ANT JONES (1986-1987)
Arriving on screen in Series 9 (1986), Ant Jones (played by Ricky Simmonds),became one of Grange Hill’s most popular characters. A romance with Georgina, constant clashes with Mr Bronson, running away from home and an eventual transfer to rival school St Joseph’s were some of the highlights of Ant’s time on Grange H
ill. In an exclusive interview with Grange Hill Gold, Ricky talks about his time at Britain’s best known school and how he eventually swapped acting for music.
You started your career as a child model – how did that come about?
When I was about 12 or 13, a neighbour was doing some modelling and said ‘why don’t you try?’ I thought it sounded a good alternative to being a paper boy and an easy way to earn money! I was really fortunate; I put some pictures together and the first job I got was Kays Catalogue…. for two weeks in the South of France! It was brilliant; I thought every job was going to be like that.
I didn’t set out to, but I did get a lot of work. I’d always looked a lot younger than my age, so when I was doing work aged about 13, it was with people a few years younger. With me, there was a bit more of maturity and professional attitude than someone aged about 10 or 11. It was really good fun to do and great training ground for being in-front of the camera.
What lead to you going into acting?
When I was 7, the Central School of Speech and Drama in London were doing a play called The Duchess Of Malfi and needed a young kid for a couple of scenes. My primary school was a few minutes away and possibly because I looked a bit Mediterranean, they asked me if I wanted to do it. When I went on stage with an audience it was great; this electric atmosphere. I got the bug!
I remember crying to my mum and dad, saying I wanted to go to stage school. They were really level headed about it and said I’d have a normal education and if I wanted to go to drama-college at 16 it would be my choice. It was heart-breaking; it was all I wanted to do.
I got on with life at normal school, then when I was about 15, I started these Saturday classes with Stella Greenfield who was also an agent. You got to go on loads of auditions and that got me into it. I was a child actor in a way, but I didn’t start until I was 16 and had left school; I was never taking time off school to do acting.
One of your first major roles was in the well-remembered Children’s Film Foundation film, Pop Pirates. What are your memories of this?
I’d gone to Sixth Form but wasn’t really getting anywhere, and then, who knows why, I decided I wanted to go and work in a hotel as a page boy. I did that, but I wasn’t really enjoying that and then after 3 weeks of working there, I got the role in Pop Pirates for The Children’s Film Foundation.
They were looking for someone who could play instruments and had a music background as well as being able to act. I was lucky I could do that . . . . . . and mime playing the guitar; I’ve never been able to master playing that properly. I was very fortunate to be able to get that part and work with Roger Daltrey. It was a wonderful experience. I got to film in Brighton for a week, which as a 16 year old, it’s very exciting to get a part where you’re going off on location.
When Grange Hill was on, they showed Pop Pirates on the BBC a couple of times on a Friday afternoon and even Phillip Schofield seemed pleased to be introducing it. It was strange little film ; there was a naivety about lots of those CFF films – a bit of a Famous Five kind of vibe.
I went for a lot of auditions before I got any parts, but once I was starting to work, the parts were there. I worked pretty solidly for about three or four years with lots of theatre and TV. I thought I’d be working in the hotel for much longer!
Which other roles did you have before Grange Hill?
I’d done a lot of theatre work. I did the stage version of On Golden Pond, and then straight after I did understudying for Adrian Mole in the West End. When I auditioned for Grange Hill, I’d been doing that for about 6 months. I was sad to leave as I was having a great time, but I couldn’t do both.
The only other TV role I’d had was for a show called Free-Time in which they had a scene retelling the story of Little Red Riding Hood. I played the wolf. I remember being, in a slightly self-righteous way, disappointed as they’d spelt my name wrong at the end, but then I was in a wolf costume and couldn’t be seen anyway!
Did you audition specifically for the part of Ant?
I auditioned for Ziggy. I saw an advert in The Stage, saying that Grange Hill were looking for a Liverpudlian actor to play a 13 year old major new role. I phoned up my agent and said that I wanted to audition and they asked if I wanted to be in Grange Hill. Of course I wanted to be in Grange Hill! Everybody wanted to be in Grange Hill!
I figured out that if a producer or director knew you were putting on an accent, instead of listening or watching their performance purely, they’ll always be listening to see how long they can keep the accent up for. So I decided to go along as a Liverpudlian right from the word go with this Scouse accent. I did the audition, and sometimes you know if it’s gone well and they said ‘Look that was really good, but we’re going to be really honest with you; you look a bit too old for this part. Ziggy’s a bit younger than you look, but it was a really, really good audition.”
