BBC axes Grange Hill after creator says taboo-breaking show has 'lost its purpose'

Amol Rajan
Thursday 07 February 2008 01:00

The BBC has announced that it is dropping the school drama Grange Hill from the schedules after 30 years on British television screens. The last episodes of the cult series that broke taboos on teenage pregnancy, violence and drug-taking with its uncompromising portrayal of life in a London comprehensive school will be broadcast at the end of this year.

The decision not to commission a further series comes barely a month after the programme's creator, Phil Redmond, said that the edgy children's drama had lost its purpose.

Anne Gilchrist, the controller of Children's BBC (CBBC), said that axing Grange Hill was part of a wider attempt to make the BBC more accurately reflect children's lives today. "Part of CBBC's reputation for reflecting contemporary Britain back to UK children has been built upon Phil Redmond's brilliantly realised idea and of course it's sad to say goodbye to such a much loved institution," she said.

"The lives of children have changed a great deal since Grange Hill began and we owe it to our audience to reflect this. We are actively seeking out new and exciting ways of bringing social realism to the CBBC audience through drama and other genres. Yesterday, we announced two Newsround Specials tackling divorce and knife crime and we will continue to make programmes about the ups and downs of contemporary Britain."

In January, Redmond had criticised the BBC's plans to "soften" the show by moving it to a "multimedia technology college" and "creative learning centre" called "The Grange".

Redmond, whose Channel 4 soap Brookside was dropped from the schedules after 21 years in 2003, had been working on a six-year plan for Grange Hill that would retain its warts-and-all approach to teenage life in urban Britain. But the BBC decided that his programme should target children between six and 12 rather than its traditional audience of 15- to 16-year-olds.

"We were all prepared to bring it right back to its original hard-hitting social edge for its 30th anniversary because we knew it would have got a lot of publicity and a lot of interest," Redmond said. "It was at the very first storyline conference that we were told there had been an editorial shift, so that went down like a lead balloon."

"I don't like keeping things going when the point has been lost," Redmond added. "I do now think the point of Grange Hill has been lost, and 30 years is a nice time for it to hang up its mortar board."

Senior executives at the BBC agreed. "We have to not confuse our own nostalgia for something that we loved for something that children will want nowadays," Ms Gilchrist said yesterday.

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First broadcast in February 1978, the show was compulsory teatime viewing for a generation of teenagers. It became a launch pad for many now-established actors, with alumni including Todd Carty and Susan Tully. Carty and Tully, who played Pete "Tucker" Jenkins and Susanne Ross in the first episode, went on to star as siblings Mark and Michelle Fowler in EastEnders.

The film director Anthony Minghella, who won an Oscar for The English Patient, was an early script editor on the show.

Redmond's scripts refused to flinch from using actors as young as 13 to discuss highly contentious subjects. Most controversially, over two series in 1986, Samuel "Zammo" Maguire, played by Lee MacDonald, plunged into heroin addiction.

Several harrowing scenes led to the BBC being flooded with thousands of letters of complaint from parents and teachers. In response, the cast released a single that peaked at No 5 in the charts, called "Just Say No", prompting a national anti-drugs campaign.

What Grange Hill's pupils did next

Laura Sadler

Sadler, who played Judi Jeffreys in Grange Hill, went on to establish herself as nurse Sandy Harper in Holby City. She died in 2003 after a 40ft fall from a block of flats in west London. The fall mirrored the death of Jeffreys, who was killed after falling out of a burning building.

Letitia Dean

Having played mouthy student Lucinda Oliver in Grange Hill, Dean was persuaded by producer Phil Redmond to take a part in his Liverpool soap Brookside. Then, in 1984, she was chosen for to play Sharon Watts in the BBC's new soap, EastEnders, a role she retained for over two decades, albeit with a six-year interlude.

Michelle Gayle

As Fiona Wilson, Gayle was half of Grange Hill's abysmal answer to rap duo Salt 'n' Pepa, Fresh 'n' Fly. Yet another who graduated to Albert Square, Gayle played Hattie Tavernier in EastEnders. Preferring music to acting, Gayle later had hit singles with, among others, "Sweetness". She was nominated for three Brits, appeared in the West End, and resurrected her TV career on the reality TV show Reborn in the USA.

Todd Carty

Carty's Peter "Tucker" Jenkins was probably the most famous Grange Hill student of all. Carty went on to play Mark Fowler in EastEnders, Gabriel Kent in The Bill, and has since won Celebrity Mastermind, appeared in Heartbeat and Holby City, and starred in the theatre as King Rat in Dick Whittington.

Susan Tully

Tully, who played Suzanne Ross in Grange Hill between 1981 and 1984, went on to star as Michelle in the first episode of EastEnders. Her character was popular but Tully has resisted several requests to return, turning her hand instead to directing, with credits including The Bill and Secret Diary of a Call Girl.

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