Phil Redmond: Man of the people

The best-known producer on British television changed the nation's viewing habits

With his mane of grey hair and non-matching bushy eyebrows, Phil Redmond resembles an ageing blues musician rather than a TV mogul and cultural commissar. There is nothing grand or seigneurial about him. His accent is an unreconstructed Scouse rasp. He can switch in short order from truculence to a slightly sinister friendliness that can beguile the unwary. He is unfailingly blunt in his views of the TV industry that alternately courts him and buggers him about. He was not put on this earth to be a diplomat, or a pillar of the establishment, but to get things done – to dramatise, to stir things up.

In a career that's spanned 35 years, he has become the best-known producer on British television, and masterminded three programmes that changed the nation's juvenile viewing habits: Grange Hill, Brookside and Hollyoaks. Simple titles that have entered the language as shorthand for a certain quality of life in late 20th- and early 21st-century Britain – a life of graft, trouble, want, brutality, revenge and sexual predation.

This week's announcement that Grange Hill will be expelled from the schedules suggests the extent to which other TV has caught up with Redmond's vision. The man himself long ago moved on. For him what matters in 2008 – in which Liverpool is European Capital of Culture – is the cultural health of his home town.

Grange Hill was a drama-soap set in a north London comprehensive, which he offered to the BBC in 1978, scripted by himself. "I wrote Grange Hill so kids would have something to relate to," he said later. "We wanted to move away from the Enid Blyton, middle-class drama the BBC had been showing and portray the realities of school life." It was a revelation. Viewers who recalled Billy Bunter, Goodbye Mr Chips or Please Sir! as being accurate portrayals of schooldays were confounded.

The opening episode saw Peter "Tucker" Jenkins running to beat the school bell, while trying to wolf down a slice of breakfast toast. Soon the audience was deep in Issue territory, as a black child called Benny was called "a golly" by another kid, and the nice girl, Trisha, who defends and befriends him, tells him he can't help being a "nig-nog". Soon viewers were mired in truanting, smoking, bullying and shoplifting.

Complaints poured in, from Mary Whitehouse's National Viewers and Listeners' Association, and from irate individuals. "This is not entertainment," wrote one, "but a glamorisation of hooliganism and the abominable attitude of children to their teachers." Redmond weathered the storms, despite being called to a meeting of BBC executives and told to "tone it down". The second series dealt with vandalism, rioting and a teacher suspended for hitting a child. When Redmond left at the end of series four, the content became noticeably calmer. It remained popular, filmed at Elstree for 25 years until Redmond's Mersey TV brought it north to their Childwall studio in 2003. Redmond's fatherly relationship with the show ended when his TV company was bought by Lime Pictures in 2005.

Grange Hill was seen off this week with a congratulatory farewell from Anne Gilchrist, the BBC controller of children's TV: "Part of CBBC's reputation for reflecting contemporary life back to UK children has been built upon Phil Redmond's brilliantly realised idea..." Redmond, far from regretting the demise of his brainchild, has complained about the way the corporation turned it into a show for younger children. Invited to comment on its 30th birthday, he growled: "The BBC has abandoned what Grange Hill was about in order to attract younger viewers aged six to 12, rather than its 13-plus constituency, so there's nothing to celebrate."

A blunt and restless man with a genius for controversy, Redmond followed up Grange Hill in 1982 by devising Brookside, the nation's most famous cul-de-sac, and changing the face of soap opera. It was originally to be called Meadowcroft until Redmond discovered the real-life Brookside Close, a new housing estate in Liverpool, and bought the whole thing, filming inside the houses rather than relying, Crossroads-style, on flimsy plasterboard sets. It was a fine example of the way he can apply the shrewd, cost-cutting business instincts he learned as a surveyor. He has been no slouch in the marketing of his many enterprises, and has a flair for turning plot lines into tabloid news stories.

The gritty new soap opera first aired on 2 November 1982, the first night of Channel 4, and lasted for 21 years – taking in, along the way, unheard-of scenes of human squalor, misery and venality. Though other producers steered its fortunes into the 1990s, it was Redmond's bleak vision that sustained the show. Favourite themes were unemployment, working-class misery, life on the dole, the allure of the black market, homosexuality, Aids, drug addiction and religious fanaticism. Murder was also popular – the most memorable storyline followed the offing of nasty, wife-beating Trevor Jordache (Brian Murray) by his wife and daughter, and the concealment of his body under the patio, where it was later discovered. The single most memorable scene was the now-legendary, first-ever, pre-watershed lesbian kiss between Beth Jordache (Anna Friel) and Margaret Clemence (Nicola Stephenson) in December 1993.