They asked if I’d done any other work and in my Scouse accent I said “ I’m playing Adrian Mole in the West End, and I once played this cockney guitarist in this film.” The director looked at me and said “You can do a cockney accent?!” He asked me to read for another part, for a character that was a bit older, the Ant Jones role. And so I read (in my cockney accent) and he said ‘That’s a really good accent you can do!”
I went away and they called me in for a recall with Phil Redmond, who I knew was Liverpudlian. I thought he might suss me out if I turned up with a Liverpudlian accent. My friend Deborah, who had Liverpudlian parents, said, the night before the audition; ‘If he asks you where you’re from, say Allerton – the posh part!’ Sure enough he did ask me and I got away with it! I did the cockney accent for the part and I got the role.
For about 2 months, I was really sweating about the fact that when I got there, I might have to spend 9 months coming into work every day as a Liverpudlian. I really wrestled with that and thought I’ll just go in as normal; and it was never mentioned! We were having lunch one day and the producer, in front of another couple of members of staff, said ; ‘Oh yes, auditions are funny things. Some people can turn up at an audition as if they are from Liverpool. Can’t they Ricky?!’ Very funny.
I could have been Ziggy Greaves if I’d just been a little bit younger, but George was amazing. What an actor he was.
How similar were you to Ant Jones?
Not that similar. He was a very serious character. I’ve got that side to me and I can be sensitive at times but he seemed to be sensitive all the time! He was great to play as there was a lot of conflict and drama. It was a joy to play some of the more dramatic scenes that I was given for him.
Did you like the character of Ant?
I think it was more the drama he created. To have scenes where you’re really pissed off with a teacher and you have to do long daggered looks, and are wronged by everyone; it was a little bit dramatic which is great to play. I wouldn’t put that kind of sensitive, serious character at the top of my favourite character list, but it was a godsend to get a part like that, where you could do these really dramatic scenes. You got anger, tears a couple of times, running away from home; all that kind of stuff. I didn’t think about it at the time, but afterwards I realised I was very lucky to be able to play so many extremes when it’s just a show about school.
What was it like working with Michael Sheard (Mr Bronson)?
It was great to work with people like Michael Sheard; a really accomplished actor who really cared about the craft. It was almost like a masterclass with people like him. He could go a little bit over the top as well; he did play Hitler in Indiana Jones, and he’d never let you forget it, or the fact that he did Star Wars! But those scenes we had were great. It was a bit gritty, for the time; brave, gritty stuff. That was probably Phil Redmond’s influence more than anything. He did the same with Brookside.
Some of the race issues, kids on drugs, that Grange Hill had, was really hard hitting stuff. At the time, I didn’t think ‘this is really gritty’; you were just a part of it. Maybe that was why it connected so well, because it was a little more realistic (though no one said the f-word!).
Did you get on well with the cast?
We all got on really well, which sounds a bit clichéd. It was a really good laugh ; we had a scream. I was in a weird position in that I was nearly 17 when I started, and I’d hang out with all the younger actors, but then a lot of them, between scenes would then go into another room at Elstree where they’d have their schooling. I’d go in with the ‘adult’ actors and I’d suddenly have to be a little bit more mature; sitting there doing my crossword! It was weird going between the two but I loved it. A lot of them used to be really envious of me that I didn’t have to do school work and could go and wander around Albert Square next door or hang out in the canteen with Dirty Den, instead of doing Biology homework!
When I passed my driving test everyone was envious then. There were only about a handful of us who could drive. I think Melissa, who played Jacqui, passed her test before me. I remember we were both driving in, and you could see the others were very jealous, having to get on with their Geography or whatever they were doing.
Everyone was good fun. You had a couple of prima-donnas – I won’t name them! – but for the most part everyone was lovely. I thought that on the first day I went in. It was terrifying; anyone who has gone to a new school and doesn’t know anyone, will know that feeling. If you’re a bit shy, like I could be at times, and every single person you look around at is so famous in the UK; there’s Fay Lucas getting her lunch – oh look it’s Gonch and Hollo over there!- it’s very weird and unreal. On that day, Erkan Mustafa (Roland), I’ll never forget, was brilliant. He came over and sat with me and started chatting; not that everyone else was blanking me but I was just the new person there! He had such a great way about him that was so welcoming. Everyone was friendly, and it was like being at school to a certain degree; just having a laugh with your mates all the time. A totally unique thing!
