MARGARET SIMPSON (1979 -1992)
Margaret Simpson might not be a familiar face to Grange Hill viewers, but her name certainly is. As the most prolific writer on the early years of the show, Margaret wrote 59 episodes between 1979 and 1992, with her episodes covering many of the series’ best remembered moments. Margaret talks exclusively to Grange Hill Gold about character, controversy and the challenges faced by writing for Grange Hill.
What lead to you becoming a writer and working on Grange Hill?
As a child I liked writing stories; I guess I’d always wanted to be a writer. I started writing novels when I was in my twenties. I wrote my first novel when I had two children under the age of three. It wasn’t like Grange Hill at all; it was an adult political thriller of sorts. I was very lucky to have it published and on the back of that, and the second novel I wrote, I was invited to write for Crown Court for Granada Television. It was a really good arena for learning to tell a story in dialogue because it was three episodes set in a court room. After that I got an agent. As is often the way the agent came after the work! He sent me for an interview with Anna Home, for the second series of Grange Hill.
You started writing for Grange Hill during its second series. What was it like coming into a show that had made such an impact?
I was very green when I started writing Grange Hill.. Crown Court was great, but everything took place in one set. Grange Hill had a lot more movement, it cut between film and studio, and you had to think about time in a way that I hadn’t when writing for a courtroom.
Because we wrote ahead, I don’t think any of Grange Hill had aired before I was interviewed. Before the interview, I read Phil’s scripts for the first series and I was impressed. The characters were good and the dialogue was lively. I liked the fact that the show was irreverent and that it was set in the interstices of the school day. I had taught in London schools after I left university, so when I read the scripts I could see the show wasn’t really about education, it was about school as a social place. I recognised the ways in which these kids were behaving.
When it went out, I don’t remember it being that controversial at the start. The controversy came and went; some years more than others, depending on the stories we were telling..
However, whenever people discovered I was a Grange Hill writer, they were polarised. They either said it wasn’t tough enough for a London school or they thought what we portrayed was absolutely appalling. I used to think that they must have lead very sheltered lives because even if you went to a private school you would have lots of the same things: playing up in lessons, bullying, pilfering, exposure to drugs. These things happen in all schools.
How involved were you in the storyline process over a whole series?
That varied with the producers. At the beginning, for the first few series, Phil wrote the storylines and most episodes. Then, when he was busy with Brookside, he stopped writing episodes but he still wrote storylines. Over time, depending on the producer, the writers had more input in expanding the storyline. And. I would say a lot of the texture came from the writers. By texture, I mean mini-stories, background detail. My eldest child was in his first year at the local Comp when I began writing for Grange Hill; then as time went on, I had two other children at the same school. I got quite a lot of ideas from them. They weren’t telling me, I was asking! I remember once going into the kitchen and hearing one of them say “Shhh! Don’t tell her……she’ll put it in a script!”
What about creating characters?
I think the process of creating characters in a series like this is fascinating. I’ve worked on soaps since and the actor plays a huge part. Phil came up with our core characters every season; the bully, the jack-the-lad; Tucker and Zammo; the sensible girl, and so on. Those characters were clearly delineated; we knew who they were, but the children who played them had a big part in their development. That has happened throughout my writing life; you come up with a character and then the actor comes into it and something in the way he plays the part sparks the imagination of the writer and the character begins to burgeon.
I think those kids who were in it were fantastic. They gave some very powerful performances considering they weren’t all trained actors coming out of stage school,. They gave an awful lot to the show. And a lot of credit has to go to the people who did the casting—Phil, Anna, Colin Cant and other, later producers.
Were there any characters or actors you particularly enjoyed writing for?
That’s where I feel my memory has all turned to soup! I remember I enjoyed writing the very sparky boys…… and girls actually. They are not very clearly delineated in my mind now as to which ones. I liked the fact that it was a comprehensive with a bit of a class mix in it. It’s obviously quite fun writing the baddies, whatever you are writing. I don’t ever remember not liking writing for any character; on some shows you would think ‘Oh not this character again!’ I never remember feeling this about any of the Grange Hill characters. The story comes from character quite often, and in telling the story you’re developing the character. I liked writing certain stories more than certain characters.
As a writer, you seemed to be given a lot of the ‘character based’ episodes to write.
It’s interesting you say that. I think that’s true of me as a writer generally. I’m not really into ‘the chases’ (there were lots of those!), that’s not my forte; I’m more interested in the way story grows out of character. It’s also true that having three children of the age I was writing about, and their friends in and out of the house all the time, I was aware of what one might call the quieter, more internal issues—wanting to learn, worry about exams, or a problem at home.
Were there times where you were exceptionally pleased or disappointed when you saw the finished episodes?
Sometimes one, sometimes the other. I learnt a lot. I remember I wrote an episode in a yoga class where on screen, they were all wearing their shoes! There was another one in a tobacconist’s shop where something was going on. I had imagined it completely differently and my stage directions and the pace of the action didn’t make sense with the shop that way round.. In both cases, I should have been more specific I think.
I think the big classroom scenes were always tricky to direct. The ones where you have a lot of characters talking at once. It certainly wasn’t my intention that the camera should pan to each character in turn. A classroom is alive; people are coming in from all directions. That’s one of the things I knew from my teaching experience in London. I think it was really difficult to capture the pace of that. It would need to be done in long shot to get the whole thing. Having said that, sometimes it really did work.
