The Phoenix And The Carpet (BBC, 1976/77) – Simply Media DVD Review

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When four children persuade their parents to buy them a rather shabby second hand carpet they have no idea what lies ahead for them.  For the carpet is a magic one, containing an egg which – when accidentally tossed into the fire – hatches a Phoenix who has been asleep for some considerable time.  With the wise Phoenix as their guide, the children embark on a series of amazing adventures ….

Published in 1904, The Phoenix and the Carpet was the second book in Edith Nesbit’s trilogy (beginning with Five Children and It and concluding with The Story of the Amulet). This 1976/77 adaptation by John Tully was retooled as a stand-alone tale, meaning that no knowledge of the previous story is required (the Psammead, from Five Children and It, appears briefly in the novel of The Phoenix And The Carpet but is omitted from this adaptation).

Given the technical limitations of the era, this was an incredibly ambitious production.  It’s not going to be to everybody’s tastes (there’s lashings of CSO and various other special effects which require considerable suspension of belief) but if you’re prepared to go with the flow then an utterly charming tale lies ahead.

Director Clive Doig had cut his teeth as a vision mixer on numerous 1960’s episodes of Doctor Who. Given this (as well as his work on Vision On and later Jigsaw) no doubt he wouldn’t have been phased by the taxing requirements of this eight-part serial.

I have to confess that within the first five minutes I was won over. Yes, the Phoenix may be a rather immobile puppet – but he’s brought to life by Robert Warner’s wonderful voice work.  Thanks to Warner, the Phoenix quickly becomes a character in his own right – knowledgeable and sage-like, but also possessed of an overweening sense of his own importance.

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And although the children – Cyril (Gary Russell), Anthea (Tamzin Neville), Robert (Max Harris) and Jane (Jane Forster) – all have the slightly mannered stage-school delivery familiar from countless other period dramas of this era, there’s plenty of good one-liners and sly gags for them scattered throughout the script.

During the serial there are also some fine comic performances from the elder players. Robert Dorning as the carpet seller in the first episode for example, whilst Susan Field (as the children’s bad-tempered Cook) is a joy in episode two. Immediately after the Cook stumbles across the smooth-talking Phoenix she’s whisked away with the others to a desert island …

Clearly the serial had a decent budget as the island (whilst resolutely studio-bound) is shot on film rather than videotape. It doesn’t convince as a real location, but since the whole production has a heightened, theatrical feel this isn’t really a problem.

The island natives (browned up British actors with curly wigs and plenty of “ooga booga” mumblings) are slightly eyebrow raising, but these scenes only reflect the original novel, which sees the Cook carried off by the natives (who are so taken with her that they decide to make her their Queen).

The children’s colourful trips continue when they head out to India – we go back on film for a sumptuous palace based sequence which introduces us to The Ranee (Surya Kumai), someone who has every material benefit but still feels desperately unhappy. Luckily for her, the four plucky English children are able to cheer her up. Cyril launches into a lengthy explanation about how they acquired the carpet (delightfully causing the others to roll their eyes!)

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Back in London, the imperious Mrs Biddle (Hilary Mason) is helping to organise a church bazaar with an Indian theme. She’s proud of her contribution, but is trumped by the knick-knacks acquired by the children during their recent jaunt.  This contrast between the exotic adventuring of the children and their return to a more mundane life in London gives the serial a very appealing feel (even though the adventures are high on charm but low on jeopardy).

There are several other highlights scattered throughout the remainder of the serial. I was particularly taken with the Phoenix’s tour of London. It’s a lovely opportunity to ramp up the comedy as the Phoenix demands to be taken to one of the many temples established in the capital to worship him (he has a little trouble in understanding that the Phoenix Insurance Company is a different sort of beast altogether …)

Monica Sims, head of BBC children’s programmes, told The Stage and Television Today that “the production has all the difficulties of children, animals, magic and the technical tricks required for a magic carpet. Not to mention a haughty bird as the leading artist” (30th September 1976).

All these hurdles were successfully overcome and by the time the eighth and final episode concludes there’s a definite sense of poignancy in the air.  The Phoenix And The Carpet certainly seems to have left an indelible impression on those who saw it at the time and it’s pleasing to report that the decades haven’t diminished its magic.  Other bigger-budgeted adaptations are also available, but this one is very special indeed. It’s well worth checking out.

The Phoenix And The Carpet is available now from Simply Media, RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

 

Grange Hill. Series One – Episode One

I’ve slightly redrafted and expanded my thoughts on this opening episode. I’m also gearing up to tackle Series Nine – posts should start appearing at the end of next week.

Archive Television Musings

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Written by Phil Redmond. Tx 8th February 1978

Benny Green (Terry Sue Patt) has the honour of being the first pupil we see entering the grounds of Grange Hill. Quite why he’s so early isn’t explained here – but it’s obvious from his opening scene that he lives for football. He’s also black and poor – which were both considerable disadvantages in late seventies Britain, but he’s always a positive character and never spends his time complaining about what he doesn’t have.

