Written by Phil Redmond. Tx 27th December 1985
Broadcast a couple of weeks before the start of series nine, the 1985 Christmas Special performed a duel function. It not only served as a coda for certain storylines from series eight (the return of Calley’s real mother, Roland’s estrangement from Fabienne) but it also looked ahead to the forthcoming run by introducing several new characters.
Rather annoyingly, when the first seventeen series of GH were repeated during the 1990’s this episode (like the 1980 Christmas Special before it) was omitted, meaning we were denied the introduction of Imelda Davis (Fleur Taylor). Mind you, that also meant we didn’t see the arrival of Harriet the Donkey, so it wasn’t all bad ….
Since Gripper’s fall from grace in series six, the position of school bully has been vacant. Jimmy McLaren was too lightweight to be considered a real bully during series seven whilst series eight didn’t even have a token bully figure (although Gripper’s sister, Emma, seemed ready made to fulfil that function). So the time was certainly right for Imelda to make her mark. Ruth Carraway debuts as Helen Kelly, at this point Imelda’s right-hand woman.
The series had also lacked a regular caretaker figure since Mr Thomspon disappeared at the end of series five, so the arrival of George A. Cooper as Mr Griffiths was long overdue. Having an actor of Cooper’s quality and experience was very welcome, since it saved Mr Griffiths from being just the two-dimensional grumpy figure he could so easily have otherwise been. Mr Griffiths stayed with the series for a good while (leaving at the end of series fifteen) which gave plenty of time for various facets of his character to be explored. Yes, he could be the traditional irate caretaker, shaking his fist at those pesky kids, but at times he was also treated as a character in his own right.
Claire and Stewpot bowed out, as did Gripper (who makes a surprise fleeting return, slight recompense for his audio-only appearance during series eight). Another character appearing for the last time was Simon Haywood as Mr Smart. Since this episode was made as part of the series nine production block (confirmed by the fact that incoming producer Ronald Smedley, rather than S8’s Ben Rea, was credited) it seems odd that he was contracted for this one-off appearance, especially since it only amounted to a single, short scene.
What’s really notable about this one is that it was Phil Redmond’s first script for the series since the 1981 Christmas Special. Does his presence mean a return to the harder-hitting issues-led episodes from the early years? Not really. The fact he introduces Harriet the Donkey is a good indication of the episode’s general tone.
We’ll come back to Harriet when she returns as a regular in S10, as she could be said to be the point at which GH jumped the shark – or at the very least it was when the series appeared to lose a little impetus. When many people think of GH it’s the first nine years that probably stand out – from Tucker’s first appearance to Zammo’s downfall. This is more than a little unfair on the next twenty years of the show which had plenty to offer, but there’s no denying that from 1987 onwards the series’ profile dipped.
A befits a Christmas episode, it’s fairly light-hearted fare with the rampaging Harriet taking centre stage. Left at the school for some unknown reason by its previous owner, Harriet runs amok in a rather unconvincing fashion. Gonch and Hollo are the fall guys who discover Harriet and then attempt to round her up when she disappears. You would assume that a donkey would be a fairly slow-moving animal, so suspension of disbelief is required during the scenes where they keep on finding and losing her in quick sucession.
Possibly the best example can be seen when our two hapless heroes spot Harriet at the end of the corridor. Harriet takes a right turn, they dash after her a few seconds later, but the donkey’s disappeared. How?! Harriet then seems to display supernatural powers by re-entering on the left hand side. Quite how she managed this is probably something it’s best not to dwell on.
Remaining in grumpy nit-picking mode, when Gonch and Hollo accidentally run into Ronnie we’re witness to one of the most unconvincing collisions ever – as all three gently lower themselves to the floor …..
But on the positive side, Redmond knew how to write for Mr Baxter. If you’re a fan of Michael Cronin then it’s worth braving the donkey-related antics for a good dose of Mr Baxter at his sarcastic best. Gonch and Hollo are at the receiving end of his withering put-downs as Mr Baxter always seems to appear just at the point when they’re doing something they shouldn’t. Mr Bronson – chuntering about Christian values – also fares well with a couple of nice scenes.
