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Grange Hill, 1978-2008

September 16th, 2008 (01:12 pm)

Like lots of other people of a certain age, I watched an episode of Grange Hill yesterday for the first time in over a decade, or perhaps two. Ending Grange Hill, on the strength of last night's episode, was a mercy killing. I'd followed the press coverage of creator and executive producer Phil Redmond's dissatisfaction with the BBC's current targeting of their children's programmes to specific demographic bands which had led to the programme being focused at a target audience of 6-10 year olds and prevented from retaining an appeal to teenagers. Redmond had laid emphasis on restoring the programme's appeal to that very audience when he returned to run the series in 2003, but the insistence from BBC Children's that it adopt a specific form of address deemed appropriate to that audience alone was a step too far. There's a good summary of the cancellation saga at Grange Hill Online.

Redmond himself perhaps should shoulder some of the blame. He had always been frustrated at the way in which BBC production conditions had tied Grange Hill down to the London area - in the late 1970s and early 1980s it was mainly shot in Kingsbury, north-west London, before moving to Hammersmith and then to a purpose-built set at Elstree - and from the first series made by Mersey Television (now Lime Pictures after Redmond sold the business to All3Media) the past of Grange Hill was retrospectively revised, implying that it had never been set in London (its LEA was a fictional outer London borough, Northam) with the intention that Grange Hill should be somewhere in 'provincial' England - in practice, this meant an unacknowledged Liverpool as it was made alongside Hollyoaks on Merseyside and new cast members were largely drawn from north-west England. This discontinuity must have damaged the programme's sense of location and at least been registered by the child audience.

I was reminded at the time of Redmond's return to Grange Hill of another Liverpool television auteur, Carla Lane, and her decision when writing the 1996 revival of The Liver Birds to give Beryl the family which in the old series had belonged to Carol, on the grounds that Lane had always regarded Carol as Beryl recast anyway and, with Polly James appearing in the revival and not Elisabeth Estensen (who had played Carol) this was an opportunity to give her preferred actress the more developed character background and extended supporting cast Carol/Estensen had enjoyed. This contributed instead towards audience resistance, though the content of the series as a whole suggested that Lane herself had become estranged from her characters and their setting.

The episode itself was bland uninvolving children's comedy-drama. Grange Hill in its early years could dramatise adolescent relationships in an unsettling way; I remember being mildly disturbed by Duane Orpington's crush on Miss Lexington in the 1981 series, for example. In the world of early teenage internet dating via the school website, and its subversion by coding-fluent twelve-year-old hackers, the frustration is of a lighter brand. In Grange Hill once, death was death - didn't someone die of a heart attack in the swimming pool once? - as illustrated by the fate of Danny Kendall in the 1989 series. Now the threat of a bomb (which needs to be illustrated by someone's grandfather) in the sewer under the school (apparently last seen in the pre-Redmond days when it was narrower and grottier, rather than the huge drain we see here) is greeted by the idea that the school will be blown into orbit; threat is defused rather than explored. Despite the title of the episode, Bang, there was no explosion, and with a homily on the virtues of the comprehensive system from a motorbike-riding Tucker Jenkins, here to stop his nephew Patrick 'Togger' Johnson from walking out on his A-Levels, it was all over.


Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: September 16th, 2008 03:55 pm (UTC)
Doctor Who

I was never allowed to watch Grange Hill (my mother was worried that my sister and I would pick up bad habits), but I was interested to learn that the programme was originally filmed in Kingsbury, where my maternal grandparents lived and not all that far from where I live, not to mention where my mother went to school. Once again, I'm impressed by the amount of TV trivia you have at your fingertips.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 16th, 2008 04:02 pm (UTC)

I could never see where I would have fitted in at Grange Hill, and Tucker's dismissal of 'the swotty kids' in yesterday's episode played to my worst suspicions, as that was how others defined me.

As for the Kingsbury stuff, it's a sign that I spend too much time on the internet - there's a Grange Hill locations page somewhere.

Posted by: muuranker (muuranker)
Posted at: September 16th, 2008 10:53 pm (UTC)

I worked for some months in the school where Grange Hill was filmed (Hammersmith bit - M1, M25, turn left at the second set of towers and follow the A3 past this and that until you are there was my route). It was no longer a school. I was utterly terrified by the driving that was necessary if I went all the way to Brixton, where my employers were based). The Hammersmith site contained rehearsal studios (the old sports halls). A bit of the BBC that I can't talk about (because the people working in it told me what they did, and really, they shouldn't have [ie. not for public arena, but happy to tell you at Oxonmoot]). And the stores of the Puppet Museum. Which I catalogued.

I have not watched Grange Hill in many years. I'm sorry it hasn't evolved. For 6-10 year olds!! I'm all for aspirational, but one also has to have the confirmational.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: September 16th, 2008 11:26 pm (UTC)

I've been looking through the pages from the Hammersmith era - the early and mid-1980s - at the Grange Hill locations site, and find that the school (then no longer a school, but now a school again) is round the corner from where my sister lives.

I think Grange Hill had evolved - but in the last couple of years it had been a victim of BBC branding policy, and no-one was prepared to go the extra mile to defend it, leading to its reinvention for a younger audience and its rapid demise.

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: September 17th, 2008 09:56 am (UTC)

Remind me to talk to you at Oxonmoot!