This opener is quite effective in demonstrating how intimidating a secondary school could be on your first day and the key part of the episode is the way that the various pupils react. Tucker (Todd Carty) and Alan (George Armstrong) take it in their stride whilst Judy (Abigail Brown) and Justin (Robert Morgan) view the place with barely disguised horror. Both are isolated, since all of their old friends have gone to…

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Grange Hill. Series Six – Episode Eight

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Written by David Angus. Tx 28th January 1983

Although this is a studio-bound episode, a generous application of water still manages to give the strong impression that it’s pouring with rain outside, as we see the likes of Fay, Annette, Julie, Jonah and Zammo all arrive looking decidely damp.

Neither Mrs McClusky or Mr McGuffy have been used a great deal this year, so it’s nice to see them both and even better that they share a short scene together. It once again demonstrates the gulf between their approaches to discipline – Mrs McClusky is pondering exactly what measures she should take to punish those who truant on a regular basis, whilst Mr McGuffy gently suggests that if they do nothing then the situation mght resolve itself. Quite how this would work is never made clear, so for once it seems that Mrs McClusky is in the right.

I love N2’s English lesson with Mr McGuffy. He announces that they’re going to study one of the greatest poems in the English language (to barely surpressed groans) and the stifled yawns we later see are a good indication that they’re not enjoying themselves. Mr McGuffy may be an inspirational teacher, but this isn’t one of his finest hours.

There’s another example of the chain effect of bullying. Annette taunts Roland, so he in turn taunts Diane. Fay tells him to leave her alone and he responds that he will if Annette does likewise. But Annette doesn’t let up, which makes Roland decide to take the afternoon off. Janet, who always seems to be lurking about, has some words of wisdom which go unheeded. “Running away won’t do any good, whatever it was will still be here when you come back.”

This scene also demonstrates just how scruffy and run-down the corridors look. Possibly the sets have been gradually dirtied down, if so it’s a clever visual way of signifying that money at Grange Hill continues to be tight and the budget for decorating must be minimal.

Mrs McClusky, together with Miss Mooney, Mr Browning, Roland and Annette, manages to get to the bottom of N2’s bullying triangle. Quite why she’s not taken any action against Gripper’s much more insidious racial bullying is harder to understand though.

June Page makes a couple of brief appearances as Miss Hunt. One of Page’s earliest television appearances was as Chrissie in the rather fine Dixon of Dock Green episode Seven for a Secret, Never to be Told and she’d later pop up in numerous other series, such as Doctor Who.

Roobarb and Custard – The Complete Collection. Simply Media DVD Review.

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Roobarb, which first aired in 1974, was one of a number of children’s series (The Magic Roundabout was another) which aired on BBC1 just before the six o’clock news, thus ensuring that it attracted a large adult viewership in addition to its intended target audience.  This is probably the one of the reasons why it’s maintained a certain cult status ever since, although there are several others.

Firstly, Grange Calveley’s scripts are funny.  Although they lack the layered humour that Eric Thompson brought to the Magic Roundabout, there’s still plenty of decent puns and weird flights of fancy to enjoy.  For example, in When Roobarb Found Sauce, Roobarb is concerned to find that the pond has dried up and sets out to find its source.  This leads him to the centre of the Earth where a strange creature provides him with the pond’s sauce, which turned out to be chocolate (his favourite!)

Richard Briers’ narration is a major plus point as well.  Briers was a master storyteller, and each five minute episode benefits enormously from his spot on comic timing.  As good as the scripts are, Briers makes them just that little bit better.

And lastly, Bob Godfrey’s unmistakable animation gave the series a look and feel unlike any other on television at that time.  Although Godfrey wasn’t the only animator to work on the original (he tended to lead a core group of around four or five animators) every episode has the same hand-drawn feel which makes it seem as if it was the work of an individual.  The animation style chosen, known as “boiling”, gave Roobarb a deliberately rough feel – as colour was crudely added with marker pens and varied from frame to frame.

The minimalist style (despite the fact that most of the action took place in the garden, there was little attempt made to colour in the backgrounds – instead they remained a plain white) also helped to create a certain atmosphere.  Of course this was no doubt borne out of necessity – the cruder the animation, the quicker it could be done – but thanks to the quality of Calveley’s scripting and Briers’ narration you can forgive the rough-and-ready nature of the visuals.

As for the main character, Roobarb is terribly appealing.  He’s an eternal optimist, always ready with an invention or a plan to make everyone’s life a little better.  Things don’t always work out quite the way he intends though, and when disaster strikes he finds Custard the cat and the birds forming up to mock his efforts.  But no matter, Roobarb always bounces back to hatch another scheme next time.

Roobarb ran for thirty episodes which were repeated on numerous occasions.  As with several other classic children’s shows it received a twenty-first century makeover and returned for another series, this time entitled Roobarb and Custard Too.

Roobarb and Custard Too ran for thirty nine episodes, which were broadcast on C5 during 2005.  As with the original, Grange Calveley provided the scripts and Richard Briers the narration, although this time the visuals were generated via computer animation (the “boiling” look of the original was kept).  The opening episode, When There Was a Surprise, provides us with a clear example that this is a 21st Century Roobarb as it concerns Roobarb’s efforts to build his own computer (out of wood and other scraps) and how he’s able to get it working, courtesy of Mouse.