Now a byword for irresistible TV mayhem, Redmond was called in by the ITV producers of Emmerdale in 1993, and asked if he could think of ways to invigorate the soap and increase the viewing figures. Why yes, he said, as a matter of fact, he could: at Christmas 1993, close to the fifth anniversary of the Lockerbie catastrophe, he wrote an episode in which a plane crashed on to the village, killing and wounding many of the inhabitants. Complaints flew from aghast viewers, but it was brilliant television. It allowed the writers to get rid of much dead wood, and reinvent the soap virtually from scratch.

Two years later, in 1995, with both Grange Hill and "Brookie" humming along nicely in the groves of inner-city misery, Redmond turned his attention back to the youth drama that had made his name. He invented a fictional suburb of Chester called Hollyoaks and a further-education establishment called Hollyoaks Community College. The new soap's young cast (late teens, early twentysomethings) do little actual studying, but hurl themselves with abandon into a maelstrom of emotional entanglements. When it comes to addressing taboo subjects and social "issues", Hollyoaks outstrips even its grim predecessors in the Redmond CV. Young persons home from school, watching TV at 6.30 in the interval between The Simpsons and homework, can absorb storylines about drug abuse, cot death, child abuse, anorexia, gambling addiction, CO2 poisoning, surrogacy, self-harming, racism, homophobia and - most notoriously – male rape. The programme often closes by giving viewers a telephone helpline number to call if they've been affected.

You have to wonder about the childhood of a man who has spent so much time and creative energy in dramatising the dark side of experience. Did he undergo some Dickensian privation that scarred him for life? He was born in Liverpool in 1949, the son of an Irish bus driver, and grew up on a council estate in nearby Huyton. He recalls the freezing winters: "I had a path from my bedroom to the kitchen which involved avoiding the cold slabs on the floor." Although he passed the 11-plus and could have gone to grammar school, he was sent instead to one of the first comprehensives in the UK, St Kevin's in Kirby. It was too big and it didn't work. He left with only four O-levels and one A-level.

"The system failed me," he said later. "The idea was that big is beautiful, so you had 2,500 boys together in a kind of detention centre. I admit I enjoyed it. But the whole concept was a mistake." For five years he trained as a quantity surveyor, before deciding to try writing for a living. He entered Liverpool University, to read social studies rather than English, and began his new career writing gags for Mike and Bernie Winters. Contributing scripts for anodyne TV comedy shows such as Doctor in Charge and episodes of Z Cars did not fulfil him: the memory of the failed experiment that was his own education nagged in his mind. For two years from 1976, he hawked his idea for a series set in a comprehensive school around a dozen producers before it was picked up by Anna Home at the BBC. When it took off, he formed Mersey Television in 1981 to produce his future projects. It flourished and was sold to Lime Pictures in 2005, two years after Brookside ceased operations.

A lesser man might feel as if his life were winding down, but Redmond is both stoic and energetic in a recognisably Liverpudlian way. He is immensely proud of his home town, and regularly chews up London journalists who fail to appreciate its cultural bone fides. He will have his work cut out this year, as deputy chair of the Liverpool Culture Company, responsible for delivering the cultural programme for the European Capital of Culture. He will be responsible for matchmaking hundreds of cultural projects with potential business sponsors. He will also be responsible for bringing some esprit de corps to the LCC after a year of political infighting, resignations, and a budget shortfall of £20m.

Redmond's arrival on the scene, last September, was greeted with sighs of relief all round. One of his first acts was to announce that 70 per cent of the year's cultural events would be free to all, and that there would be much interaction between artists and communities all over the city.

Dealing in communities has, of course, been his life's work. Few other writers in any medium have contributed, or overseen the production of, so much drama based in the interaction, both benign and hostile, of people thrown together – in school, community college or council estate. In dragging so many taboo subjects to the surface and inspecting them on prime-time TV, Phil Redmond may have upset our moral guardians; but his long-term confrontation of his youthful demons has changed television history, and changed the way successive generations of children have come to view the world.

A Life in Brief

Born 1949, Liverpool.

Early life After leaving school, began to train as a quantity surveyor. Gave up to try to forge a career in writing. Returned to education, gaining a social studies degree from the University of Liverpool.

Career After early work writing for shows such as Z Cars, created the BBC's Grange Hill in 1978, writing for it for two years. Set up Merseyside Television in 1981, becoming its chairman, and developed soap opera Brookside, which first appeared on Channel 4 in 1982. Wrote Hollyoaks for Channel 4 in 1996. Became professor of media at Liverpool John Moores University in 1989. Made a CBE in 2004. Deputy chair of Liverpool Culture Company, 2008, as the city becomes the European Capital of Culture.

He says "Just like the end of Brookside I want to quote the late Beatle George Harrison ... 'all things must pass'."

They Say "Part of CBBC's reputation for reflecting contemporary Britain back to UK children has been built upon Phil Redmond's brilliantly realised idea."

CBBC controller Anne Gilchrist

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