Grange Hill: Series 1 & 2 Review
"Flippin' 'eck!" Grange Hill was very different from the average school. As The Young Ones rightly pointed out, it was the only school in the country where the kids didn't say 'fuck' but in all other respects, it was as sure a sign as any that the Received Pronounciation of the BBC was as much a part of history as black and white television, the outdoors lavatory and requiring the services of a man with a flag to walk in front of a horseless carriage. And sending children up chimneys. Instead, they were pupils at Grange Hill, a north London comprehensive that showed little respect to the school uniform and even less to the English language.
There are exceptions. Of course there are, with many parents probably expecting better of the BBC, better-spoken children were pushed into auditions. One thinks of their faces blanching at their first sight of Grange Hill, in which their children, speaking with the kind of care owed to the English language, were surrounded by cockney ruffians. Ann Wilson is one, a tall, slender, hockey-playing girl who, in another world, is probably a Conservative member of Parliament now. Justin Bennett is another, a well-dressed and equally well-spoken boy who plays cricket and the piano, suffers nosebleeds and whose parents fret about his schooling, believing that Grange Hill will be a poor influence on him. Wearing a suit as grey as his pallor, Bennett, in a turn of events that approaches irony, is doubtless running a comprehensive school of his own now, one that he is enjoying as little as he did Grange Hill.
The polar opposite to Bennett is Tucker Jenkins, who, if feeling generous, you might describe as a bit of a runaway but whose heart, if not his tie, is always in the right place. He's into all sorts of scrapes, from hiding in the assembly hall, waving out of the observation tower, hanging Bennet's trousers out of a window or having it out with the headmaster over where he sits in the canteen. With his friends Alan and Benny, would become a hero for an entire generation, albeit one without many aspirations, a tendency to wear his tie on his head, Apache-style, and a haircut that was permanently in fashion for mucky-looking schoolboys between 1958 and 1987. Every school had a Tucker - it was a position to be envied - and it was with regret that I admit that I was not it at mine.
The first series of Grange Hill opens with the school deserted. In dribs and drabs the pupils arrive, Jenkins picked up by his mate Alan at the tower block where he lives, Benny kicking a ball along the street in his usual clothes, Bennett being dropped off by his father in his Rover V8. The teachers arrive in much the same fashion, with the first years, in their new school uniforms, heading to the assembly hall, where, without rhyme nor reason, they are called into their classes. Jenkins is put alongside Benny Green, Trisha Yates, Ann Wilson and Judy Preston into Form 1 Alpha with Mr Mitchell. This first series concerns itself with how this class settles itself into Grange Hill. Judy doesn't like the school and quickly finds herself being bullied by three older children. Benny's only ambition is to play in the school football team but needs boots while Tucker leads an It's A Knockout boat race down the swimming pool on a couple of school benches.
There are good episodes amongst the nine here but there are also some that we might describe as filler. That swimming pool race is an obvious highlight as is a later episode in which Benny, Tucker and Justin Bennett slope off from Grange Hill to an abandoned firing range hoping to find an old hand grenade or two but end the day with Justin falling off a roof and being admitted to hospital. That early Jenkins strategy of hopeless ambition followed by tragedy was set in stone at the very moment that Justin fell off the roof onto the concrete below. Elsewhere, and Grange Hill being as much an issues-led drama as Phil Redmond's later Brookside, bullying comes to the fore early with Judy, who is already feeling lonely in her new school, attracting the attentions of some older kids. She's threatened, her pen is stolen and is told to bring 20p the next day if she wants to buy it back. The rotters! Michael 'Oily Doyley' Doyle arrives late in the year to pick scraps with Tucker, tell Benny Green to go back to the jungles and to steal an antique pistol. Ann Wilson stands for the school council - one year after Thatcher reaches Downing St., Ann Wilson wins the Form 1 seat of Grange Hill! - while Trisha Yates helps out in the biology lab only to let a hamster escape. Finally, having to wear a school uniform gets to Trisha and she plays truant, as does Doyle's bullying of Benny. They meet up in an art gallery where they become good friends. Even if, in a somewhat strange turn of events given what drove him to mitch off school in the first place, Trisha tells Benny not to listen to Doyle.
Into the second series and there are new teachers - Bullet Baxter being the most notable - new pupils and a new headmaster, who does things very differently. Ann Wilson is out for, I suspect, being far too posh for a place like Grange Hill and is replaced by Cathy Hargreaves, who gets menaced by a paedophile for her troubles. Trisha has to help get Simon out of bed every morning and into school but Simon does so very little when he gets there that she wonders if it's worth the trouble. Tucker demands that Grange Hill open a tuckshop, the school holds a jumble sale - Tucker sells his mum's best coat...the tearaway! - while he also sets the school on fire with the help of Benny, Alan and Simon. Cathy and Madelin Tanner get arrested for shoplifting, the school puts on a performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Justin Bennett makes a friend and there's the first sign on the ongoing ruckus between Grange Hill and Brookdale when Tucker gets beaten up and Benny has his blazer stolen. There's a weekend field trip to the country, Grange Hill field a cricket team, Trisha gets a boyfriend and the Student's Action Group (SAG) push for the abolishment of the school uniform. But Baxter isn't happy when they picket his sports ground and they upset everyone with a sit-in in the secretary's office!
