Grange Hill – 1981 Christmas Special

xmas 81-01

Written by Phil Redmond, from a storyline by Paul Manning
Tx 28th December 1981

Although the 1981 Grange Hill Christmas Special isn’t quite the last hurrah for the class of 78, it’s close.  One of the surprising features about series five (which would begin transmission a week later, in January 1982) is just how marginalised Tucker and co are.  One episode does feature them strongly but otherwise the likes of Tucker, Alan, Benny and Justin only make one-off appearances (and when they do it’s so they can interact with the younger pupils – the focus is always on the new arrivals).

Tucker’s Luck, which began in 1983, would provide an afterlife for Tucker, Alan and Tommy, but the rest of the original cast just fade away over the course of the coming year.  This is in complete contrast to later eras, when the series became increasingly anxious to hang onto their regulars (by the 1990’s it was common for pupils to stay at the school for seven series – as the concept of the upper sixth form had been introduced).

But in a way it’s not hard to understand why this happened. The viewership of Grange Hill would tend it renew itself every five years or so, as older viewers moved on to be replaced by younger ones.  Therefore the new audience needed to have younger characters who they could identify with – hence the class of 82.

Returning to the 1981 Christmas Special, the storyline was written by Paul Manning (as part of a Blue Peter competition) and was developed into a script by Phil Redmond (how much of Manning’s story remained is an interesting one to ponder).  It opens with a bleary eyed Tucker telling Alan and Tommy that his brother has a job at an electrical wholesalers, which means he can bring home videotapes during the evening – as long as they get returned early the next day nobody’s any the wiser.  Titles such as Saturday Night Fever and Alien (“the X version?”) help to instantly date the episode to the very start of the video boom.  The novelty of being able to watch a film on demand, which meant you weren’t tied to the television schedule, is something that might be taken for granted now, but was a totally new concept then.

Grange Hill didn’t often do Christmas Specials, or episodes set at Christmas, so this one is something of a novelty.  There’s no snow, but various characters spend a lot of time shivering and rubbing their hands together, which creates a wintry atmosphere (but knowing how programmes tend to be recorded in advance it wouldn’t surprise me had this been recorded the previous summer!)  The school assembly scene is quite interesting – it’s shot very tightly which suggests that the number of pupils used were quite small.  The main news to come out of the assembly is that there will be an end of term disco, which the long-suffering Mr Sutcliffe is persuaded to organise.

Tucker’s delighted, as he spies a chance to make some money, and he persuades Mr Sutcliffe to let him organise it.  You’d have thought Mr Sutcliffe would know better by now, but there’s evidence that he’s somewhat under the weather (a running gag has various characters – Tucker, Mrs McClusky, Miss Mooney – pointing out how pale he looks).

Trisha and Cathy go shopping for clothes.  Trisha’s not mellowed over the years – she’s irritated at being dragged around numerous shops by Cathy who’s desperate to find just the right thing to wear for the disco.  Trisha’s determined not to make an effort, knowing that it’ll just be “the same old spotty faces making the same old spotty jokes.”

They’re both sporting new hairstyles, but the most remarkable transformation is that of Susi, who’s certainly changed since the end of series four.  If it hadn’t been for the voice, I probably wouldn’t have recognised her at first.  She’s still an item with Alan, although when he leaves school to go on the dole in Tucker’s Luck she brings their relationship to an end (which also means they didn’t have to contract her for the new series, which was a little bit of a shame).

Another thing which helps to date the episode is the admission price of 75p, which includes one drink and one sausage or one cracker.  Bargain!  Tucker’s state of the art disco equipment – complete with flashing lights – has been borrowed from his brother and it’s made very clear that should anything happen to it then Tucker’s life expectancy will be very short.

Some Brookdale ruffians attempt to steal the cashbox, which Mr Baxter rather unwisely left in Justin’s care, bad choice!  After Tucker manages to duff them up and stop them, they then decide to take the disco equipment.  It’s slightly odd that they could just walk out with this bulky equipment and nobody in the hall thought to raise the alarm, but there you go.  Needless to say, Tucker and the others are on hand to once again dispense some rough justice.  Remarkably, Doyle teams up with Tucker to beat off the Brookdale infiltrators.  Doyle only has a few brief scenes, but it’s a nice touch that his final Grange Hill appearance sees him on the right side for once.

