Miss Roz Partridge caused controversy at Grange Hill when it was discovered that she was an unmarried mother to a young son. Whilst certain staff and parent-governors called for her to lose her job, Miss Partridge’s kind and caring nature made her popular with both the Grange Hill pupils and Headteacher. Actress Karen Lewis appeared in two series of Grange Hill between 1986-87. She is married to theatre director Michael Attenborough and in this exclusive interview looks back on her time at Grange Hill, her friendship with Script-Editor Anthony Minghella and the challenges of filming when pregnant!
What lead to you becoming an actress?
That’s a really hard question because as a child, after wanting to be a nurse and a policewoman, it seemed to be the only thing I wanted to do. I think what absolutely spurred me on in my teens was seeing Peter Brook’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’; it was such a seminal production and I thought ‘Yes, I want to do that!’
What roles had you played before Grange Hill?
I wasn’t that old when I was doing Grange Hill ; I was still in my twenties. I’d done a lot of theatre; I’d been in rep and had done many, many plays. For television, I’d already done ‘Shine On Harvey Moon’ and I think I’d already done ‘Casualty’ and ‘The Bill’ before Grange Hill. I’d done a couple of films, one with Meryl Streep called ‘Plenty’, another film with Christopher Eccleston called ‘Let Him Have It’ and a couple of short films. I’m not sure I’ve got my chronology right; but before Grange Hill I’d definitely done a lot of theatre; to tell you all the parts I’d played would take a long time!
Did you have a preference to theatre, television or film roles?
I think it was a case of whatever came along and whatever role I could get! There aren’t very many people who have the luxury of choosing. I think many actors have a preference for the live experience. I did a lot of theatre because I loved that medium; I loved the fact that every night is different and you never know quite what is going to happen. You also have an element of control over your performance that you don’t have in film or television because the director and editor have a lot of control about how it comes out at the end, deciding which takes to use and what to put in. On stage, once you’ve opened and the director has left the rehearsal room, it’s all up to you! I find that very exciting and rewarding. Having said that, one’s enjoyment of the work is very dependent on what the part is like, what the director’s like, how collaborative it is, so sometimes there’s been ‘tellies’ that have been more fun than theatre productions.
What appealed to you about the role in Grange Hill?
Initially it was more the reason that I was asked to do it that appealed to me about it. I didn’t know the storyline that I’d have. I agreed to do it because I was asked by the writer (and Grange Hill script editor), Anthony Minghella, whom I’d admired hugely. I thought he was quite brilliant and he did turn out to be. Anthony went on to become an A-list film director and writer and won an Oscar for ‘The English Patient’ and produced some great work later on. He and his wife also went on to be our best friends. I’d worked with him in Leicester at the Haymarket Theatre and he asked me if I’d be in Grange Hill as he was script editor. I said ‘If you’re writing the scripts, then absolutely!’ without any hesitation.
Your character was almost sacked when it was revealed she was a single, working mother. Nowadays this seems almost inconceivable, yet at the time was quite realistic. What were your own thoughts about this storyline and the way it was handled?
I was very delighted with the storyline he gave me, because at the time, what he and Phil Redmond, were trying to do was to highlight the cause of single working mothers and the shame they were made to feel. I thought it was an important issue to address, so I was very happy with that storyline. Given that she was a teacher, in a position of trust and a role model to a degree, I think that made the situation more acute for the character. That’s why she tried to keep it a secret for so long and it was such a relief for my character to be accepted and not to feel the fear, guilt and shame that a lot of people at that time were still feeling.
What was it like working with such a large teenage cast?
Hilarious actually! It was fine, some of them were very professional and some were quite ill disciplined so you did have the full gamut! I never had a problem with any of them; they were on the whole, delightful.
Did you get on well with the cast?
I was very close to Lucinda Curtis (Mrs Reagan) and she became a godmother to our first son who was actually born during the filming of Grange Hill. I was pregnant during the second series and I came back just to finish off the series after my son, Tom, was born. So, Lucinda was a very close friend.
I was quite friendly with Jeffrey Kissoon (Mr Kennedy) at the time, and the other Karen (Karen Ford – Miss Booth) and Gwyneth Powell who played Mrs McCluskey, but it is only really Lucinda I’ve kept up with.
What about Michael Sheard who played Mr Bronson?
I took Michael with a great big pinch of salt! He liked to take people under his wing and be the elder-statesman of the company. That could come across sometimes as being critical of somebody’s performance but I don’t think he meant it like that at all. He just wanted to look after everybody and be the president of the club! I got on fine with him. He absolutely loved Grange Hill. I think it was really important to him; more than just a job. I think it defined his career to a degree.