It’s also really rewarding having life long friendships with a lot of the people I worked with… Erkan (Roland), George (Ziggy), Lisa (Julie), Sara (Julia), Fiona (Laura) are amongst the many that I have regularly been in contact with over the years – and most notably one of my best friends since we worked together is Simon Vaughan (Freddie). We also shared a flat together soon after he joined the cast. I was best man at his wedding, and I roasted him to within an inch of his life!
Ant was seen as one of the pin ups of the show. Did you get much reaction to your character from the public?
I feel really stupid talking about this, but there were so many letters sent to the BBC for Grange Hill. I’ve seen other actors ay about being watched by millions, but it really was. Some episodes were like 9 or 10 million; it was massive and there was a lot of mail for everyone! Because I was in at a time when there was massive ratings and an exciting bunch of storylines, it coincided. I got the most valentines I’ll ever get in my life, on one of the years! It was bizarre, but it was fun; a unique experience. Although people say when you’re doing it, you don’t appreciate how unique it is, I think everyone kind of did, apart from the ones who were first on it, like Todd Carty and those actors; they didn’t know it was going to be a success. But everyone I was in the cast with, we all joined that show knowing it was the biggest show in kids TV and practically every kid we all knew was a fan of it.
On my first day of rehearsals, I remember walking through the gates at Elstree, and I was just thinking that this is such a big thing! I was aware of how unique it was and didn’t treat it in a flippant way; I really appreciated it.
Grange Hill won a BAFTA during the 1986 series, and for many this is regarded as the golden era of Grange Hill. Why do you think this series was so successful?
I might argue that other generations have their own era. When I fell in love with Grange Hill it was Tucker, Benny, Trisha Yates. The thing that I particularly related to was that when I was 11, that was when the programme started and they were all the same age as me. It felt extra special for people of my time, that they were charting exactly what we were going through.
I don’t know if the era we were in is stronger than that era, or the Pogo Patterson / Stupot era, which were brilliant. It might be it had gathered such momentum by then, 6 or 7 years after that initial brilliance.
Another thing that doesn’t get mentioned a lot is that when I was there, Anthony Minghella, who went on to be a really successful director and writer (The English Patient for example), was script editor. Sometimes I think that it’s no coincidence that some of the real strong, brave storylines were being tackled at the time when when he was a major creative influence there. He’s sadly no longer with us, but he was a real rare talent.
Did you enjoy being involved in the Just Say No campaign, and what are your memories of this?
Again, that’s the weird thing, it wasn’t too mind blowing at the time, but years go by and you think we’re sitting with the First Lady in the White House. It’s really bizarre. I’m a big fan of surreal comedy; I love Spike Milligan and Monty Python, and it’s almost Python-esque that idea; it’s ludicrous! I can’t remember if I thought it was bizarre at the time or I took it in my stride. Standing on the pitch at the Yankee Stadium and miming the Just Say No song was just absurd.
Also, I really felt for some of the other actors who didn’t go. Only 9 of us went and I remember being at work for rehearsals and everyone was being told who had been picked. Some of the actors who weren’t picked and thought they would be picked, really took it quite hard; they were quite upset. I remember thinking this fe
els really awkward, like we’d won some kind of golden ticket. I really felt for the ones who couldn’t go; it was a real shame, but they couldn’t take everyone clearly.
How do you look back at the Just Say No record; with pride . . . . . or any other emotions?
I love the leading nature of these questions! I don’t know if Mmoloki (Kevin Baylon) is totally proud of the rap that he wrote, not to say I don’t love it and its really good fun to listen to. It was a bit of a cheesy, slightly awful record and I was quite embarrassed about it for a number of years, probably because I was so into music. When you’re a bit younger, I was probably doing a bit of an Ant Jones and taking things a little too sensitively! I do not think that’s a great record by any stretch of the imagination, but after I’ve got over that early youthful period where I tried to forget it, I find it quite funny to be a part of it. It’s like the whole experience of going to the White House ; a bit crazy and absurd! Although the best thing about that record is the saxophone; I heard it recently on one of these 80s programmes and I thought that’s actually a really good saxophone part. Maybe it’s slightly under-rated; maybe it needs to be reappraised?!