This episode didn’t feature in the repeat run of the 1990’s (probably because of music clearance issues).  Some of the top artists of the era are featured – Madness, Ultravox, the Police, Squeeze, Cliff Richard (!).  Thanks to YouTube though (as for virtually every episode from series five onwards) it remains in circulation.

Advertisements

Grange Hill. Series Five – Episode One

grange hill s05e01

Written by Alan Janes. Tx 5th January 1982

Series Five opens with what I take to be a deliberate nod back to the very first episode as the camera tracks through the corridors of the eerily quiet school.  Before the pupils arrive it’s a haven of peace and quiet – although it’s no surprise that the silence doesn’t last for long.

Five new arrivals will be the focus of their year during series five (their classmates will also feature, but not to the same extent).  Jonah Jones (Lee Sparke) and Zammo McGuire (Lee Macdonald) are clearly cast from the same mould as Tucker Jenkins and his friends.   Jonah and Zammo are scamps and tearaways who can’t help but get into trouble – but since they lack malice the audience is invited to identify and side with them.

Annette Firman (Nadia Chambers) and Fay Lucas (Alison Bettles) bear more than a passing resemblance to Trisha and Cathy (and also Suzanne and Claire).  Annette is the rebel (like Trisha/Suzanne) whilst Fay is the more sensible one (like Cathy and Claire).  Although in later years Fay will go slightly off the rails as Cathy and Claire did.

Possibly the most significant of the new arrivals is Roland Browning (Erkan Mustafa).  Roland is friendless, overweight and becomes an instant target for Gripper and his new henchman Denny Rees (Julian Griffiths).  Gripper is a larger and more physically imposing figure from the youngster we saw in series four and it doesn’t take long before he makes poor Roland’s life a misery.  Because Roland is an isolated figure, he has no-one to turn to and his anguish only comes to an end towards the end of the series when he’s hospitalised following an accident with a car.  This is a very disturbing moment as it’s strongly inferred that he deliberately stepped out in front of it.

It’s certainly a far cry from the previous attempts by the series to show the effects of bullying.  Judy Preston was targeted by a gang of older girls during series one, but everything was neatly wrapped up in the space of a single episode.  For Roland there’s no quick solutions and the fact that the storyline was developed over a run of episodes is a sign that Grange Hill was becoming more confident to unfold longer storylines which wouldn’t have an immediate payoff (no doubt happy that the audience would stick with them).

GCE (Gripper’s Cash Enterprise) provides him and Denny with a nice little earner.  Roland is their latest victim and they force him to hand over twenty pence every Monday.  Gripper’s warning to Roland not to squeal is bleak in the extreme.  “You talk to anyone and I’ll put you in a wheelchair.”

The initial meeting between Jonah and Annette isn’t a promising one.  The girls beat the boys to the desk at the back of the classroom and Jonah isn’t prepared to take this lying down – although when Annette pushes him off his chair that’s exactly what happens!  As he lies sprawled on the ground this gives the camera the opportunity to view Miss Mooney’s attractive ankles and she decides the best place for him is right at the front.  Zammo wonders if his friend is going to take such an insult without attempting reprisals, whilst Jonah counters that there wasn’t anything he could do at the time.  Zammo’s solution – punch her on the jaw – is direct and has more than an echo of similar early encounters between Tucker and Trisha.  He was always promising her a knuckle sandwich but – as here – the threats were never followed through.

Jonah’s stink bomb helps to clear their classroom and earns the class the immediate disapproval of Mrs McClusky.  But he manages some form of redemption when he uses another of his stink bombs to force Roland out of the toilets (he’s locked himself in and refuses to come out).  It’s certainly more effective than Mr Thomson’s efforts.  Mr Hopwood had called the caretaker in – no doubt in the hope that he’d be able to lever the door off his hinges – but Thomson’s only response was to bang on it!  It’s a lovely comedy moment played to perfection by the always reliable Timothy Bateson.

Grange Hill. Series Five – Episode Two

grange hill s05e02

Written by Alan Janes. Tx 8th January 1982

Gripper and Denny continue to extort money from Roland, but he’s far from their only victim.  Jonah and Zammo are also targeted and both (reluctantly) pay up.  Jonah doesn’t seem too bothered – ten pence a week seems a small price to pay for not getting your head kicked in – but Zammo sees the bigger picture.  If they give in now then Gripper will always be there and his demands will only increase.  Zammo briefly considers taking Gripper on, but quickly admits that it wouldn’t be an equal fight.  Neither seems to consider that if they find Gripper’s other victims there would be safety in numbers.

