Grange Hill saw many pupils/actors come and go through its doors during the show’s 30 year run, but the paths of former pupils from different eras rarely cross. However, in the case of Sheila Chandra who played Sudhamani Patel (1979-1981) and Lisa Hammond who played Denny Roberts (1994-1996), their paths crossed many years after they both left Grange Hill and in a surprisingly creative way!
After leaving Grange Hill, Sheila went on to be a hugely successful recording artist, before publishing her own self-help books. Lisa, meanwhile, continued to act and write, and is currently best known for her role as Donna Yates in the BBC soap opera Eastenders.
Though the two never worked together on the series, 2018 has seen the two of them collaborating as part of Sheila’s coaching business. As one of Sheila’s clients, Lisa has benefitted from Sheila’s ‘Creative Coaching’. Creative Coaching is for creative people who maybe need some guidance, as Sheila explains : “In the creative industries, whatever your genre, there’s no sure fire path to the top, and there are few experts, courses or mentoring programmes that can teach you what you need to know to get to the next level. Whether you’ve just graduated from an arts based course (that has taught you your craft, but hasn’t prepared you for the realities of running a successful career), you’re finding it ha
rd to tie down the tone and angle of the project you’re working on, or you’re simply mid-career and unable to get the insights you need from peers who are struggling themselves, those are the times that having a creative career coach who’s been there, and who understands, can be invaluable.
It’s an investment in your career – focused time to concentrate on where your blocks are and how you can work ‘smart’, in a totally confidential setting with a knowledgeable, compassionate and unbiased professional. This is something a manager can’t give you, partly because they work on commission, and also because it’s not in their remit to work on a personal level.”
‘I met Sheila for the first time at a talk she was doing at Foyle’s bookshop in London where she was talking about her book “Organisation for creative people”.’ Lisa recalls. ‘I went because me and my comedy writing partner Rachael Spence were looking into ways of being smarter/more organised in our work together. We all met briefly afterwards and we really liked her approach so we asked whether she would coach us.
Having an outside/objective eye is really important. Rachael (writing partner) and I are best mates and have a lot of various projects on the go, all of which are important to us. To have someone outside of that, to look at the work/the process is really useful for potentially noticing what is holding you back, negative patterns in your work. It’s also great just having help to stop and take stock of what you are aiming for in your artistic practice. So we thought we’d give it a go!’
Sheila elaborates further about the benefits : “Creative coaching is great for sorting out issues with your creative process – if you’re blocked, for instance, or simply don’t know which way to go next. Or things like motivational issues or creative direction. There are a few creative coaches in the UK and US that specialise with that.
What I do, adds another level though. I’m an arts veteran of almost 40 years’ standing. I have personal experience in the TV, music and publishing industries and I mentored Stik from homelessness to international acclaim as one of the UK’s best known street artists. So the additional career mentoring and working artist experience I bring to the table as a coach are pretty rare. With most artists, if they’re successful they want to continue in their arts career, rather than coach. Disability forced me to give up on my international career (I also sold a lot of records in the US, Australia and Japan) – and my loss is my clients’ gain. I help people with all the creative process and motivation stuff – but also career strategy, creative well-being and finding resources to help them get where they want to go.
I offer a free 30 minute consultation so that people can decide if I’m the right coach for them. I coach via Skype video and work with artists all over the world. They don’t even have to leave their studios to work with me! The client talks and I type so we concentrate on them, and I’ve realised that not talking during sessions (I’ve experimented with both, of course) actually makes me a better coach.”
For Lisa, the benefits of working with Sheila have been immeasurable: “There are many benefits to working with Sheila! She has a really great way of spotting/observing what the potential “blocks” are in your creative process and helps to analyse why and most importantly helps you reframe your artistic practice so that you can achieve your goals. I’d highly recommend her as a creative coach!”
And as for that Grange Hill connection; it hasn’t gone unmentioned! “Lisa and I can reminisce about our different eras and compare notes – but to be honest, we’re more likely to discuss the present. Lisa knows more about disability media than I do, and it’s fascinating to get her perspective!” says Sheila.
Lisa reveals “I’ll be honest, Sheila and I have only briefly talked about it! It is kind of cool that we were both a part of such an iconic TV programme though!”