Although the increased cast of characters in Roobarb and Custard Too slightly diluted the enclosed charm of the original, it was still a witty and entertaining series and whilst it’ll probably never surpass the original in many peoples affections it certainly has its moments.

Roobarb and Custard – The Complete Collection contains, as its title implies, all thirty episodes of Roobarb  (on the first DVD) and all thirty nine episodes of Roobarb and Custard Too (on DVDs two and three).  Given that Roobarb and Custard Too was made in 2005, it’s slightly surprising that the picture format for all these episodes is 4:3.  I don’t have a copy of the original broadcasts to hand, but I strongly suspect they would have been made in widescreen.  It’s also a little disappointing that none of the discs are subtitled.

Roobarb and Custard – The Complete Collection is released by Simply Media on the 16th of May 2016.  RRP £34.99.

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Eighteen

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Written by Phil Redmond. Tx 2nd March 1979

The end of the school year is approaching and Grange Hill chooses to mark it with an open day and a series of projects. The first years project is “The History of Grange Hill” – a subject which doesn’t fill Cathy with a great deal of enthusiasm. She wonders which crawler thought that one up (possibly it’s not a surprise that it was Penny Lewis – embarrassingly she happened to be sitting opposite Cathy at the time she made the comment!)

For many of the first years, it’s the last time we’ll see them in school uniform as when series three opens, uniform has been made optional. Cathy and Trisha are given the job of designing a project about school uniform through the ages, which gives them an early chance to wear something a little more casual.

There’s a nice bit of continuity as Judy Preston makes a reappearance. Along with a few of her classmates at Brookdale, she’s come to propose a quiz between Brookdale and Grange Hill. Mr Llewellyn agrees and this brings the series to its conclusion.

It’s also the last time we’ll see Sean Arnold as Mr Llewellyn. Although Llewellyn remains headmaster for series three, he’s only ever referred to and never actually seen (after a while this becomes obvious – he’s always away at conferences or otherwise unavailable). And it won’t be the last time that Grange Hill will have a head teacher who’s conspicuous by their absence.

There’s a bit of a kerfuffle at the quiz after Doyle and his friends lock Hughes (who’s dreading taking part anyway) in a cupboard. With the clock ticking down to the start, there’s a mild crisis when he can’t be found. It’s very mild, to be honest, as it’s hardly the most gripping of plots, but it fills a few minutes.

The news that Mr Mitchell is leaving comes as a surprise, although Doyle (thanks to his family connections) already knew. But whilst teachers and pupils come and go, life at Grange Hill goes on.

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Seventeen

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Written by Margaret Simpson. Tx 27th February 1979

The end of year exams are fast approaching and Susi’s feeling the strain.  Miss Summers later tells her that the first year exams aren’t terribly important, but Susi’s mother is putting considerable pressure on her.

Next year she’ll be in the top set in French and English, but in a lower set in Maths.  This comes as a disappointment to her (although it’s clear that it’ll be more of a disappointment to her mother).  Miss Summers is able to explain that it’s no disgrace to be in a lower set in some subjects, it simply means that she’s not quite as good at Maths as she is in other subjects.  Therefore it’s better that she’s placed in a set with others of a similar ability, rather than struggle along in a higher set.

There’s a clear divide made between Mrs McMahon and Penny’s mother, Mrs Lewis.  Mrs McMahon never seems to give her daughter any encouragement at all and also tells her that she’ll be voting to keep school uniform in the upcoming referendum.  Mrs Lewis is a much more relaxed character (for example, she’s quite happy to vote for the abolition of uniform).  The juxtaposition between the two mothers makes a telling point – if Susi didn’t feel her mother’s constant disapproval thenno doubt she’d be a much happier person.

Mr McMahon (Bill Treacher) is more supportive, telling Susi she can only do her best, although he’s rather distant, which seems to make it clear that Mrs McMahon is the driving force of the family.  This is Mr McMahon’s only appearance and it does come as a slight shock to see a rather well-spoken turn from Treacher (later to become very familiar thanks to his decade or so as Arthur Fowler in Eastenders).

Elsewhere, Tucker finds an exam paper which he’s convinced is the one they’re about to sit.  We’ll revisit this plot-line in later years when Pogo tries to make a profit by selling questions from a paper he found. Here, Tucker doesn’t attempt any such free enterprise – he’s happy to share for free – but it doesn’t take a mind-reader to work out that it’s clearly not going to end well.  Mr Mitchell’s reluctance to act, although he knows that something’s going on, makes it plain that whatever Tucker’s found, it’s not that year’s paper.

This is made quite obvious when none of the questions come up in the paper they take – resulting in poor Tucker suffering attacks from all of his angry classmates!

The referendum to make school uniform optional votes in favour of the proposal by a narrow majority, to the delight of many.

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Sixteen

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Written by Alan Janes. Tx 23rd February 1979

Although the boys make it back safely, there’s no sign of the girls – so a full-scale search is initiated.  Justin wants to tell Mr Mitchell that they saw Penny and Susi in the forest, but the others aren’t keen as they know how angry he’ll be.  So for the moment they all keep quiet.

