Barry Purchese should be a familiar name to Grange Hill fans, but not such a familiar face. As a writer his name appeared in the credits for 54 episodes of Grange Hill between series 5 and 13, as well as writing for spin off series Tucker’s Luck. Barry was responsible for writing the scripts for many of Grange Hill’s best remembered moments, ranging from Gripper’s expulsion to the culmination of Zammo’s drug addiction. Grange Hill Gold was fortunate enough to interview Barry and discuss his career writing for Grange Hill.
What lead to you becoming a writer and working on Grange Hill?
I started out the same way as most writers; getting loads of rejections! You write stuff, you send it off, you keep going, but sometimes you get feedback. People said I had an ear for dialogue and suggested I wrote a play. I thought I’ll write for television; I know all about television ; I’ve got one! I was that green and arrogant, I was going to learn exactly how much I didn’t know about television! However, I got an agent which is very difficult to do and one of the people she also handled was Phil Redmond. She told me that they were looking for a new writer for Grange Hill and she would put my name up for it. I got a couple of trial episodes to do which they liked. Around that time, a guy called Alan Janes, who was the lead writer, announced he was leaving and going to write the book of a musical. The musical was ‘Buddy’ which has run and run and run and made him for life! He left three episodes unwritten and I got those as well! Quite a surprise for a new writer to the series; five episodes. Then I was up and running!
I believe that up until that series they didn’t have a script editor, but they got one in for series 6 and that was Anthony Minghella who went on to have a tremendous influence on the series. That kind of re-launched Grange Hill a bit; it had been wobbling a bit at that point. There was talk of the BBC maybe taking it off, but once Anthony came on board it was up and running with a vengeance!
In Series 7 we killed off Jeremy Irvine. The guy who played Jeremy was really unlucky. I don’t know the full details but Lee Sparke who played Jonah Jones was leaving the series and it was decided they’d make the most of this and kill him off. Jeremy Irvine was the character who was coming in to replace him. I wrote the scripts for the episode with the drowning in the swimming pool way in advance and then it was announced that Lee Sparke wasn’t coming back to do the first few episodes of that series, so we couldn’t kill him! The script was already written and you couldn’t bump off a kid that the audience didn’t really know. You couldn’t kill off any of the known characters as they were needed in the rest of the series, so poor old Jeremy who had been lined up as Jonah’s replacement was killed off instead! A shame for the kid who played him because he would have been Zammo’s sidekick for the next few years! There was a big impact; killing a character off in a children’s drama ; it really does register with the audience.
How involved were you in the storyline process over a whole series?
It was Phil Redmond’s creation in the beginning and he wrote the first series himself, with other writers joining after that. He would give the script editor his ideas for the series and the script editor would flesh them out. Then Phil, the script editor, the script writers and the producer would sit together and thrash things out. We had our episodes allocated to us and we’d then go off and write them. I was lead writer for quite a number of years, which meant I would get about 6 episodes to write, including the opening and closing episodes.
You’d talk about the storyline ideas and the way that the script-editor had fleshed them out. You’d pick stuff up, cut stuff back. Phil would be there to nod his approval. It was always Phil’s show; he owned it and the BBC had to buy it back off him every year.
In the early days it was shot on film. The closing episode was always a showstopper; a disco or a sports event or whatever. These were sometimes shot entirely on film and they would always shoot the film episodes first. I would end up having to write the final episode before all of my other episodes that preceeded it. I wasn’t even writing the episodes in sequence which was a bit odd.
What about creating characters?
When Anthony was script editor there was a bit more leeway than in later years. Phil created the core characters, but I can think of characters I created to make scenes or storylines work better. I was allowed to do that, but I’m not sure that later writers were. In the ‘racist’ series with Gripper Stebson, his nemesis was a character called Glenroy. I created him and one or two others, but the vast majority came from Phil. You had to run new characters past Anthony ; you couldn’t just sling them in willy-nilly.
Were there any characters or actors you particularly enjoyed writing for?
Michael Sheard (Mr Bronson). People said he was appallingly hammy but that’s the way teachers were! I had teachers like that and friends of mine who are teachers say it’s all a performance. I did like writing for him because you knew you could give him juicy lines and he would relish them; sometimes a bit too much! His delivery could be a bit slow because in television you are up against the clock. You have 25 minutes per episode and that is all you’ve got, so when you had someone like that you sometimes wanted to speed him up a bit, but I did like writing for him!
I also liked writing for the character Suzanne Ross, played by Susan Tully. She was a very good actor and is now directing. She stayed in the business which a lot of them don’t. Five years in Grange Hill certainly teaches them that it’s not all glamour. She’s a very good director now.
Basically, you’ve got your storylines which feature certain characters and they are the characters you have to write for. You might have favourite actors and whilst you could give them a little bit more, you’re governed by the stories. There were one or two who were main characters, and I’m not naming names, but they weren’t the best actors in the world. You’d try and write the script accordingly to try and prop them up. If you gave them the crux of a scene it wasn’t going to work, so you’d make sure there was either a teacher in there with them or a kid who was a better actor to take the brunt of the scene for them to play off!