Whilst the two might have Grange Hill in common; it is the creative coaching that has brought them together, and it is a role that Sheila finds very fulfilling: “Watching artists make transformative personal shifts, overcome their blocks, find support and learn to fly….. Oh yes, it’s very fulfilling! Being a small part of that process (after all, they do all the hard work outside sessions) is humbling and incredibly joyful. I can no longer make art myself, but I can empower others to make it.”
To connect with Sheila and to find out more about Creative Coaching, visit the links below, or follow Sheila on Twitter at @sheila_chandra.
READ ON FOR SOME GRANGE HILL REMINISENCES FROM LISA AND SHEILA.
DENNY ROBERTS (1994-1996)
How did you get the part of Denny in Grange Hill?
I fell into acting completely! I was in a “special needs” (I hate that term!) school and the producers of Grange Hill were looking for a disabled character for their show. They were visiting schools around London and after being a bit of a big mouth in their assembly, I was asked to audition. I didn’t even know what an audition was let alone how to act I got down to the last 3 in the recalls and they gave the original part to Francesca Martinez (who is now a very successful stand up and writer now 🙂 ) and they also wrote me a part in the prog too so I was really lucky. One of the first scenes I did there is when I thought- “yep.. this is what I want to do forever” and have been acting ever since.
What was it like being a part of Grange Hill in the 1990s?
It was an amazing experience to be a part of a programme that I would always watch after school. It felt like you were a part of something really amazing. I loved it and after all I might not have discovered that I wanted to act if it hadn’t been for Grange Hill.
Who did you get on well with in the cast?
I had such a laugh with all of my Grange Hill mates! Jamie Lehane and I used to make each other laugh a lot. I hung out with everyone back then. The person who I formed a friendship with and am still very close with to this day is Fiona Wade who is one of my best mates all these years on.
What was it that made your era of Grange Hill special?
That’s a hard question as I’m sure everyone that was a part of it found their era special as they were in it, so I’m the same! I did really think the choir trip we made as a part of the show was amazing; a group of us from “Grange Hill” got to travel to Germany to film a story that was part of a choir exchange in the story. That was amazing! Even though it was winter and way below freezing there-I’ve never been so cold in my life, but we had an absolutely brilliant time!
Did you have much knowledge of previous series of Grange Hill when you joined?
Yes I always watched it after school. I would usually roller-skate to the local shop (sometimes the fish and chip shop for a battered sausage 😉 ) get a carton of Ribena and some salt and vinegar chipsticks, skate home and watch Grange Hill!
Do you have happy memories of your time at Grange Hill?
Such happy memories of my time there… it was a part of my childhood, being there for 3 years. I would always look forward to getting the mini bus to Elstree to film. Plus it meant getting out of “real school” ;-).
Why do you think Grange Hill is so fondly thought of after 40 years?
Because it was an iconic and ground-breaking programme that formed so much a part of a lot of our childhoods. They tackled some really controversial stories (rightly so) and in many ways were way ahead of their time with both real life stories and the casting of the programme.
Do you keep in touch with anyone from Grange Hill and who did you get on well with in the cast?
As I said Fiona is one of my best mates and I also love hanging out/being naughty on the set of Eastenders with Luisa Bradshaw-White. We make each other laugh a lot when we get to work on scenes together!
SUDHAMANI PATEL (1979-1981)
Do you have happy memories of your time at Grange Hill?
Some, yes! Being with a bunch of extreme extroverts all day can be entertaining. I remember being on a tube train back to school after a morning filming, with lots of the cast, which was delayed for over an hour. They were hilarious, if rather loud. When some stuffy person in the carriage complained, they sang ‘We don’t need no education!’ from Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ (which had been out the year before). Being drawn largely from stage schools we were all very musical – and it was a wonder the show didn’t turn into a musical, there was so much singing as soon as the cameras were off. You’d only have to yell ‘A-five, six, seven, eight…’ for everyone to start doing ‘time steps’ in unison.
I also remember taking part in an ice-cream eating contest at the BBC Television Centre canteen – we ate five bowls each but then it was time to go back to filming so we had to abandon it. But for a shy introvert like me, all that stimulation from gregarious people all the time wasn’t always easy to take. I remember burying my head in a book which I’d found on set, which I thought was fascinating, and the chaperones asking me if anything was wrong or if anyone had upset me? That was how strange introverted behaviour seemed in that environment.
Why do you think Grange Hill is so fondly thought of after 40 years?