Apart from the natural dangers of the forest, an extra level of jeopardy is introduced when it’s revealed that a puma has escaped from a local wildlife park and is roaming around.  Since we never see it (we’re told later that it’s been caught) it turns out to be something of a red herring, especially when there are other dangers – such as marshlands – which could be equally as dangerous.

Eventually Justin decides to speak up – despite Doyle’s threats and this marks something of a turning point in Justin’s character.  He’s always been portrayed as rather weedy (in the previous episode the coach had to stop as he was feeling sick, for example) but he stands up to Doyle here and threatens to smash his face in if he doesn’t stop complaining.

Dramatically there’s not a great deal of tension during the search, since we can confidently assume that Penny and Susi are going to be found safe and well (a similar problem occurred in a later episode when Mr Baxter and Roland were lost on an outward bound course).  But the hunt for the girls is quite effectively staged – especially when it gets darker.  The only problem is that they presumably couldn’t afford to shoot at night, so instead a dark filter is placed over the camera to simulate the night-time ambiance.  The dead giveaway is the fact that the blue sky can still be seen (an unavoidable side effect of day for night filming).

Mr Mitchell is all for punishing the boys when they get back to school but Miss Clarke (Jill Dixon) is much more forgiving, considering that if the trip was partly to teach the kids about the countryside, then they’ve certainly learnt how dangerous it can be.  Her counsel wins the day and the pupils return to London a little wiser.

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Fifteen

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Written by Alan Janes. Tx 20th February 1979

School trips offer a chance to see both the pupils and teachers in a different environment, so it’s no surprise that Grange Hill would return to the school trip plot-line again and again over the years – since it always provided the writers with numerous dramatic possibilities.

One notable person missing from the trip is Tucker – which is a shame because there’s no doubt he’d have found numerous ways to liven things up.  We do have Doyle though – who also likes to be the centre of attention.  His first scene is lovely, as we see him marched to the coach by his mother who’s determined to put him on it, despite his protests.  He manages to break free from her, leaving her running after the coach brandishing his forgotten wellington boots!

He later antognises Penny and Susi – which is an early sign of the feud that he’d enjoy with Penny during series three (especially when he becomes a school rep, much to Penny’s irritation).  Penny’s at her most studious here – she’s puzzled as to why Susi decided to go on the trip since she doesn’t seem to have a great deal of interest in archeology.  Susi’s reply is telling – her mother told her to.

Although Susi’s mother hasn’t featured greatly so far, everything we’ve seen of her suggests that she’s keen to dominate her daughter but also can’t resist belittling her achievements.  She doesn’t believe Susi is particularly bright – even though Susi is that the top of most of her classes, Mrs McMahon is convinced that that’s more to do with the relative lack of ability from the other pupils than Susi’s own intelligence.

Doyle, Alan, Andrew and Justin decide to break free from Mr Sutcliffe’s party to explore the forest.  Since they’ve been expressly forbidden from going off by themselves, you know this is going to end in trouble.  Later, they spy Penny and Susi who have also wandered into the forest.  Doyle makes various animal noises which frightens the girls, causing them to run even deeper into the forest, where they find themselves hopelessly lost.

I wonder if this episode was originally scripted with Tucker, rather than Doyle, in mind.  Everything that Doyle does (placing a fake plastic spider on Penny, for example) could have also been done by Tucker and it’s unusual to see Alan team up with Doyle.  Possibly it was decided to change things around in order to move Doyle more into the centre of the action or maybe Todd Carty wasn’t available for the filming dates.

Whatever the reason, the episode ends with Penny and Susi lost, but the real danger they face only becomes clear at the start of episode sixteen.

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Fourteen

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Written by Phil Redmond. Tx 16th February 1979

Following SAG’s recent disruptions of school-life, Mr Llewellyn has instigated various procedures which he hopes will tighten up the pupils behaviour.  These include a zero-tolerance policy on late arrivals – which means that Mr Baxter is present at the front gate, making a gleeful note of every latecomer!

This is bad news for Tucker, who turns up some twenty-five minutes late.  Partly this is because he’s missed the bus, but it’s also because he was waylaid by three Brookdale boys on the way to school.  The running battles between the Grange Hill pupils and the Brookies would be a recurring theme during the next few years and even when the schools were merged in series eight the arguments and fights would rumble on for a time.

Tucker, Benny, Alan and Hughes are at their most boisterous in this episode.  A spot of fighting during lunch time is spotted by a teacher who decides they can drop a letter off at the secretary’s office since they’ve clearly not got anything better to do.  Tucker decides that if they do they won’t have time to go to the chippy, so Benny pops the letter into his blazer pocket to deliver later (the fact they don’t deliver the letter straight away seems set up to be important, but it later turns out to have no bearing on the plot).

They’re just as uncontrollable when they get to the chippy.  Tucker declares that he won’t have the chop-suey as he’s convinced that cats and dogs are put into it.  Instead, he decides he’ll have something that you can be sure is fine – a sausage (even though Hughes tells him that it’s made up of sawdust!).  Tucker’s slitty-eyed impersonation of the Chinese owner of the shop (highly politically incorrect of course) proves to be the final straw and all of them are forced to leg it.