This episode provides us a good opportunity to stop and examine how proactive the school was at dealing with Gripper.  Jonah and Zammo tell Mr Hopwood about Gripper’s demands for money, but he seems initially disinterested – as it’ll be their word against his how can anything be proved?  However he does decide to ask Gripper to turn out his pockets – and finds a considerable amount of change – which does back up the boy’s story.  Hopwood warns Gripper to cease his actions (threatening him with physical violence in a way that wasn’t unfamiliar in the early series of Grange Hill) but that’s as far as he goes.  Surely experience would have told him that Gripper wouldn’t give up that easily?

Roland’s experiences are even more interesting.  He’s skipped school several times (in order to avoid Gripper) and most disturbingly of all deliberately cuts his hand with a chisel in woodwork.  He hopes to be sent home and is clearly upset to be told that the nurse will be able to deal with it by putting on a plaster.  Whilst this foreshadows the more extreme measures he’ll take later in the series to escape Gripper, it should have sent alarm bells ringing amongst the staff.  Mrs McClusky does want the boy to see an educational psychologist, but it’s plain that they consider the problem is purely down to Roland’s attitude.  Even after he’s told them that he’s been systematically bullied they don’t seem interested in finding out if his story was true.  Is it that they simply believe he’s making up tales to explain his bad behaviour?

Elsewhere, there’s light relief as Annette attempts to gain revenge on Jonah by throwing a stink-bomb at him.  She indirectly does him a good turn – he and Zammo were being threatened by Gripper at the time and the smell is enough to drive the older boy off.  Leaving us with the immortal line from Jonah.  “Cor Gripper, you’ve done something in your trousers”!

Grange Hill. Series Five – Episode Three

grange hill s05e03

Written by Jane Hollowood. Tx 12th January 1982

Sex education raises its head in this episode and you get the feeling that it’s going to be something of a struggle for Mrs Thomas (Susan Porrett) to get through to her unruly band of third years.  She tells them that “over the next few weeks we’ll be discussing how the human body creates new life, something which is at once miraculous, joyous and very beautiful.”  Alas, this uplifting statement is greeted with a comment of “give us a kiss love”!

The class have to take a slip home to their parents or guardians to sign, agreeing that they can be taught the lesson (which causes Anita to mutter darkly she doesn’t know what her gran will say).  Anita’s gran remains a never glimpsed figure, although a traumatised Mr Baxter tells Mr Hopwood that he spent half an hour in her company (she seems to have given him a considerable ear-bashing).

The upcoming lesson gives Gripper the chance to victimise Matthew Cartwright by taunting him that he doesn’t know the facts of life.  It’s no surprise that money’s never far from Gripper’s mind and he tells Matthew to bring twenty pence in the following day and Uncle Gripper will tell him all he needs to know.  This seems to involve Matthew losing his trousers, which Mr Baxter retrieves.  He then gives the boy the following advice.  “Look son, if somebody has a go at you don’t just stand there. No matter how big they are give them some back, right?”  Typical Baxter, but Matthew’s the last person in the world to do so.

It’s also no surprise that Pogo eyes an opportunity to make a little money and he steals one of Mrs Thomas’ sex education books and offes to show it to the first years for a price.  Claire’s mother isn’t happy about the lessons, telling Mrs McClusky that her daughter is “young and idealistic and very innocent.  I don’t want her to be spoiled, not just yet.”  When Claire finds out her mother has come to school she’s far from pleased.  Mrs Scott tells her that they’ll discuss it at home later.  “Stuff it” responds Claire, which indicates that her daughter is growing up, whether she likes it or not.

Mr Cartwright is disturbed about the victimisation his son has received at the hands of Gripper and makes an appointment to see Mrs McClusky.  Is it too much of a stretch to say that she’s prepared to take action immediately because the Cartwrights are a nice, middle-class family?  Roland’s tales of bullying seemed to be dismissed out of hand in the last episode, so it’s possible.

