Monday, September 15, 2008 by Ian Jones
At long last the country’s number one failing school has finally, finally, been closed down.
Unloved and, judging by this final episode, largely unattended, Grange Hill Comprehensive has become a footnote in the exercise book of history to be argued and counter-argued over by occasional generations of bored sociological custodians. Or, as its creator would put it, predatory cultural elites.
Phil Redmond, whose name appears three times in the closing credits of this show (one of them reminding you that he owns the “format copyright”; how can you own the copyright to the concept of free education?) reacts badly whenever his TV children are expelled from the schedules.
Brookside’s demise in 2003 prompted a fugue of fury characterised by a tendency to level charges at anybody who lived further than the trajectory of a chip barm thrown from the roof the Liver Buildings. Of particular blame were media establishment types who, he claimed, had clearly never set foot in the likes of Brookside Parade or had cause to venture through the gates of any kind of comprehensive, and hence were morally bankrupt.
Yet the fact Brookside’s passing prompted so little attention, let alone lament, among not just the broadcasting industry but the viewing public at large told the true story. Brookside had become irrelevant. Ratings had fallen not through the mendacity of TV executives but because people had switched off. The soap hadn’t said anything interesting or entertaining to anybody for ages. Nobody watched, nobody cared.
And so it has proved again. The reason the last-ever episode of Grange Hill aired to virtually zero publicity was in a way completely fitting. This once-great monument to the virtues of state education didn’t deserve the trappings of a state funeral. Not in its present incarnation at any rate. Five years ago, maybe. Not now. Not when nobody watched, and nobody cared.
Don’t worry if you were one of the millions for whom Grange Hill was once one of the best things about television, for whom its characters were as much as part of your childhood as your real classroom allies and playground enemies, and feel you might have missed out by not being there at the programme’s passing.
It wasn’t worthy of anyone’s attention, let alone those who used to count themselves among its most loyal followers.
Actors mumbled and chewed their lines. The dialogue was grotesquely unrealistic (“You’re so pants”, “Are you out of your tiny minds?”). True, both of these could have been levelled at the show at any point in its existence, but for much of the last 30 years they were cancelled out – if not overwhelmed – by the charm of the characters and the potency of the storylines.
Neither of those elements was in evidence here. It’s a dangerous thing to pass judgement on a programme not meant for someone of your age, but this writer certainly can’t remember seeing such a homogenous bunch of pupils at the Grange Hill he grew up with (and continued to look in on from time to time during his 20s and early 30s). There was no diversity in archetypes, no dimension to personalities. There were also precious few that evoked any sympathy. These were in fact a deeply unlikable bunch of types, with lazily exaggerated traits of lecherousness, idleness, stupidity and arrogance.
The plot unfolded with little appreciation of pace or a logical sense of time. It was impossible to ever know where you were in the school day. The action barely moved beyond three poorly-dressed and sparsely-populated locations; at no point did what you were seeing feel like a school that was supposed to boast hundreds of 11 to 18-year-olds.
As for the storylines themselves, no depth or punch was to be found. Much of it involved running about, shouting and the possibility of everyone being blown up, which seasoned Redmond-watchers will recognise as the last refuge of many of the man’s endeavours.
The one strand that should have delivered the necessary pathos, involving the chief character Togger’s future at the school, was bungled by an absence of any unfolding emotion and sustained atmosphere. Some of this can be put down to the convention practiced by the show’s makers Lime Pictures (previously Mersey TV) to never use multi-camera shoots, thereby forcing actors to repeat the same scene endlessly while it is filmed from different angles, with a final edit only being assembled in post-production.
But some of it was also due to the very pedestrian acting by Togger (Chris Perry-Metcalf) and his uncle, one Tucker Jenkins (Todd Carty), the latter enlisted in an attempt to decorate proceedings with some semblance of significance. It wasn’t the first time Tucker had been conscripted to make a comeback, but given the circumstances this one was clearly intended to be more than just a cartoon cameo. Sadly, with greater heights to climb, the entire scene only had further to fall.
“Flippin’ ‘eck” Carty growled, inevitably, lumbering into shot. It wasn’t long before the preaching began. “In my day, this place was about people,” declared Redmond, sorry, Tucker, “now it’s about numbers… If it hadn’t been for this place, I’d have been written off… Grange Hill was for everyone… It makes me so angry, if kids like you can’t go here, where can they go?”
Oh dear. Nobody likes to hear an old man chuntering on about BBC commissioning policy, especially in the middle of a fictional drama series for children. Redmond wasn’t named as the writer of this episode (that was Neil Jones) but these were clearly his words. And possibly his typos: the very last shot was of a notice that read “NEW YEAR 7′S THIS WAY”.
Where did it all go wrong? How did Grange Hill become so dispensable to the BBC that it was even considered ripe for the chop? The first series made by Mersey TV (transmitted in 2003) was actually quite promising. It attempted to refocus attention away from the lives of the staff and onto the pupils, and injected a hefty dose of zaniness to leaven the more ponderous elements of Redmond’s input.
But with hindsight there wasn’t enough momentum or imagination to keep the new format going. Changes behind the scenes at Mersey TV led to conflict over the show’s direction. The quality of the writing plummeted. Then the BBC felt it had become too juvenile and moved it from its hallowed slot of 5.10pm back to 4.30pm. Redmond was ridiculed for insisting the injection of cast from Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds did not rubbish Grange Hill’s heritage as a London-based comprehensive, because “it had never been made clear where the school was set” – despite on-screen characters spending much of the previous 25 years continually referring to, and living in, London boroughs.
The end was nigh when the Beeb, pragmatically accepting the show’s dwindling currency, asked Redmond to rid Grange Hill of any aspirations to be a teenage programme. Redmond, unwilling to grasp at an olive branch, snapped. He went on record early in 2008 to urge the BBC to scrap his offspring, arguing – with some nerve, given his track record with Brookside – “I don’t like keeping things going when the point has been lost.” But then when the Corporation did as he had advised, he went on record again to say the complete opposite, moaning about them pulling the plug. With primary evidence such as that, it’s a wonder the relationship between Redmond and the Beeb lasted as long as it did.
Once upon a time the disappearance of Grange Hill from British television would have made several generations feel they had lost a part of themselves. Instead its evaporation has commanded as much substance as chalk dust. It is as dust this once all-conquering, but latterly all-cowering titan should remain.
Homework for P Redmond. Please write out 50 times: “I must never try and bring back Grange Hill.”