More battles with the Brookies on the way back to school result in them taking Benny’s blazer.  This means that Tucker, Alan and Benny have to infiltrate the enemy territory of Brookdale in order to retrieve it.  As they pace the unfamiliar school corridors, there’s a rare use of incidental music to heighten the tension.  Since music wasn’t something the series used at this time it’s a little jarring to hear it in these scenes – but it does help to enhance this largely dialogue free section of the episode.

This episode is rather a throwback to the rough-and-tumble Tucker of series one, but since there hasn’t been a decent Tucker-centric episode for a while it’s a welcome one.

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Thirteen

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Written by Margaret Simpson. Tx 13th February 1979

It’s the day of the school play, Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Joseph (Andrew Stanton) is feeling the pressure.  But is he really sick or is it just nerves?  But even though Andrew seems a little listless, others continue to put maximum effort into ensuring that everything goes right on the right.

None more so than Tucker, whose artistic side is displayed after he customises a bike to serve as Joseph’s chariot.  But his well-intentioned efforts to ensure that everything is perfect means that he decides to skip Mr Keating’s maths class to finish off working on the bike – which naturally doesn’t go down very well with the intimidating teacher.

This is the first real chance we’ve had to see Mr Keating at work.  Robert Hartley is spot on at portraying the type of teacher that every school seemed to have – you just know there would never be any disruption in his class as he’d have no qualms in issuing detentions to any miscreants.  He does so to Tucker when he tracks him down and after the boy complains that this means he’ll miss his tea, Mr Keating remorselessly tells him that he’ll just have to miss his tea!

Aside from enjoying a lengthy acting career, from the early 1950’s to the early 1990’s, he also spent the latter part of his career, during the 1980’s and 1990’s, composing music for various television series (including all fourteen episodes of the Keith Barron vehicle Haggard).

If Andrew’s complaints of feeling sick and his flat-as-a-pancake singing in the final rehearsals aren’t enough to drive Mr Sutcliffe to despair, then there’s worse to come.  Jackie Heron and her friends, having been irritated at being put into detention by Miss Summers, decide to wreck the props and costumes for the play.  Tucker’s chariot is damaged and paint is thrown over the coat of many colours as well as the scenery.

It’s Tucker who discovers the devastation, closely followed by Mr Sutcliffe who instantly decides that Tucker must have been responsible.  Thankfully, Miss Summers also turns up and is able to convince Mr Sutcliffe that there’s no way that Tucker would have done this – he certainly wouldn’t have damaged his own bike, not after all the hard work he put into it.

James Wynn has some good comedy moments in this scene. They work especially well since Mr Sutcliffe is usually a rather laid-back person – but with everything collapsing in disaster around him, the increasing irritation he feels (only compounded when he sits down on Tucker’s chips!) rings the changes somewhat.

As might be expected, it all works out fine in the end – Tucker repairs the bike and he manages to find a replacement coat.  Although it comes as a surprise to his mother when she realises that Tucker’s taken one of her coats without asking.  But as so often with Peter Jenkins, she regards him more with indulgence than irritation.

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Twelve

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Written by Phil Redmond. Tx 9th February 1979

SAG continues to demonstrate (with placards bearing the catchy slogan “Uniform’s a drag – go with SAG”).

The noise irritates the mild-mannered Mr Sutcliffe, but Mr Llewellyn seems quite unconcerned, regarding it as “one of the problems of living with democracy, having to tolerate elements you don’t agree with.”  He asks for a delegation to air their grievances – which is led, of course, by the young militant Jessica Samuels.  We know by now exactly what Jess will say (and the Headmaster knows as well, hence his slightly mocking tone).

He makes the point that he’s not prepared to do anything until it can be proved that the majority of pupils are in favour of abolishing uniform – a concept which SAG never seem to have contemplated.  He offers to raise it at the next staff/pupil council meeting – where the proposal to abolish uniform is defeated by nine votes to two.  Coincidentally, Penny Lewis is gathering support for a referendum to accurately gauge everybody’s opinions (which would seem to be the obvious way to prove, once and for all, what the majority of pupils actually want). It’s therefore odd that neither SAG or Mr Llewellyn ever seem to consider the possibility of a referendum themselves.

Naturally, Jess and the others don’t take this latest setback at all well and decide to organise a sit-in, barricading themselves into the secretary’s office.  Maximum embarrassment is created for Mr Llewellyn when Jess calls the local paper – but he’s able to diffuse the situation by telling the reporter that it’s hardly a full-scale riot – just a handful of individuals.  When the SAG members sees the reporter has left without speaking to them, this is the final straw and they begin to wreck the office (much to the dismay of Trisha and Cathy).

After the heavy artillery (Mr Baxter) is brought in to restore order, the SAG leaders are expelled whilst Trisha and Cathy are suspended for seven days.  It brings to an end one of the most confrontational plot-threads that the series would ever attempt.  Off hand, it’s difficult to recall any other teacher/pupil conflicts on such a scale as this. Although Grange Hill would deal with many contentious issues in the decades to come, this sort of open disobedience would rarely be seen again.

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Eleven

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Written by Phil Redmond. Tx 6th February 1979

SAG are becoming increasingly militant.  The first flashpoint occurs over a dispute in the school canteen, but much to their dismay Mr Llewellyn accedes to their demands.  So they decide to target extra-curricular sport activities – which means that they’ll meet Mr Baxter head on …..

