grange Hill, which ran for 30 years, created a whole new era of children's TV (Images: Getty Images)

When Grange Hill first opened its doors back in February 1978, viewers were probably ill-prepared for the drama that would unfold.

From hard-hitting racism stories to the unforgettable descent of lead character Zammo into heroin addiction, it was a big first for children’s TV. Previously, children’s shows had been somewhat twee, but Phil Redmond, who went on to create Brookside and Hollyoaks, was determined to create something gritter and more realistic.

For many, it changed the face of kid’s telly forever. Mark Baxter, who played Duane Orpington from 1980 to 1985 in the show, believes without Grange Hill there would be no Ant and Dec.

Speaking on a White Wine Question Time Christmas special, he said: “You look at the path that television took after Grange Hill - just children's television alone. It led to shows like Byker Grove, right? So, we may not have Ant and Dec without Grange Hill!”

Listen: Lee MacDonald talks about how his character of Zammo meant he was typecast

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The show, which ran for 30 years, drew in audiences of up to 11 million in its heyday and one of those big draws was the storyline of Zammo’s heroin addiction, which was scripted by a then relatively unknown Anthony Minghella. The director, who sadly died in 2008, went onto win an Oscar for The English Patient.

Lee MacDonald, who played Zammo, says he remembers being briefed by Minghella and Redmond about the storyline, but that he didn’t realise just how hard-hitting it would be.

Read more: What happened to the stars of Byker Grove?

“He [Minghella] was in constant contact with my mum about making sure it hadn't affected me because it was a big storyline to take on. I don't think we - my parents or myself - knew what an impact it would have!”

After harrowing scenes of Zammo overdosing on heroin in the school toilets, the BBC were flooded with complaints from both parents and teachers. It had such an impact that it led to a top five single, Just Say No, and a visit to the White House!

“We got the call to sing, Just Say No, which was unbelievable,” recalled MacDonald.

“It was only done to raise money for rehabilitation centres, and we were like, ‘Wow, we're number five in the charts on Top Of The Pops. At 16, it was mad.

“And then to go to the White House and meet Nancy Reagan. At the time, it wasn't as big as it is now. I look back now and to be able to say, ‘You went to the White House to see Nancy Reagan.’ That is the maddest thing!”

Read more: Cat Deeley shares first look at 'SM:TV' reunion with Ant and Dec

MacDonald, who now runs a key cutting shop in Wallington, said that despite the difficult scenes he had to act, he still gets people telling him it made a big change to their lives.

“It was a good campaign - and it was very positive,” he told podcast host Kate Thornton.

“I still get people saying now because of that, they don't take drugs or they think about what they did or why they did it.”

Kate Thornton hosts a special Grange Hill reunion edition of White Wine Question Time (Image: Getty Images)
Kate Thornton hosts a special Grange Hill reunion edition of White Wine Question Time (Image: Getty Images)

Alison Bettles, who played Fay Lucas for six series and also appeared on the charity single, says she’s glad the show was a success before the age of social media – as none of them were really that aware of how successful they and the show were.

“I think, because we were just young kids growing up, we didn't realise it,” she said about dealing with the fame at the time.

“It wasn't it is now. You did it and you went home. Now, if you're on the telly, you're on everything.”

Read more: Knighthood for creator of Grange Hill, Brookside and Hollyoaks

Baxter, who said they were the “luckiest teenagers of our time” revealed that being in Grange Hill carried its own kind of prestige – especially within the confines of the BBC.

“When Lee and Allison moved from BBC Centre to Elstree, they got in there just before EastEnders started,” he said.

“And Phil Redmond tells you the story that Julia Smith [the co-creator of EastEnders] rang him and said, 'What are you doing? You've got our dressing rooms!'

Phil Remond, who created Grange Hill, would love to see it come back (Images: Getty Images)
Phil Remond, who created Grange Hill, would love to see it come back (Images: Getty Images)

“Because our guys had all got the ground floor dressing rooms and Wendy Richards [who played Pauline in the soap] wanted Lee's dressing room. There was a lot of kudos around the show!”

Redmond recently revealed that he would love Grange Hill to return to the BBC.

“The impact would be even greater today,” he told the Radio Times last year.

“It could have fallen into Ofsted special measures and be threatened with closure. But a few of the old characters, who are now parents, or even grandparents, come together to save it as a community school.”

Hear our Grange Hill reunion on the latest episode of White Wine Question Time. Listen now on iTunes and Spotify.