Just Say No.
For many people, series nine is peak Grange Hill, thanks to the absorbing storyline which chronicles Zammo’s descent from loveable scamp to duplicitous heroin addict. It shouldn’t be forgotten that introducing such a theme into a children’s series was a somewhat risky move – but it’s done in a very effective and obviously moral manner (certainly no-one could claim that GH was glamorising drug use).
What surprises me though, when reviewing the series, is the way several obvious dramatic beats are missed. I’m not sure if this was because the production team were being extra careful not to foreground this plot too much or whether it was the choice of incoming producer, Ronald Smedley.
The first few episodes set up a mystery – Zammo is acting a little oddly (plus his relationship with Jackie is desperately floundering) – but after that point we rarely return to the fifth formers en masse, which means that we’re denied any scenes where they express their worries about him. The audience is also not privy to moments when key figures like Jackie learn that Zammo is an addict.
And whilst Roland is the first character on-screen to learn the truth (thanks to the memorable episode fourteen cliffhanger) we don’t witness him telling the others, which is yet another surprising moment of potential drama missed.
That’s not to say that Zammo’s travails don’t generate any scenes which linger in the memory. As touched upon, the end of episode fourteen – showing an unconscious Zammo – is a classic moment (although it’s a pity that the jaunty theme music crashes in rather too suddenly). Whilst the end of episode eighteen – Mrs McGuire cupping the face of her mute son, pleading with him to tell her that he’s not an addict – still carries an emotional punch.
The twenty third episode (a now slowly recovering Zammo is visited by Miss Booth) contains another key scene. Although Zammo initially displays a cheerful façade, it’s not long before a strong feeling of isolation and despair begins to seep through. Miss Booth, unable to comfort him, stands awkwardly by as Zammo’s tear stained face looks out of a rainy window.
Throughout these episodes, Lee MacDonald is always on top form. It must have been a daunting role to take on, but he’s never less than totally compelling.
Although Zammo’s slowly dawning realisation that the drugs don’t work is this year’s main theme, there are several others of interest. Such as Fay’s growing relationship with Mr King (David Straun). It’s done in a very chaste way (there’s never any suggestion that they progress beyond holding hands and taking walks in the park) but this is still enough for Mr King to lose his job. Plus there’s an entertaining power struggle between Mrs McClusky and Mr Bronson, which manages to enliven several episodes.
The influx of new characters – Georgina, Helen, Imelda, Ant, Danny – prove to be something of a mixed bag. Ant Jones takes over Zammo’s role as Mr Bronson’s chief irritant (and possibly the irritant of many watching at home as well). More positive is the arrival of Imelda – the series hasn’t had a decent bully since Gripper departed under a cloud in 1983 (plus Imelda is the series’ first long-running female bully).
Harriet the Donkey.
Three words which are guaranteed to strike terror into the hearts of Grange Hill fans of a certain age. It’s all Sir Phil Redmond’s fault (he was the writer of the 1985 Christmas Special – included in this set – which introduced her in the first place). But whilst Harriet was fine as a one-off guest star in a light-hearted Christmas episode, the audience’s goodwill was probably sapped after she became the focal point of an interminable storyline during series ten. Scraping around for positives, the endless adventures of Harriet does give George A. Cooper a little more to do (which is always welcome – he’s the sort of actor I could watch all day).
When the series began, storylines were concluded in a single episode. After GH was renewed for a second series, the show began to take on a soap format, allowing plot-threads to breathe over multiple episodes. Sometimes this was to the series’ benefit – Gripper’s relentless hounding of Roland during series five needed to be drawn out, otherwise the boy’s apparent suicide attempt would have had far less impact – but by 1987 certain storylines (like Harriet) were being allowed to run on far too long.
Elsewhere, another of this year’s long-running storylines – featuring Mr Scott (Aran Bell) – was much more successful. GH had already shown teachers (Mr McGuffy, Mr Knowles) receiving a hard time from the pupils, but their travails tended not to last more than a few episodes. Mr Scott’s problems are different as Imelda has marked him out for maximum vengeance, so he has to endure a slow torture across multiple episodes.
But even after she’s expelled, his problems continue. Fast forward to episode seventeen and he’s struggling with his class over the register (“the register is a legal document and must be taken twice daily”). Trevor – growing more truculent and annoying as each year passes – steps up to be his latest tormentor.
By the end of the series, an uneasy peace has broken out between Mr Scott and N3. It’s a pity that he didn’t return for series eleven though – as it means we’re denied the pay-off (could he have actually transformed himself into a respected teacher?) to the question that the series spent the best part of a year developing.
Banksie had been one of the characters to suffer most during series nine. The rivalry he enjoyed with Zammo had been a key part of series eight, but come the next year Banksie virtually turned invisible.
He’s given much more to do this year, via a storyline that chips away at his hardman image. Banksie is given a work experience placement at Hazelrigg School, a place that caters for children with disabilities. As expected, he initially reacts with disdain (muttering that “clearing up after a bunch of weird kids” will be embarrassing) but over time he comes to appreciate both the place and the people, especially after forming a friendship with the wheelchair-bound Lucy (Leah Finch).
The moral of the story – disabled children are still human beings – isn’t maybe delivered with a great deal of subtlety, but it still works, especially when others – such as Banksie’s girlfriend, Laura – are shown to be less tolerant. Making her react in this way was a good touch, especially since Laura had previously been positioned as a positive and welcoming person.
Another key series ten storyline sees a large part of the school revolting (as it were). Clashes between the pupils and the autocratic Mrs McClusky have played out several times over the past decade (although this is the last large-scale demonstration of pupil power mounted by the series). It possibly won’t surprise you to learn that Mrs McClusky – calmness personified – wins the day. Although Gwyneth Powell would remain with the series for a few more years, she’d rarely take centre stage like this again.
For some reason Eureka weren’t able to supply me with a complete set of review discs, but what I have seen – a disc apiece from both series nine and ten – looks fine to me. Some previous GH releases suffered from ‘filmising’ (most notably on the original BBC releases of the first four series) but there’s no issues on the episodes I’ve been able to sample.
Grange Hill – Series Nine and Ten might be a bit of a mixed bag, but the two series are still strong enough to come warmly recommended.
Grange Hill – Series Nine and Ten is released by Eureka Entertainment on the 19th of October 2020. It contains 49 episodes (2 series x 24 episodes plus the 1985 Christmas Special) across eight discs and has an RRP of £34.99.