This episode is a fascinating time capsule of the period.  Industrial unrest was an everyday occurrence in late 1970’s Britain and here we see that Grange Hill isn’t immune.  SAG decide to organise picket-lines across the changing-rooms and do their best to stop their fellow pupils crossing them.  The rhetoric spouted by Jess and her followers has become increasingly heated.  Whereas in the earlier episodes it was possible to believe that they had a genuine desire to abolish school uniform on a point of principle, here it appears that they’re simply looking for any cause that’ll allow them to create the maximum amount of disruption.

Was this Phil Redmond having a none too subtle dig at the unions?  The speedy resolution of the canteen crisis seems to confirm this, as Jess seems very disappointed that Mr Llewellyn accepted that all their points were valid.  The problem centered around a table designated for those (such as Benny) who were receiving free school dinners.  The stigma this causes, which Doyle gleefully uses to pick a fight with Tucker and Benny, has been a bone of contention for some time.

There’s another example of (mild) bad language, which is nevertheless a surprise to hear.  But this pales into insignificance when Jess stands on the table, insisting that the Headmaster is brought to them immediately.  Others follow suit and all of the pupils make a lot of noise.  It’s not exactly a riot, but it’s still a scene that would have no doubt provided more ammunition for those who contended that Grange Hill was a bad influence.

When Mr Llewellyn arrives, Jess outlines their grievances.  “This is merely a demonstration to highlight the humiliation, the degradation and the embarrassment a lot of students have to suffer. Not only due to their family circumstances, but because they’re forced into a situation which stigmatizes the poor.”  It’s another dramatic moment which shows how the series had evolved from the fairly low-key first series.

Tucker is also able to wring from the Headmaster another concession – that the older pupils will no longer serve the younger ones with their meals.  He’s unhappy that some, like Booga Benson, have been short-changing them.  This is the first time that Booga (later to become Tucker’s nemesis) is mentioned but it’ll be some time before we actually see him in the flesh.

Mr Baxter later refers to the SAG committee as louts and there’s a telling confrontation between him and the SAG leaders on the playing fields.  They might be able to intimidate some of the other teachers, but there’s no doubt that Mr Baxter isn’t going to back down.  However, he does require the help of some of the older pupils (led by Gary Hargreaves) to ensure that the cricket team (heading off to play a match against Brookdale) are able to reach the school bus unmolested.

Several players are pressurised to step down, so Tucker, Alan and Justin step in.  This leads to some classic comedy moments between Tucker and Mr Baxter.  Tucker is keen as mustard – he wants to be the wicket-keeper, but Mr Baxter tells him to get out into the field instead.  And when it’s their turn to bat, he’s constantly trying to get onto the pitch, but Baxter tells him that he’ll only get a turn when he’s given up hope!

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Ten

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Written by Phil Redmond. Tx 2nd February 1979

The fall-out from Miss Summers’ resignation is still rumbling on. The staff, led by Mr Baxter, go on strike – which means that the children get an unexpected day off. This gives Mr Garfield a nice line where he bemoans that “nobody thinks about me. I never had this trouble with Mr Starling.” Most of Graham Ashley’s dialogue is matter-of-fact (he was never given the same comic material that, say, Timothy Bateson would later enjoy) so his deadpan delivery here is all the more memorable for its rarity.

Cathy and Madelin decide to go out somewhere. Cathy does offer Trisha an olive branch by asking if she wants to join them, but Trisha’s not interested. Madelin’s later comment that Trisha is a “stuck up bitch” is a little jarring – it’s a mild enough profanity (and pretty much every real school-child would have used far worse) but it’s still a surprise to hear it uttered in a BBC children’s series.

The pair head for the local shopping precinct. This is a lovely slice of late 1970’s Britain, complete with piped music, and we’ll see it again in series three (during the episode where Antoni Karamanopolis dies). Madelin decides that a bit of shop-lifting will pass the time and Cathy reluctantly agrees.

The first things that Madelin steals are a couple of apples (Cathy puts hers in the bin, which is a telling moment). They then take some empty record sleeves, to put on their bedroom walls. After this, it’s time for the big one – as they steal some clothes from the Clockwork Orange boutique (I wonder if this was a real shop or if the name was scripted? I hope it’s the former!)

As might be expected, they don’t get away with it – although if they had left when Cathy suggested, they might have done – for some reason Madelin decided to hang about, giving the shop assistants time to check that some of their stock was missing. A chase ensues and eventually the pair are cornered – but not before the sneaky Madelin has put the stolen top into Cathy’s bag and blamed her for the crime.

Many of the topics we see in the early series of Grange Hill will be done again in later years (some several times). Mainly this is because certain themes, such as shop-lifting, always remain relevant. And in the future I think the subject was handled a little better and with more depth than we see here.

Cathy is told at the end of the episode there will be no further action and Mr Mitchell advises her to settle her differences with Trisha. With Cathy’s delinquent streak only lasting two episodes it does feel rather rushed. When Grange Hill next tackled shop-lifting (about a decade or so later) the story was allowed more time to develop which meant that the ramifications for a character who had previously (like Cathy) led a blameless life carried greater weight.