Were there any characters you felt didn’t work?
I don’t feel there were any characters who didn’t work, just now and then an actor who didn’t work particularly well! When you consider that most of the kids came onto the show at 11 years of age, I think they did phenomenally well. That’s not a great age and you’ve had no time to pick up any experience. I think under the circumstances they did brilliantly. Someone like Todd Carty acted out his adolescence in front of millions! That must have been a hell of a thing for him to do.
A lot of people don’t realise that in television nobody really works before you (the writer) work. You do your second or third draft of the script and then when you get the final draft that’s when everyone else starts working; the technicians, the cameramen, the actors, the directors! That’s when they don’t really want to see you again. Up until then you are the most important person on the show. I’ve worked on lots of series and people will ask me what certain actors are like and I have to tell them I don’t know as I never really met them! They don’t start working until I’ve stopped!
You might occasionally visit the set on the tacit understanding that you stay in the background and keep your trap shut! Unless of course they need any rewrites!
Following that, were there times where you were exceptionally pleased or disappointed when you saw the finished episodes?
There will always be times where you’re disappointed. When you’re writing a script you are playing it out in your mind’s eye and you are trying to put that down on to a page. Almost inevitably the director has another vision and so the scenes you’ve been playing in your mind’s eye are not the scenes coming through out of the screen at you and that can be jolting. I would never pass comment on anything I’ve written on first viewing because you can’t be objective. I’d have to watch it at least a second time before I could be objective about how good a job the director has done on it. There were times when you would think ‘Could’ve done better with that’ but there are also times where you think ‘He’s given it an extra dimension there.’ I did 54 episodes of Grange Hill so it is difficult to remember the exact specifics!
Some of the storylines you were involved in were quite hard hitting for children’s television for instance the Gripper racism storyline and Zammo on drugs. Was it intentional to take it this far and become controversial?
Oh yes. The Gripper series was ‘the racist’ series, dealing with racism and in the Zammo one we were dealing with drug addiction. Funnily enough I used to get collared at parties by adults who, when they found out I wrote for Grange Hill, would tell me what an appalling programme and bad influence it was. I told them I’d love my children to go to a school like Grange Hill. For a start look at the premises; there’s no graffiti. A kid had to only look mildly down in the dumps and there’s someone putting an arm round them asking what’s wrong. People really care about each other in Grange Hill. I’d ask them “What is it that you object to about Grange Hill?”. Invariably they’d say that actually they had never watched it and were taking their opinion from the Daily Mail or The Sun or whatever.
What people really didn’t like about Grange Hill was that when Phil Redmond came up with the idea he said ’I want this from the kid’s perspective’. Even some of the camera angles were from the kid’s height. The adults could be cardboard cut outs but the kids must be real. That’s what got up people’s noses; especially the Conservative press. It was kid-focused, which back then was a very new concept.
On other issues you really couldn’t tell what people were going to get agitated about. There was one episode where we had two pre-pubescent girls talking about periods and training bras. I had them sitting on swings in a playground, being symbolic of passing from girlhood to early womanhood. I thought the scene would never see the light of day. I thought it would be cut; but not only did it get through, it was transmitted too and nobody complained about it. But there was a scene in the same episode which people almost jammed the switchboard about; that was kids throwing food about in the canteen. They were far more concerned about that than girls with periods and training bras, which at the time surprised me.
What was it that made Zammo’s drugs storyline better remembered than some of the others?
It was the content; just to see a well loved character get hooked on heroin. It’s very rare you see that dealt with. Storylines like that stick. We deliberately chose someone who was we knew was really popular with the audience. If it wasn’t a character that people were invested in then it wouldn’t have had the same impact.
I remember Children’s Ward had an episode about a paedophile which Russell T Davies wrote. The last scene sticks in my mind; it’s of this guy walking off hand in hand with a young kid into the woods. Imagine that going out on children’s television. You see something like that or like Zammo completely out of it on heroin and that’s an image that’s going to stay in your mind.
I think because topics like that are rarely handled at that level; that’s why they stick in your mind and that’s why they are memorable. Hopefully they did what we wanted them to do and put kids off going down the same route.
In terms of writing for a teenage audience, were there many restrictions placed upon you as a writer?
No, not as such. There was a series where Grange Hill dealt with teenage pregnancy, but that was after my time. Up until then the sexual stuff tended to be fairly chaste. It was just girl fancies boy, boy fancies girl, but it didn’t go into detail of what might arise from that. That wasn’t a directive, just a tacit understanding that it was an avenue we didn’t go down.
At a party I was confronted by someone who said Grange Hill was a dreadful programme and she wouldn’t let her children watch it. So I asked her why and she told me it was because of the swearing! I told her she would never have heard a swear word on Grange Hill, and yet again she turned out to be someone who had never watched it!
It wasn’t a directive not to have swearing; we all understood it wouldn’t get through. Kids don’t swear at Grange Hill! Nobody ever said to us ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’; we all just understood how far we could or couldn’t go and worked within those parameters.