Student's Action Group? A sit-in? A school council? If anything separates Grange Hill from the average comprehensive, grammar or high school, it's this sense of politics that runs through the show. The pupils of Grange Hill wear their uniforms inside out, picket the sports grounds, run truant through the streets in pursuit of the cricket team and ransack the school records during their office sit-in. They even call the press to the school during their mid-afternoon protest, which, after a full year of this nonsense, leads to the head's patience finally snapping. Perhaps this was normal in comprehensive schools. But in my school, you were given the strap if you wore white high-top trainers - this was 1985! - if you dared not come to school with your blazer or if the school shirt was the wrong shade of blue. Just about the only change to the uniform that was allowed was turning the tie around to leave it skinny in a new wave-style. Again, this was 1985, which was in the last few years of when it was still acceptable for schoolchildren to be spotty, smelly, greasy and deeply unfashionable.
Again, there was always the reputation around Grange Hill that, as a comprehensive, it was a violent school. Certainly, there are examples of bullying but the one instance of corporal punishment comes after Tucker and Benny almost set the school alight. Even then, it's with the full co-operation of their parents that Jenkins and Green are called into the Headmaster's office, leaving the audience guessing as to all that mattered with the strap...how many and where? The same could be said of the bullying, which, the unpleasant racism from Doyle and his gang aside, is little more than a bit of finger-pointing and standing too close. No pushing anyone's head in the toilet here, nor, Brookdale aside, any ganging up on younger pupils. And absolutely no fights when a thousand or so pupils scurry out of their hiding places shouting, "FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!" to accompany two schoolboys pushing and shoving each other a bit.
None of that mattered, though, when Grange Hill went beyond all of that to portray secondary education somewhat, if not entirely, realistically. Uniforms looked scruffy an hour or two into the first day of the first terms, school tables were a scribble of graffiti and chewing gum and the first years were under threat of a beating from the fifth-formers. And, of course, the language was quite unlike anything that had been heard on children's television before. In amongst the costume dramas, the adaptations of classic children's literature and Blue Peter, Grange Hill arrived like a short, sharp howl from the inner-cities. Trisha, Cathy, Tucker, Alan and Benny spoke like real kids, dressed themselves in the kind of clothes their older brothers and sisters did, wore too much makeup (the girls) and looked as uncomfortable in their own skins as all schoolchildren do. They wear a look of boredom for the most part, are casually racist in a way that sounds part and parcel of the time - Trisha says to Benny, "It's not your fault you're a nig-nog!" even as she tells him not to listed to Doyle's racist bullying - and hang around street corners in a way that's remained unchanged for the last thirty years.
The fashions, the language and the stories have all changed over those thirty years, making this much less relevant now than it was then, but there's a certain amount of truth in these first couple of series of Grange Hill, doing well to reflect secondary school life back to the children in the audience and to say to their parents that it has changed much from their own school days. But, more than that, it says that no matter the problems left by its audience, Grange Hill tells them they're not alone. Whether dyslexic, the only child of a single parent, on the dole and unable to afford a school uniform or being bullied, Grange Hill is the sometimes comforting voice that says it's all right to children. Later, it would take in drug addiction, schoolgirl crushes, homosexuality, yet more bullying and two friends falling out over one girl. And for all I know, it's still doing so even now, tackling such issues of 2007 as Bebo sites, mobile phones and teen pregnancy. Perhaps more interesting now than the issues of 1979 - school councils, free school meals and the rest - but still entertaining, silly and prone to some moments of comedy, all of which makes this an acknowledged classic of British children's television.
2 Entertain could have done very much more with series one and two of Grange Hill than they have done. What's obvious between the menu and the actual show is a slight change in the pitch of the theme tune, suggesting that one is running slightly faster than the other. Come the start of the live-action footage, the picture looks messy. It's clearly very soft and fuzzy, there's grain in the picture and there are some very obvious faults in the material used to source this transfer. There are, as you can see in the screengrabs, lines running across the screen, colour and brightness varies considerably throughout each episode and even the quality of the title changes between episodes. These two series could have been restored much more so than has been the case here. Of course, it might be that the source material, having not been seen since 1978/79 is in very poor condition and there might not be any financial justification for any restoration of Grange Hill but it does feel as though it ought to have been treated more kindly than it has here.
The DD2.0 audio track is a little better. There's some obvious background noise and the wind can be heard buffeting the microphone at times but the dialogue is clear and untroubled by these distractions. Given the age of the material, the videotaped internal scenes sound much better than the external shots, which were produced on film, but it's generally pretty clear throughout. It is not, however, the best that 2 Entertain have done. Finally, there are no subtitles.
The only bonus material in this set is a Quiz on the fifth and final disc in the set in which the viewer is asked questions on what happens in the episodes on this set, after which the viewer is graded. Unfortunately, this viewer never scored better than a B.