I’ve been fortunate enough to have quite a lot of records that I’ve written with my long-term writing partner, go into the Top 40, but I’ve never reached where Grange Hill got! Top 5 – that’s a land mark if ever there was one!
Have you always been interested in music?
I’d always played piano by ear and I’d had lessons, but I didn’t like playing what you had to play in the lessons, so I shied away from it. I was always tinkering with keyboards. I bought an electronic keyboard when I was about 12. I was always writing songs and then I started a little band with a couple of mates. I was really into playing keyboard and writing; not so much singing. I did more of that years later. Music was a passion from early on.
When I was about 21, I decided I wanted to concentrate mainly on music, which is kind of what I’ve been doing for the last several decades! The fact that the first thing I did professionally in acting was as a singer playing guitar and I ended up as a musician, is a nice parallel.
And then you started a band . . . . .
I joined my brother Danny’s band called Clear Conscience which we subsequently renamed Protocol. That was fairly soon after Grange Hill. It went through several kinds of sounds from pop, to heavy rock, to more of a Pink Floyd kind of type sound, and through different line ups. It did get a bit Spinal Tap, with our 17th bass player at one point! We were going for about three years and did a lot of gigs around the UK. It was almost like an apprenticeship. With that band I really learnt how to write a song; the collaboration process and crafting something out of musical ideas. Protocol was great but it didn’t achieve too much and slowly disbanded in the early 90s.
What happened next?
Me and the keyboard player, Steve Jones (who I’m still working with all these years later) started a band called The Good Strawberries. We got signed to an independent label in the UK and did an album. We did a really good tour with the Ministry Of Sound when they were first starting. Paul Oakenfold was headlining and we were like the support band. That was more of a rock / dance cross-over; club music in a more rock style. That sort of feel apart because of issues in the band and the record company being crap.
Relating back to Grange Hill, there was a track on the album we made, called ‘Peace On The Evening News’, I wanted about 4 or 5 spoken bits at the beginning which would be like news-reel / commentator footage. There was one voice where I needed someone to talk about this character in the song and I thought of Michael Sheard. I got in touch with him and me and Steve took our very vintage recording equipment and he did this line really well in his best Michael Sheard-ian voice. He asked how much he’d be paid and we didn’t really have a budget so he suggested if it sells a million we’d pay him. Didn’t sell a million, but it was nice to see him again.
Tell us about how you moved into Dance music.
After 1995, Steve and I started a series of projects that were just me and him putting an act together, so we’re known as The Space Brothers in more trance / progressive areas of club music. We’re still releasing records under that name. Another one was Chakra – The Time, which we had a lot of success with on Warner Brothers. We did a lot of these projects where we would get other singers, female singers, to front a record or an album we were doing. Another long-term one we’ve got is Lustral, which we’ve done a couple of albums with. It’s more song orientated and a bit more ambient, down-tempo chill-out music. So that’s what has kept me busy! We did run a download store called Audiojelly which ran for about ten years. It was a really hard business to be in and it took away from the time I had to write and produce, so I stopped that a few years ago to focus on what I love doing. We’re working on a new album now which is really good – I would say that! – but I think some of the stuff I’m working on now is really special.
It’s really fortunate to be able to do something that you’re passionate about and make a career out of it. That’s not to say I didn’t love acting. It was great but the problem with acting is you are not in control of your own destiny; you can only act when someone says can we hire you. So, even though I loved acting, I had an equal passion for music and decided to go down that road, which is where I am now.
What are your favourite memories from your time playing Ant?
One of the best weeks for everyone was when we did a week filming in Coventry on a barge trip. It was just a riot! Really really funny. It was pretty much most of us – there were only a few who unfortunately didn’t get to do it. You had practically the whole cast there and because we were staying at this place where we were together every night as well, obviously we were young people just having a real laugh.
I remember things like a cricket match episode and a fun run episode where the whole cast were there. Periods of filming like that were great. A lot of the time, when you were working during the week on Grange Hill, you’d work with only about ten actors and the other cast might not be there on that day, because they haven’t got scenes or were in tutor periods. Those kind of events where it was the whole cast were great fun because you were there with all your mates. It was really really good fun.
Do you have any bad memories of your time there?