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Nine

grange hill s02e09

Written by Margaret Simpson. Tx 30th January 1979

Almost as quickly as Cathy’s father turns up, he leaves again. As a character he’s not remotely important (we only hear him utter a handful of words) and he simply serves as a trigger to push Cathy into a series of delinquent misadventures.

The first sign of the trouble to come is when Cathy and Trisha fall out. And the even worse news is that Cathy finds a new friend straight away in Madelin Tanner. It’s pretty clear from the start that Madelin’s a bad lot – she encourages Cathy to bunk off from sports in order to go for a smoke in a secluded part of the school. There they meet Jackie Heron and her friend, but it isn’t long before their peace is shattered by the arrival of Mr Garfield.

Although they make a run for it, Mr Garfield and his colleague manage to run them down. I love the way Mr Garfield’s colleague brandishes a broom in their general direction – almost like he’s herding sheep!

This is only the start of Cathy’s naughty behaviour though and the bad feeling between Trisha and Cathy finally comes to a head during their art class. A brief fight between the pair of them breaks out and when Miss Summers intervenes, she accidentally strikes Cathy. Madelin is quick to insist that she hit Cathy deliberately and Cathy goes along with her.

The meeting in Mr Llewellyn’s office, with Cathy, Madelin and Miss Summers is rather instructive. Mr Llewellyn displays the same rather inflexible nature that’s already caused a certain amount of friction amongst the staff.  Refusing to discuss the matter with her in private leaves Miss Summers no alternative but to hand in her resignation.

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Eight

grange hill s02e08

Written by Alan Janes. Tx 26th January 1979

This episode sees Cathy Hargreaves move centre-stage for the first time. Up until now we’ve learnt very little about her, apart from the fact that her father died when she was a baby.

The news that a man has been spotted following several Brookdale girls sparks concern and the school is visited by a policeman who is keen to stress some basic safety tips. The reaction of the pupils to this news (they’re very unruly and Mr Llewellyn struggles to quell them) is quite interesting. It’s the first time we’ve really seen the kids behave badly en-masse – and with the SAG protests about school uniform still bubbling away it’s a taste of things to come.

Trisha and Cathy are busy collecting signatures for the petition to abolish school uniform. Trisha’s sister Carol refuses to sign, telling her younger sister (probably quite rightly) that “you’d be out here, whatever the issue. You just like stirring it.”

Later, the two girls are sent to post a parcel and after Trisha leaves to go home, Cathy is followed by a man (who was also seen hanging around the school at the start of the episode). There’s an obvious inference, but the reality is somewhat different – the man is Cathy’s father. It takes a while before this is revealed though, so the sequence of Cathy’s growing realisation that somebody’s following her is rather disturbing.

The obvious fall-out when Cathy realises that her dead father isn’t dead after all will be seen in the upcoming episodes – as Trisha and Cathy fall out and Cathy hooks up with a nasty piece of work called Madelin Tanner (Lesley Woods).

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Seven

grange hill s02e07

Written by Phil Redmond. Tx 23rd January 1979

The next day, Benny continues to fret about Simon’s safety. Tucker’s not concerned though – they went back into the school and he wasn’t there, so he must have got out alright. Tucker being Tucker, of course, can’t help himself by telling the concerned Benny that if they did discover a charred corpse they’d be able to identify it from the dental records!

It turns out that Simon’s fine, although the fire damage is quite costly and money has to be taken from the funds raised by the recent jumble sale.

His inability to read is eventually revealed when he confesses this fact to Trisha. As previously mentioned, it does stretch credibility to breaking point that he’s survived so far into the first year without his problem being recognised.  We saw in the previous episode how he was able to get out of reading by feigning sickness – are we supposed to think that he’s been doing the same thing all the year?! Trisha, of course, loves a lame duck and takes it upon herself to teach him (telling the boy he needs to address her as Miss Yates and give her an apple!)

Simon tells her why he’s kept his problems with reading a secret – he doesn’t want to have to leave Grange Hill and be placed in a “special school”. Dyslexia really became a recognised condition in the 1980’s – prior to that, as Simon says, people who couldn’t read were usually labelled “thick or stupid.” It’s another early example of the series’ public-service ethos – undoubtedly some of the audience would have identified with Simon’s problems and Mr Sutcliffe’s sympathetic reaction would have helped to reassure them.

Having said that, it’s slightly concerning that Simon will, after all, have to transfer elsewhere – with all the stigma that attending a special school entails. This may have been seen as quite reasonable back in the late 1970’s, but it does strike a slightly discordant note today.

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Six

 

grange hill s02e06

Written by Phil Redmond. Tx 19th January 1979

Simon’s rather upset to be dropped from the school football team by Mr Baxter. He’s not able to give a reason why he missed a recent practice session – there was a notice put up, said Baxter, couldn’t he read? As Simon reacts angrily to this (plus the other hints we’ve had in earlier episodes) we can surmise this is uncomfortably close to the truth.

Tucker decides to cheer him up by initiating him into his gang, the Tremblers (this is obviously something that Tucker’s created on the spur of the moment). In order to become a member, Tucker tells him he has to climb up to the top of the school tower. Simon says he”ll do it, provided he sees the others do it first. All goes well until Mr Garfield discovers them and, not realising that Benny had already reached the top of the tower, locks him in.