Dramatically, it’s Roland who receives the meatiest storyline. There’s a real sense of bleakness at the start as his father – now plying his trade as a long-distance lorry driver – tells his son that they’ll have to delay their Christmas until the 27th (he’s away on a job until then). It’s difficult to blame Mr Browning for this – as a single-parent he has to put money on the table (and it’s not as if Roland isn’t provided with an alternative Christmas Day arrangement, via a neighbour). Although Roland (maybe Redmond here was harking back to the boy’s earlier characterisation) isn’t too happy, since he’s convinced he’ll only receive small portions.
So he decides that a trip to Paris (to visit Fabienne no doubt) would be in order. Logic would tell him this is doomed to failure – witness his ill-fated attempt to stow away with the French exchange students at the end of S8 – and luckily for him his vague scheme never gets any further than attempting – and failing – to win top prize at one of the Christmas Fare games. The ever-present Janet, falling into her usual role as an interrogator of Rottweiler-like tenacity, continues to badger him until he admits that his dad won’t be home for Christmas.
The warm-hearted Janet then invites him to share Christmas with her family and surprisingly he agrees. Does this mean that after all these years Roland has finally seen the goodness in Janet? Hmm, I don’t think so. It seems to be more along the lines that he realises her family goes in for a full Christmas with all the trimmings. So Roland’s thinking with his stomach rather than his heart or his head.
That this isn’t quite the normal type of episode is capped off by the ending which sees the whole cast turn to camera and wish the viewers a Merry Christmas. William Hartnell couldn’t have done it better …..
3 thoughts on “Grange Hill – 1985 Christmas Special”
The 1985 Christmas special of Grange Hill is a very significant episode as it was the first time GH began it’s use of video tape for outdoor filming. It does feel rather bizarre – the nativity play appears to have been filmed in some sort of community centre rather than the familiar surroundings of Neptune House.
Another interesting factor which has been touched upon – this episode marked the first appearances of Imelda, Helen and Mr Griffiths (newcomers to Series 9) – yet it features Stewpot, Claire and Mr Smart (who were regulars in Series 8, but had gone by Series 9). Simon Haywood (who played ‘Smarty’ pants) appears to have disappeared into the TV wilderness after his brief appearance here. It is also the last time we saw Roland’s trucker dad (played by Mike Savage) and of course the legendary Gripper has a final cameo appearance (surely he would be giving GH a wide birth after his thieving in the previous series????)
It is a rather light hearted ‘self contained’ episode, which doesn’t offer any indication of the dramatic story GH would cover in the forthcoming series. It does seem to be an episode where the cast had let their hair down towards the end and had a bit of fun on set. Even Mr Bronson seems in good spirits here!
This episode is also missing from Britbox (as is the 1981 special) but can be found elsewhere online. There’s an annoying pattern in both BBC repeats and Britbox that many a special is left out of the regular season and either has to be found elsewhere or else parts of the narrative are skipped.
It’s mostly okay as a one-off piece of Christmas joy with a number of nice character moments but the donkey plot feels absurd even here. There’s just no obvious reason why her owner thought the school was a good place to leave her and her contribution to the plot is little more than a slapstick chase that just doesn’t work visually. Why on earth anyone thought there was more mileage in this storyline is beyond me.
The crib scene and Mr Bronson’s remarks brings to mind that religion is something the show has mostly avoided apart from a few details about Randir. And looking at the list of teachers over the year one subject that never seems to have been shown is Religious Education (or Religious Instruction or Scripture or Divinity – it seemed to have a different name and focus with every school back then) and for that matter we never see any “compulsory” worship. There are periods in the show’s history when something could have been made of how the school deals with the mixture of legal requirements, a multi faith pupil or rather parental body, growing levels of atheism and traditionalists (like Bronson here) insisting that it is still a Christian counntry. It may be risky stuff but any less so than the sex education debate?
All that was missing from those awful Harriet the Donkey scenes were speeded up film and the Benny Hill music playing.