What’s clear is that the school’s sex education policy has been something of a disaster, although Mrs McClusky attempts to paper over the cracks by offering to host a meeting where the parents can air their views and also discusses the classes with the pupils.  One positive outcome is that Gripper is run to ground, but whatever punishment he received obviously didn’t curb his behaviour, as we’ll see.

Grange Hill. Series Five – Episode Four

grange hill s05e04

Written by Margaret Simpson. Tx 15th January 1982

Cutbacks are the main topic of this episode.  The school has a lack of textbooks, they only have one computer (which is a terminal they have to share with other organisations) and some lessons can’t be taught because they haven’t replaced departed teachers.

Mr Keating decides that their remaining maths textbooks will have to be shared one between two pupils.  Although I have to confess that when it’s later revealed that they only cost about £1.50 it’s hard to imagine that they couldn’t find a little extra money to buy a few more copies.  But maybe that price isn’t correct (it was only an offhand comment from Stewpot) as that does seem very cheap, even for 1982.

Gripper’s once again on hand to make a little money as he decides to steal textbooks from St Mary’s schoolgirls.  He and Denny waylay them on a railway bridge and threaten to throw the girls over if they don’t comply.  The reactions from the girls vary – some are clearly frightened, whilst others are only too glad to hand over the books.  Gripper then passes them over to an obviously reluctant Pogo to sell.

The computer issue is slightly puzzling.  In previous years the school seemed to have a number of computers, but now we’re told that they only have one.  1982 would have been around the time when computers really started to feature in schools, so it doesn’t seem credible that a place as large as Grange Hill wouldn’t be better equipped.  It also seems to be rather primitive, since it sports a very small screen.  I remember using computers in 1982 and they weren’t quite as basic as that!

The school has the opportunity to buy another computer, for a bargain price of twelve hundred pounds, and everybody rushes to raise money.  When they fall a little short of their target Mrs McClusky elects to use the cash to buy textbooks instead (this is supported by most of the PTA).  Needless to say this doesn’t go down well with the pupils and it also isn’t welcomed by Stewpot’s father, who’s the current chairman of the PTA.

Mr Stewart is something of a  political firebrand and is keen to make his point.  “Look, we’re in a situation here where education is supposed to be free for everyone, right? And yet the more I hear about this school at the moment the more I realise that principal’s being eaten away. I mean you’ve got no Spanish specialist, you’re a metalwork teacher short and now you say you’ve got no books!”  When others suggest that they club together to buy new books he reacts with disgust, observing that if they subsidise the local authority, then they’ll simply be doing so for evermore.

The irony is that whilst education should be free, they do end up using their own money (raised for the computer) to buy the books.  It’s easy to sympathise with Mr Stewart’s opinion that this is a slippery slope and could encourage the education authority to cut back even further in the future, but Mrs Scott also has a point when she says that the children can’t be deprived of books, especially on a point of political principal.  The political subtext of the episode is fairly light, but it’s certainly there and might very well have struck a chord with any adults who had been watching with their children.

Grange Hill. Series Five – Episode Five

grange hill s05e05

Written by Margaret Simpson. Tx 19th January 1982

It must be said that the saga of Belinda’s missing clarinet doesn’t rank as one of Grange Hill‘s dramatic highlights.  Belinda (Paula Taras) was the sort of character that we’d seen before in the series and would see again in the future.  They hover around the fringes for a while – maybe with the odd line or two – before stepping into the limelight for a few episodes. And after their brief moment of fame they return to the shadows.

The episode opens with a music lesson in which we hear N1 murder Yesterday.  It’s ironic that Miss Griffiths (Anni Domingo) stops the recital to criticise Annette’s playing – that’s surely the least of their problems!  They serve up a horrendous performance (I assume deliberately) that seems to last forever.  It’s interesting that the school could afford to supply a whole class with a variety of musical instruments.  Given the budget cuts that we saw in the last episode (where even books were in short supply) this seems a little unlikely and my own memory of school music lessons from this era is that instruments were always in very short supply.

Quite how Miss Brooks could detect any sort of musical quality in that cacophony is a mystery, but she picks out Belinda’s tootling on the recorder as having some sort of merit and suggests to the girl that she tries the clarinet.  She dangles the possibility that Belinda could join the school orchestra, but Belinda’s family would have to pay for the clarinet themselves.