Do you feel Grange Hill was backed by the BBC?
You’d have to ask Phil Redmond about that. In the early days, he would be taking the storylines and having them approved before they even came to us. Phil did have his battles. He was from a working class background himself and went to a big comprehensive school in Liverpool and he felt that a lot of the executives at the BBC were far too middle class and didn’t really understand what it was he was trying to say. I don’t know how long that went on for; certainly he was locking horns with them during Series 5 when I started. But that all changed with the arrival of Anthony Minghella.
Do you have a favourite episode or storyline?
In Series 5, one of the episodes I got after Alan Janes left was ‘The School Show’, where you had things like Trisha Yates doing an impression of Margaret Thatcher, Todd Carty singing a punk song called Strange Bill Of Grange Hill about Mr McGuffy, which I had to write for him. In fact I got a phone call from the director of that episode who said that Todd wouldn’t sing the song ; he was too embarrassed about his voice and so, would I have a word with him? He put Todd on and I was surprised (which of course I shouldn’t have been) to be speaking to this Irish accent, which is Todd’s normal accent. I was expecting it to be Tucker Jenkins! He said ‘I can’t sing this; I’ve got a voice like a horse!’ He got on with it in the end; but I really enjoyed writing that. It was a very popular episode and it did a lot for me.
Another one was the ‘School Disco’ at the end of one of the series, when Glenroy was doing the sounds with his sound system. It was the end of the line for a lot of the characters that had been in it for five years. It was very poignant; even I had a lump in my throat. These were characters who I’d written for, who had been in it for five years and they were going now.
There was an episode where at the last minute, the writer couldn’t do it and Anthony Minghella asked me to do it very quickly. Because it was so last minute he said that they couldn’t offer me much in terms of characters and so he said if I could write a two hander it would be great! It wasn’t quite a two hander but I wrote an episode where they were all rained in and Danny Kendall gets sent to Mr Baxter’s office. The episode was largely between the two of them having dialogue between each other; enlightening each other as to who they really were. I enjoyed doing that because it was so unusual. Jonathan Lambeth who played Danny Kendall was a very bright kid and a really good little actor. I thought they played it well together.
I used to enjoy doing the outward bound ones where they’d all go off together and have a trip on barges or stuff like that. I far preferred all that to when they were stuck in school! They were the ones I liked; where they were half off the leash!
Do you think your episodes of Grange Hill still stand up today?
Yes and no. If you watch them today, like lots of things I wrote back then, it looks a bit ponderous because of the way things were shot then. Episodes today rattle by a lot quicker than they did then for lots of reasons. In that sense they look dated, but in terms of content I think they do stand up definitely.
The earlier ones were more like a one act play; fairly self contained. You obviously had stuff to carry over for continuity. It became more soapy but I don’t mean that in a derogatory way.
Does it surprise you that Grange Hill still has a big following today, particularly the early years of the show?
Yes and no, but I don’t know who the audience are. If its people who grew up with it who are looking back on it with a fondness, remembering a certain period of their life, then no it doesn’t surprise me at all. If it’s kids of school age now who are watching past episodes, then yes it does! Unless they view it as some historical drama!
You also wrote episodes for Grange Hill spin off series Tucker’s Luck. How different was that to writing for Grange Hill?
They were 9 episodes a series. I wrote 3 in the first series, then story-lined and wrote the second series. It was different in the sense that they were older. They were 18 and you dealt with things like joblessness, sex, whatever. You were just writing for the same characters but older. Tucker’s Luck wasn’t particularly edgy. The tone of it wasn’t that difficult from Grange Hill; the way it dealt with issues.
The one significant adult in it was Alan’s dad. We were just about to film the second series when the actor, Peter Childs, I think it was, announced he’d got a better offer and wasn’t going to work on the second series. What could we do? We thought we’d have to recast, but we knew people would notice. I suggested we killed him off and then move in the character’s brother, Alan’s Uncle, in loco-parentis and give him all of Alan’s Dad’s lines!
Would you have considered writing a spin-off for any other characters?
No one springs immediately to mind. I usually regarded them as done and dusted by the time they left. Possibly Lee Macdonald (Zammo). I always had a special affection for him and Lee who played him. Incidentally, Lee was a very good boxer and had a clause in his contract that if he was chosen for the Great British Olympic team, of which there was a good chance, he would be written out of the show and we would have to release him. He didn’t quite make it, but was pretty close apparently.
I’ve written for Minder, The Bill, Casualty, Boon, Midsomer Murders and also original stuff of my own. I’ve done quite a few book adaptations; Coral Island and Junk (which I won a BAFTA for) and a few single plays for adult television. In fact one of my Grange Hill episodes (the one where they steal a car with the French exchange students) also won a BAFTA.
I have a couple of E-Books which are available on Amazon. One is called Grass Roots and is a fairly easy and entertaining read about a boys football team. The other one, Summertime Blues is set in the days of early rock and roll and the lead character is 15. They don’t cost much!
With thanks to Barry Purchese
(c) 2013 Grange Hill Gold