I remember we did ‘Flexi-time’; that was great fun to write, and as I remember, worked on screen.
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?
I don’t think we were deliberately choosing issues in order to make the programme controversial. If you are writing about ordinary people and ordinary people’s lives these things are quite a big part of it. Racism and drugs are issues that kids are coming up against all the time; then and now.
How you handle them is quite a tricky call. Can you, when you are writing in entertainment, really deal in depth with issues? I think it’s a question then and now, whether it’s adult or children’s television. On television you do feel things are sometimes wrapped up rather neatly.
Do you have a favourite episode or storyline?
I liked writing the comedy—the repartee. I remember enjoying an episode where a teacher (Mrs Monroe) got locked in a cupboard. This grew out of some tiny detail as I was writing it. I liked writing for Imelda. I liked the Zammo drugs story. Quite near the end of my time, there was another female bullying story (Julie Corrigan is bullied by Alice Rowe). I enjoyed writing that. I remember being told ‘They don’t really do much do they and yet it’s very nasty’. I think it was accurate; girls bully differently to boys. I remember another episode where one of the girls has a crush on the teacher. He was completely innocent, it was all a fantasy in her head, but in the context of today you’d probably be writing it as an abuse storyline.
I always found the episodes when the children went on excursions and school trips fun to write, because they were out of the ordinary.
I guess I found the set piece things like the school plays harder. I find anything like that, ‘plays within plays’ hard to watch. School plays on Grange Hill were always far better produced and costumed than a real school play!
Then there were recurrent storylines about school councils. I think it’s a great idea for there to be school councils and have pupils involved, but even with good characters pursuing their own agendas it was sometimes hard to make the issues interesting.
You wrote for Grange Hill for more than a decade – how did it change during this time?
On my first series (series 2- 1979), there was just Phil, Alan Janes and me. In the beginning I don’t think there was a script editor; I think the scripts went straight to the producer, Colin Cant, and presumably Anna and Phil read them. I don’t remember being asked to do a lot of different drafts in those days.
It was when the programme moved to the studios in Elstree that things seemed to change gear. That was when Kenny McBain was producer, and Anthony Minghella started as script editor. The script production process became more visibly structured. We were doing more episodes per series and I think there were about six writers. That in itself makes a big difference. The more writers you have the more takes there are on a character; the more important the continuity.
Anthony and I lived quite near each other so and we would go to each other’s houses for script editing meetings. These days in television the editing process goes on ad infinitum, but in those days you did your first draft and then a second draft and that was about it.
After Kenny, Ron Smedley took over as producer. He was keen on research—both for what we were about to write, and for what we had written—how it had been received. I remember going with him to a school for disabled children before we introduced a child with a physical disability. And another time, we went together to a girls’ comprehensive in Leeds, to see how children from a different demographic were connecting with the programme. Ron and I also went to the Isle of Wight, to recce the location where they were going to film the school trip. It was the day after the great storm in 1987, and there were trees down everywhere.
In the middle years of my time on the programme, I used do a block of four or six episodes, I remember. Sometimes they’d be in sequence, or sometimes in pairs. It is always easier to do a sequence as you know the detail in the previous episode, and where to pick up from.
Of course, another way the programme evolved was that the cast got bigger. Child actors grow up. We went from following a single intake of first years to having two and eventually three age-groups in play. Every time there was a new intake of first years, everyone watched with bated breath. Would the new kids have the star quality that had characterised the previous generation?
Do you think your episodes of Grange Hill still stand up today?
Before this interview it was a long time since I’d watched any of them. Looking at Youtube, I can see that some stand up well but some…….I think Barry Purchese, in his interview with you, used the word ‘ponderous’! I strove always for a lightness of touch, but watching my episodes now, I see I didn’t always succeed. I do think television has got a lot quicker and audiences more sophisticated. I still think the show was good, but it’s of its time. That said, I showed some episodes to my grandchildren when they were younger and they were quite impressed. Life at Grange Hill obviously bore enough relation to their school days to resonate with them. To me it felt terribly real at the time I was writing it. I was right in it!
Does it surprise you that Grange Hill still has a big following, particularly the early years of the show?
I think the fact it resonates with my grandchildren shows there must be something timeless and universal about it. That’s the definition of a classic, I suppose. Plus, some fans may be nostalgic for their experience of watching the show. Back in the seventies and eighties everybody in the country watched the same programme at the same time, and it was a topic for discussion next day with your mates. For young people who grew up watching it, Grange Hill was a reflection and an extension of their own experience at school. It must have been like having another set of friends. It was a naturalistic drama, set in their world, told from their point of view. That in itself made it new and exciting.
What have you done since leaving Grange Hill?
Like many writers I’ve got a number of things I wrote, or spent a long time developing, that didn’t sell. However, among the things that I’m proud of, and that did see the light of day was a novel for young people called Strange Orbit, which was published in 1993. It’s very different to Grange Hill, it’s about a trip to the moon that goes wrong. Then I wrote a retelling of the Mahabharata, which is a very famous Indian epic. It’s a fabulous story of families and royalty, war and genocide, but with a spiritual take on everything that happens. It’s very powerful and I really enjoyed writing it. And of course, throughout, I continued to write for television; after Grange Hill, the show I’ve worked longest for was Emmerdale.
© 2018 Grange Hill Gold – Not to be reproduced without permission.
Thanks to Margaret Simpson.