Mr Garfield (Graham Ashley) was the first in Grange Hill’s long line of put-upon caretakers, and many of them followed the Garfield archetype (bad-tempered and irritable). Sadly, Ashley died in 1979 at the age of only 52 – with his final appearances as Mr Garfield airing the year after his death, in 1980. He had a very solid acting career with plenty of guest-spots in popular series (such as Porridge, Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em, Colditz and The Avengers) and was a regular in Dixon of Dock Green, although most of his episodes were wiped. Another notable credit was as Gold Five in the first Star Wars movie.

More excuses from Simon in Mr Sutcliffe’s English class – he says he can’t read as he feels sick. This break from lessons allows Simon to release Benny from the tower, but he pretends to Tucker that he couldn’t – ensuring that the others decide to return to the school in the evening to free him.

Simon’s practical joke (involving a skeleton and a candelabra!) backfires spectacularly when it accidentally causes a fire. The “flipping ‘ecks” are liberally sprinkled about as Tucker, Alan and Benny “leg it” but they don’t realise that Simon hasn’t followed them. He’s tripped over a cable and knocked himself out – leaving us on a decent cliff-hanger as the other three worry that he might be in some danger.

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Five

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Written by Margaret Simpson. Tx 16th January 1979

The staff/pupil council was a popular theme during the early series of Grange Hill, but after series five it rarely surfaced again. This is a little surprising, since it offered a rare opportunity for all members of the school community to have a say (even if, of course, the teachers tended to win the day most of the time – much to the pupil’s chagrin).

The thorny topic of school uniform, a running thread through series two, is brought up here. There are some, such as third-former Jess (Sara Sugarman), who are strongly opposed to uniforms – later in the episode she mutters that they might as well just brand them all and be done with it. Sugarman’s performance is so deadly earnest that it does raise a smile – for some reason the issue of school uniform seems to obsess her intensely.

Penny Lewis, as the new first year rep, has less contentious topics on her mind. She wants the school to create a bookshop, whilst the other first years want a tuck shop instead. Poor Penny – when she asks for a show of hands to support her proposal for a bookshop, none are raised, but everybody supports the idea of a tuckshop.

Her mother later suggests an obvious solution – why not have a combined tuck and bookshop. And it’s instructive to hear her pass off the idea next day in school as her own! She’s a sneaky one, is that Penny Lewis.

The school council meeting also gives us a chance to see Michael Doyle’s father, the very important (at least in his own mind) Councillor Doyle. Like his son, he’s not the nicest of chaps – Doyle Snr is pompous and officious and seems keen to block any suggestions made by the pupils. His character is in sharp contrast to Mr Llewellyn, who is prepared to listen to suggestions (and is much more approachable than his successor, Mrs McClusky would ever be).

Elsewhere, this is one of the first episodes where the trio of Tucker, Benny and Alan is clearly established. Alan was a very peripheral character in the first series, but we’ll see him become a much more central figure over the next few years. And by the time of series four he’s supplanted Benny as Tucker’s best friend (especially when Benny fades away from view in the second half of the series).

In this episode they get into trouble for taking to the school jumble sale a chaise-long they thought was left for the binman. The owner of the antique shop (or junk shop, as Tucker more accurately called it) wasn’t best pleased – but it seems that an honest mistake was made, so once the boys lug it back to the shop all was forgiven.

It’s an eye-opener to hear that the clothes sold at the jumble sale were going for five pence each. I know this was 1979, but that seems like a bargain even then! It’s even more impressive when it’s revealed that the jumble sale made £435.00. How many items at five pence a time must they have sold to make that amount of money?!

Another lovely Tucker moment occurs when he shamefacedly realises he’s sold Mrs Bennett’s rather expensive coat for five pence! Although he did honestly think it was part of the jumble, so we can’t blame him for that.

Grange Hill. Series Two – Episode Four

grange hill s02e04

Written by Margaret Simpson. Tx 12th January 1979

Love is in the air for Trisha, as both Simon Shaw (Paul Miller) and Gary Hargreaves (Mark Farmer) vie for her attention.

Simon Shaw was a rather short-lived character – he’s a central figure in the early part of series two before leaving for another school later the same year. It’s clear from the start that he’s someone with a problem – all the evidence points to the fact he has difficulty reading and writing.  Although since we’re mid-way through the school year it’s difficult to understand how this has gone unnoticed for so long. He’s clearly interested in Trisha, but she doesn’t seem to notice him – Trish has only got eyes for the fourth-form football star Gary Hargreaves (Mark Farmer).

Mark Farmer (later to turn up as a semi-regular in Minder) certainly has the gift of the gab, but Trisha’s mother warns her that he’s too old for her. Gary will pop up now and again over the next few series, almost always when the plot is football related.

Elsewhere, Mr Mitchell is appalled at the standard of grammar and punctuation in his class and Mr Baxter continues to rail against Mr Llewellyn’s timetable arrangements.

This is the first of Margaret Simpson’s scripts for Grange Hill. She’d go on to clock up nearly sixty writing credits on the show over the next decade or so (her last being the series finale in 1992).