The clarinet shines a light onto Annette’s character (and it’s not a flattering one).  Fay and Belinda have become friendly and this is possibly one of the reasons why Annette persuades Fay that they should hide the instrument in the boy’s changing rooms for a laugh.  It should come as no surprise to learn that when Belinda goes to retrieve it she discovers it’s no longer there.  Luckily it was insured, so Annette and Fay have to fork out ten pounds each from their savings to help cover the premium.  The comedy highlight of the episode has to be Belinda shielding her eyes, desperately looking for the clarinet, whilst a topless Pogo looks quite puzzled!

It seems a little unfair that Annette and Fay have to pay the money.  Yes, the clarinet was stolen from the unlocked boy’s changing rooms (and why was it unlocked? Mr Baxter never explains why) but had Belinda left it in the girl’s changing rooms then (had that been unlocked too) it could have easily have been stolen from there and Belinda would have had no-one but herself to blame.

Of much more interest than the missing clarinet is that this episode marks the first appearance of Mr McGuffy (Fraser Cains).  With the general appearance of an unmade bed, Mr McGuffy is an enthusiast who sometimes struggles to make himself understood.  He’s asked everybody to write about their first impressions of Grange Hill.  “What I liked about Janet’s piece was that it give me the feeling of what it would be like to be a small, insignificant person in a large, bewildering community. One can feel small, confronted by the large, social units of today’s society. The individual shrinks, he becomes insignificant, a termite.”  This goes way over the heads of Annette and Fay (“what’s he talking about?”)

Jonah’s piece is less than flattering to Mr McGuffy, but he’s not bothered about this.  As he tells them, he wants the class to express themselves honestly and doesn’t want them “trammelled, constrained, fettered, held back” by what they think they should say, even if it’s uncomplimentary to him.  This is a clear sign that he’s far from a run of the mill teacher and if he sticks around (watching the series for the first time you could never be sure if a character would become a regular, a semi-regular or would just make a one-off appearance) he’ll obviously be one to watch.

As we know, he did stay with the series for the next three years and whilst they don’t meet here it’s clear that his free-and-easy attitude is not going to sit well with the autocratic Mrs McClusky.  There’s going to be stormy times ahead.

Grange Hill. Series Five – Episode Six

grange hill s05e06

Written by Margaret Simpson.  Tx 22nd January 1982

Roland continues to be an outsider, although it’s clear that he’s making something of an effort to integrate as he attends both the meeting of the school play (which Mr McGuffy explains will be a revue) and the sports trials.

Roland’s isolation is made plain as the camera spies him silently watching the others on several occasions.  Firstly, he observes Zammo and Jonah having a food fight in their cookery class and later, as all three queue to get food from the van, Roland (further up the queue than they are) is again seen silently watching Zammo and Jonah’s animated conversation.

This episode also shows that Zammo and Jonah are in some ways quite different – although the tensions that briefly bubble to the surface aren’t exploited very often in the future.  Zammo loves sports – he’s awed that Benny Green asked him to join in a kickabout – whilst Jonah doesn’t.  Zammo plans to attend the sports trials (as does Roland) whereas Jonah indicates that the whole thing’s beneath him.

Gripper briefly pops up to torment Roland once again, but most of the bullying he receives comes from his own classmates.  Zammo, Jonah and Annette are all  merciless in their taunting of him, but after the sports trials there’s just a hint that maybe a corner has been turned.  Zammo doesn’t distinguish himself by coming fifth in the 1500 metres, but it’s a better result than Roland’s efforts in the shot put.  He falls over on both attempts and doesn’t register a throw – to the jeers of those watching – but as he dejectedly trudges off Zammo appreciates that he at least took part (unlike the still-mocking Jonah) and commiserates with him.

But there is a silver lining, as he gets picked for the school revue (although he doesn’t know that this is only because Miss Mooney pulled some strings and asked Mr McGuffy to find him a place).  The expression of joy on Roland’s face is priceless and it seems that maybe this could be the making of him.  Although with Gripper still hovering about, possibly one shouldn’t expect a happy ending anytime soon.

There’s also a brief mention of the dreaded clarinet, although this episode the dilemma that Belinda has to face is whether she’ll decide to attend hockey practice or orchestra practice after school, since they both take place on Tuesday evenings.  It’s another moment that I doubt had many people on the edge of their seats ….