Independently minded Cheryl Webb struggled to stop her home life affecting her school life whilst attending Grange Hill. Forced to look after her younger brothers and sister alone, Cheryl was helped by Ms Partridge and was finally able to begin living her own life. Actress Amma Asante looks back on her time at Grange Hill.
How did you get the part of Cheryl?
I was a full-time school-kid at Barbara Speake Stage School. The school was also an acting agency for kids. Michelle Gayle (actress and singer) was also a student in the year below me and we we were friends. I was in class one day…History class or something and at the end of it she came in and whispered in my ear that she had just been for an audition for Grange Hill, which she hadn’t got, but she had a feeling that they might call me in for the audition. She gave me a complete heads up on what sort of character they were looking for in Cheryl Webb and what Cheryl’s first storyline was. A few days later I was called to the BBC for the audition – I just did the one audition without any recalls and I got the job. The info Michelle had given me was really helpful and helped me get the audition. A few years later (after I finished playing Cheryl and left Grange Hill) Michelle landed her own part playing Fiona in the series and that was really great to see.
What was it like joining such an iconic show and working with some of the longest serving and well-known characters?
It was pretty daunting at first. There were so many faces I’d grown up watching on tv and now I was suddenly acting alongside them. It was nerve-racking but Stage School was good preparation for working in the TV industry and I soon settled in. It became just another day at the studio, in the end – just my normal life.
Who were you friends with on the show?
Alison McGlaughlin who played my sister (Louise Webb) in the show, Allison Bettles who played Fay, Melissa Wilks who played Jackie, Erkan Mustafa who played Roland, and Mmoloki Chrystie who played Kevin. In the beginning I was friends with Simone Nylander who played Janet St. Clair too but she left the year after I joined.
Are you still in touch with anyone from the show now?
I am FaceBook friends with most of those above but don’t really see any of them anymore. I do still see Michelle Gayle though we were never in the show at the same time. She sang the song for my first dance when I got married in Paris not so long ago and the following year I went to her wedding in Ibiza – it was beautiful.
You were heavily involved with the ‘Just Say No’ campaign. What was it like being part of that and did you think it would become as big as it did?
It was a wonderful time. I don’t think any of us could have imagined the ‘Just Say No’ campaign could have been so big, with a record going into the charts and even leading to a trip to the US and a visit to the White House at the invitation of the First Lady at the time. I had just turned 16 when we flew to Washington and New York for the campaign. It was my first visit to America. We did radio interviews and other press interviews, sang at Yankee Stadium which was surreal as it was fun. The actual storyline, I thought was fantastic and seemed to have a massive impact – even today I still think Lee MacDonald’s performance was brilliant.
Other than ‘Just Say No’, what was your favourite storyline that you were involved with?
Setting up the school radio station and organising a protest sit-in. Don’t ask me why I set up the school sit-in. It was too far back and I don’t remember anymore…lol
What are your fondest memories from Grange Hill?
That’s a hard question – too many. I simply enjoyed having fun with the others. Of course the trip to America is a memory I will have forever. A whole episode of Newsround was dedicated to our trip and the ‘Just Say No’ Campaign – I still remember that well. Recording the Grange Hill album. Shooting the ‘Just Say No’ video. The coach trips to and from the studio and home with the other actors.
When you left Grange Hill was acting something that you wanted to pursue?
No. I carried on for a few years butIi knew I wasn’t a great actress and wouldn’t make a career out of it. I began writing and at 23, and I had my first script commissioned by Channel 4 when I was 24 – Channel 4 went on to commission 6 more scripts from me for a series I created and though it stayed in development for a while and was never made, it cemented my love for writing. I continued writing and my first tv series (Brothers and Sisters) aired on BBC2 when I was 27. We made 2 series of it. I went on to write my first film, ‘A Way of Life’, in my early 30s and made my debut as a director with it. It won 17 international awards and a BAFTA for me for writing and directing. Since I started writing and directing, I’ve never looked back. Iconsider myself a much better writer and director than actress, but I’m grateful for what acting and Grange Hill taught me. It’s helped me to understand acting and screenplays and allowed me to be better at what I do now as a writer/director.
What do you do now?
I am a film writer and director and have just finished shooting my 2nd Film, ‘Belle’ starring Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, Tom Felton, Sarah Gadon and Gugu Mbatha Raw. It is based on a real painting which hung at Kenwood House in Hampstead, when the Lord Chief Justice of England at the time lived there. He adopted his mixed-race niece and brought her up at Kenwood with her white cousin, raising both girls as English Ladies. It’s been a joy to work on. When the producer sent me the project, I was really inspired by the painting of these two girls – cousins and I began working on the script.
My producer had tried to get the project off the ground some years before with HBO in America and another writer and then later here in the UK.
The project was not given the greenlight to be made. Then I was asked by the producers and execs to come on board and take over writing on the project. I worked hard for over two years on the project and wrote 17 drafts which eventually got the project green lit. I’m really proud of the screenplay and the film. We are still in post production finishing the cutting and sound on the film due for release in 2014.
If you were given the chance to return to acting, would you take it?
No never – I can’t act and I love what I do now.
© 2013 Neil Mattocks – Reproduced by kind permission.