It’s not bad, but a slight negative. The second year I was there, I was going to be doing less episodes because Ant had left the Grange Hill school. The producer had said to me that I wasn’t going to have so many episodes, but if I was offered any other parts they would do their best to work round it for me so I could do both. I auditioned for a part in a Dennis Potter TV play, and he’d written so many great things. It was for the part of a 17 year old American who had some weird adventure on a holiday with a step-mother or something who he had a kissing scene with. I knew the woman was going to be played by Glynis Barber of Dempsey and Makepeace. You couldn’t go wrong; a Dennis Potter TV movie, a kiss with Glynis Barber and a month filming in Portugal. I got the role and the Grange Hill producer said it would be fine, but phoned me a couple of days later to say they’d done everything they could but they couldn’t move the scenes that I’d got, so they wouldn’t let me do it. I was really disappointed by that because it would have been such a great thing to do. I was a bit frustrated with the producer because he’d made this promise but I knew it wasn’t personal.
Grange Hill was the most positive thing. There was nothing that wasn’t completely positive and joyous about it. I can’t remember doing an interview about Grange Hill since I left, but whenever people have asked me about it, they assume it probably wasn’t as fun as it looked, but it really was!
If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change anything. Though I wish I’d written a diary, because there’s so much that I’ll probably never remember; so many funny things that happened. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any footage of us in rehearsal or messing about, and I’d love it any of the actors did have any. In 1985/6 I don’t think people really had video cameras so I don’t think anyone really has any footage. There’s been some great pics that some of the actors have shared, but unlike the digital world we live in with mobile phones and cameras, not a lot. I’d love it if anymore could be unearthed as it’s a great reminder of it.
How do you look back at the fashions and the legendary ‘Ant Jones’ hair?!
I love your questions! I’m not going to take all the blame, but it was the 80s so I don’t think we can totally blame Grange Hill or my barber. In fact my mum was my barber at the time, because she used to be a hairdresser. It wasn’t like I was going into a big TV show and I had to have my hair like that; that really was my haircut at the time! Blame my mother for that one! It was acceptable in the 80s as Calvin says. . . . . .
What lead to you leaving Grange Hill?
I didn’t really leave. I was only contracted to do a year; one series. I wasn’t supposed to be doing another year as Ant went to St Josephs. Because the series that I was in was so well received in every aspect, and the Zammo storyline which was so well done by Lee, really connected with people, I think I was lucky to be in a series that was peaking in those terms. Because a lot of people seemed to have engaged with my scenes as Ant, they thought they’d like to have Ant back, and asked me if they could find a way to keep Ant, would I do another series. Of course I would! I kind of got an extra series out of it as a pose to doing just one. At the end of that series he splits up with Georgina and then there is very little link to Grange Hill school anymore to have the character in too many episodes. I’d forgotten about Ant’s final scene where he watches everyone having fun and goes off on his own – it was like a character in Eastenders having a good send off. I didn’t get a Jereme Irving scene though, who drowned in the swimming pool. Now that was a gritty bit of drama – it really shook you!
Did you expect your role in Grange Hill to be remembered 30 years later?
I never thought
that would happen. Things went very quickly then. You didn’t have YouTube or the internet so the idea of things being given a more permanent reminder didn’t happen. When we were doing that programme, it was only things like the classic comedies would be repeated. When I was a kid, I remember a programme called Fox with Peter Vaughan, Larry Lamb and Ray Winstone. I found the DVD online about 4 or 5 years ago, and not having seen it for 20 odd years it was great. The mind-set then was that you watched something and you didn’t expect to see it again.
But then when they started putting clips online a couple of years ago, I was amazed by that. The interest in it surprised me.
When Terry Sue Patt (Benny Green) sadly died in 2015, there was a huge reaction. Not just from social media sites, but writers and people who’d grown up watching Grange Hill, were saying he was an iconic figure. Not only was he the first character in it, but it was rare to have a black character in any series, let alone a children’s drama in the 1970s. It broke a lot of ground with diversity which people would talk about nowadays. It took me by surprise that it was such a big news item, and that so many people had watched Grange Hill. You don’t think about it, until sadly something like that happens and you’re reminded how much affection there was for the show and people like Terry.
I’m kind of proud of I was in that, because it was a special part of childhood for me as a fan, and then to be in it as well, and to have people still interested in it and discussing it, years later, is great; really really great.
What do you think Ant Jones is doing now?
Blow drying his hair!
(c) 2017 Grange Hill Gold. Not to be reproduced without permission
Thanks to Ricky Simmonds