Every school has a bully, but few had one quite as fearsome as Grange Hill’s Norman ‘Gripper’ Stebson. Whether it was extorting dinner money, hounding Roland Browning or starting a race riot within Grange Hill, Gripper was unpopular with staff and pupils alike, but very popular with viewers. Actor Mark Savage talks exclusively to Grange Hill Gold about what it was like to play one of TVs best villains!
How did you get the part of ‘Gripper’?
I got the part of “Gripper” when I was auditioned from stage school. It was a very lengthy audition process, taking several months. I got the acting bug when I was in my final year at junior school. I entered and won the school annual talent contest after reciting a poem, “One of the boys” a character that was coincidentally similar to Gripper. I was also in the lead in the school play that year playing St George. I was a very shy child and found a way of expressing myself through acting. I had very supportive parents and it was my then teacher who suggested that I think of acting as a career. As a working class London kid, that prospect was rather alien. When I started senior school I went to weekly workshops at The Questors Theatre, London W5.
In my final year at school, I was fortunate that my parents agreed to enrol me in stage school. From there we were auditioned for Grange Hill. It was a lengthy process, taking many months. I was eventually cast by Colin Cant. I had been in state senior school when Grange Hill had began, it was an immensely popular programme.
Were there any aspects of yourself that were similar to the character?
I think the main aspects of myself that were similar to Gripper were that we looked alike and had the same hairstyle.
Did you get on well with the cast and who did you get on best with?
I got on well with all the cast and crew. It was a fantastic learning experience for such a young actor starting out to have been fortunate enough to work and learn from actors, directors and producers with such experience. I loved learning from actors such as Robert Harding who played Mr Keating. He had worked with Lawrence Oliver, been at the inception of TV when it was a new medium for actors.
My formative teenage years were spent working on Grange Hill and I was fortunate to have been accepted into the cast by the adult actors as well as my peers. Todd Carty who played Tucker gave me a lift to work every day on the back of his motorcycle when we were working together as we lived nearby. I went to stage school and was in the same class as Paul McCarthy who played Tommy so that made working easier. Susan Tulley, Dulice Leicier, Mark Burdis and Mark Baxter were other classmates from stage school.
Gwyneth Powell has been a great support over the years, as has Mr Michael Cronin. Brian Capron was a great laugh as was Fraser Hines who played Scruffy Mc Guffy. Nicholas Pandolfi is still a good friend. Kaka Singh who played Randir was a snooker buddy. The talented Steven Woodcock. Of course Julian Griffiths who played Denny Rees as we worked so closely. I got on well with everyone, we had a great time as well as it being a fantastic learning experience for a young actor.
Did you get much reaction to your character from the public? And did you ever have any problems with the public confusing you with ‘Gripper’?
There was a massive reaction from the public towards the character “Gripper”. I very loosely based him on actual people I had been at school with. There were times when there were problems from people confusing me with the character. That goes with the territory. There were some positive reactions too.
Gripper was not a nice character and some of the scenes where he bullies Roland, racially abuses Randir or attacks Claire are quite hard-hitting. Was it difficult to play these scenes?
We all got on well as cast members, so the hard hitting scenes were not that difficult to do; we were just actors doing our job to the best of our ability. Because we all got on so well, it made the harder scenes easier, we all had a laugh in the green room. I was a good friend with Kaka Singh (Randir) and a regular visitor at his house; we’d socialise together. Erkan who played Roland was easy to work with and with me being a bit older felt like a big brother to that year off set.
How do you think the character developed?
The character was a nasty piece of work, he obviously had social issues underlying. Unfortunately, there are real characters like Gripper around. I guess that’s what made him so believable; he was identifiable.
What were your favourite storylines / scenes to be involved in?
All of the scenes were favorable. All my favorite for different reasons. There were big social issues like bullying and racism. that were confronted through drama which are unfortunately prevalent today.
Gripper was written out as a regular character but made several brief return appearances. Was this your decision?
It wasn’t my choice or decision for the character to be written out, I think the writers felt that the character had been taken to the conclusion which was expulsion. The character made several brief appearances more through the request of viewers.
Has playing ‘Gripper’ been a help or a hindrance to your career?
Playing Gripper has beyond a doubt been a great help to my career. It gets me auditions and my foot in the door.
What are your favourite memories from your time at Grange Hill?
Every day working on such an iconic TV programme are all my favorite memories. It’s fantastic to have been voted TV’s Top 10 TV villains as well as being in the top 50 TV hard-men some 20 years after filming!
Everyone has their own idea of what Gripper is doing now, which are all valid. I suppose the person to ask that question to is Mr Phil Redmond, his creator. God!
Do you keep in touch with anyone from your time on Grange Hill?
I keep in touch with most, if not all the people I was fortunate enough to work with on Grange Hill. The internet has been a great tool for us to get and keep in touch with each other.
How do you look back on your time at Grange Hill?
I am immensely proud to be part of television history
I look back at my time on Grange Hill and feel somewhat of a dinosaur myself now. When I began it was all filmed on film, then in the early 80’s, videotape was introduced. I feel so fortunate to start my career working alongside and learning from actors with such expirence and talent. Michael Cronin, Gwyneth Powell, Brian Capron. Great directors and producers, such as Susie Hush, Colin Cant, Anthony Minghella, Kenny McBain, so many more. Great writers too, who went on to write other classics.
I’m not too sure that it’s that healthy to look back all the time, can’t live in the past, it’s the here and now that’s important. But when I do it’s with fondness, pride and gratitude.
Do you have a message for the Grange Hill fans?
A message? I’m an actor not any kind of leader, but I would reply with : Beleive in yourself, follow your heart, dreams and the truth. Demand the impossible! Also my gratitude for people who watched, as they are the ones who made it all possible.
What have you done since leaving Grange Hill?
I’ve been fortunate to have kept working as an actor. See IMDB: Mark Savage II for my TV and film CV.
I start rehearsals for a play, The Squeaky Clean, with The Bootleg Theatre Company in August, directed by Colin Burden, written by Roger Goldsmith. It runs from 2nd September for 3 weeks at Wimbledon theatre studio. I play Martin, the lead. Tickets are available here.
“Alone with me” is a short film I did last summer, which is now available on IndieFlix. You can see the trailer here.
I also co-run a film company: NW6 Films (Please like our facebook page!) I’m the producer & director, my business partner, Thomas Jones, is cinematographer & editor. We’ve produced a documentary & a short film.
©2013 Grange Hill Gold
Not to be reproduced without permission
Thanks to Mark Savage