Well, it was a huge part of popular culture in the pre-internet era, when there were only three TV channels, few music videos, and few people were into video games. Pretty much every schoolchild in the land watched it, and doing so was a bonding experience and something to discuss with your classmates.
I also think it was honest and gritty – which at the time was hugely controversial. Prior to that, the only depictions of childhood we’d had were either Enid Blyton and the Malory Towers books about private school for the girls, or Billy Bunter and Just William (which had just been made into a TV series) about the boys. These were all about middle class white kids from the 50s and very much written from a nostalgic adult perspective about trouble-free childhoods where everyone was supposedly a ‘decent sort’. They were sometimes racist, often sexist, incredibly classist, more than often a bit naff, and bore no relevance to the experiences of working class kids in cities in the late 70s.
By contrast, Grange Hill didn’t shy away from covering shoplifting, drugs, dyslexia and real issues that faced ordinary children. If it was still going today, it’d be covering social media bullying, rape culture in the sexual attitudes of pubescent boys, and revenge porn. At the time, many adults didn’t want to hear that the show was a realistic reflection of their own children’s lives, and tried to stop their children watching it – though I’ve heard plenty of stories about people sneaking off to their friends’ houses to see it. If Grange Hill hadn’t been gritty, I doubt we’d remember it with as much affection. It didn’t pander to the ostrich-headed illusions of the adults around us, it was very much ‘ours’.
You’ve had a very successful musical career; what lead to you focusing on this rather than acting?
My voice broke when I was 12 (yes, girls’ voices do break!). Suddenly I had a rich, warm tone, and from that moment I knew I had to be a singer. As with most singers, it was a kind of vocational madness – so I never even considered acting even as a second choice. And to be honest, although I was better when left to improvise, if you look at my performances on Grange Hill you can see I’m not that great an actress. Definitely wooden!
But the other factor was cultural. For Asian traditional families, becoming a musician when you’re female is scandalous enough. Being an actress is completely beyond the pale, especially as you might have to touch or kiss other people etc. I don’t suppose I’d have let that stop me if I really wanted to act, but I wanted more control over my career than actors are generally given – unless they also become screenwriters or playwrights, as Lisa has done, for instance.
This is doubly true, and work is even scarcer, if you’re an actor/actress of colour. Lenny Henry has been at the forefront of speaking out about this – and laments “the appalling lack of diversity in broadcasting”, putting the blame squarely on the fact that the people who have the power to commission, the ‘deciders’, still do not include enough BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/jul/19/lenny-henry-ofcom-practising-fake-diversity-on-screen-tv-targets The story is the same with disability too, as Lisa and I recently discussed on an edition of the ‘Standard Issue’ podcast. https://www.acast.com/standardissuespodcast/simep96pod32-flyingsolo-disabledcreativesandimposterphenomenon She wants to see casting directors routinely take ordinary roles and cast a disabled person in it, without their disability becoming the central narrative in their storylines – as do I.
In the last 15 years, you’ve had a successful career as an author and a mentor/coach. What lead to this further career change?
From about 1995 onwards, it was quite natural for me to slip into the role of informal mentor to other creative people because I had so much experience and was so respected in my field (I was the first professional Asian Fusion artist, a full five years before the term World Music was even invented, one of the few to have a top ten hit, and I know my work convinced many of the World Music labels that set up in the late 80s that there was a serious market for that kind of music). Lots of musicians asked for my advice or for me to look over contracts for them as they knew I had my own music production and publishing companies and generally kept control of my own copyrights.
But what led to a formal change was the fact that I was having vocal health issues due to scarring on one of my vocal chords (from a clumsy intubation during an emergency operation in 1992 to save my sight after a car crash). I was still singing but the pain the scarring caused me, primed my system for pain, and I developed Burning Mouth Syndrome in 2010 as a result. For me it’s triggered by singing and talking (and feels like taking a scalding hot mouthful of tea). It meant I could no longer talk very much – though I do have to do some talking so that my vocal muscles don’t atrophy – and singing was out of the question.
It was obvious that I had to find another ‘voice’. Fortunately for me, writing comes easily to me, and the publication of my second book ‘Organizing for Creative People’ (Watkins 2017) about the essential infrastructure every artist needs, led to a slew of requests for me to coach and mentor other creatives and I set up my coaching practice officially at the beginning of the year.
To read another exclusive interview with Sheila from Grange Hill Gold, click here.
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