Did you get much reaction to your character from the public?
Oh yes ; it is extraordinary the power of television. Wherever the kids went there would be swarms of people after them. That I understood, but I couldn’t get my head around the fact that if I went out for a pint of milk, I’d have to leave an extra hour because there would be about 20-30 people around me asking for autographs. I found that extraordinary because the teachers were on the periphery to a degree and didn’t really make the same mark as the kids, but we did! There were people who talked to me specifically about the part and the storyline, but on the whole it was the fact that you were in Grange Hill; not us as individual actors that captured the public imagination.
At times Grange Hill was very shocking and quite controversial. Do you ever think it went too far?
No, I didn’t. I thought that they were very sensitively handled, particularly the ‘Just Say No’ anti-drugs campaign because it really was quite an important issue. There were millions of children watching Grange Hill at 5 o’clock in the evening and I suppose it might have been quite a difficult subject area. There may have been some criticism that because this was being watched by children as young as 8 or 9, that it shouldn’t have been shown tackling this issue. I disagree with that; it was sensitively handled and I think it made a lot of children who maybe felt detached or unable to talk to their parents, or a significant adult, feel included.
It’s quite a bold statement but I think it was Anthony Minghella. I just think he brought these characters and storylines to life in his writing. I don’t think it was as interesting after he left. Maybe I shouldn’t say that, but he brought his brilliance to that moment in time. The ‘Just Say No’ campaign went all the way to the White House; now that was a big deal. If you tackle an issue at a time when it’s very current then that helps as well.
How long can a programme continue being hard-hitting and current? It’s very difficult when it is essentially a children’s programme. It became a little more trivial ; I know there was a whole series about the donkey when Anthony left! I don’t think it had the same storylines after that; it wasn’t terribly interesting I didn’t think. But in its defence, does Grange Hill always have to be didactic, can it not just be entertaining? I think it continued to be entertaining and that’s very important isn’t it?
It is very easy to regard Grange Hill as just a children’s programme; how did working on Grange Hill compare to other productions?
I think it did strive for quality, but one of the problems with any soap (which is really what Grange Hill was; a children’s soap) is that you do have to rattle out a lot of episodes quite quickly. That’s become more the case now than it was then; we did have the luxury of a rehearsal which you don’t now on a soap. In Anthony’s time and the time that I was doing it, the production values were very high. It compared pretty well with other productions.
What are your favourite memories from your time on Grange Hill?
I enjoyed it all really. I got pregnant between the end of the first series and I went to the producer and said I’m going to have a baby and was going to have to move on. They said ‘We’d really like you to stay on and can work around you if you’d be happy to do that.’ That was great. But what did make me laugh was the fact that having been the mother of an illegitimate child on screen, you couldn’t have her getting pregnant again! They said don’t worry we’ll shoot you from the neck up, but of course they didn’t do that and I just got fatter and fatter on screen! I suggested that they had a scene with Miss Partridge snacking on donuts in the staff-room because I was just getting huge and nobody made any reference to it! My husband said I looked like three ripe watermelons walking down the corridor which I thought was rude! They were really good to me and they did work around my pregnancy. I worked until I was seven and a half months, so that was really nice.
There was one episode I enjoyed enormously because it involved a lovely little boy who played my son. That was the school sports day and the staff had said bring him along, so I got to work with this enchanting little boy playing my son for a couple of days. It was great; a really fun episode.
The only aspect I wasn’t so keen on was sometimes when you had little to do in an episode, because really it was about the children. There were times when it was a little frustrating and I wished I had a little more to do; I’d like to feature a bit more and have more of a journey here. But in any long running series that is going to happen.
What do your family think of your role in Grange Hill?
I think they’re quite proud of it really. They’re grown up now and the don’t watch back episodes of Grange Hill ; it was a while back since they last saw some. My son Tom was born just as I left, so I think it was probably about ten years later that they saw any. I think they thought it was cool! They are in the business themselves now; my eldest son is a theatre director and my youngest is an actor.
Does it surprise you that Grange Hill still has a big following today, with particular interest in the earlier years?
It’s absolutely amazing. Up until about 7 or 8 years ago, I was still having people come up to me and say that they used to watch me in Grange Hill. That was amazing because it was twenty years since I’d done it. If anybody says ‘I seem to know you, what have you been in?’, if I mention Grange Hill they will tell me they watched it as a kid, or their children watched it. It’s really become a cult television programme. I hope people will go on enjoying it for many years ; maybe it will become The Mousetrap of Children’s Television?!
What have you done since leaving Grange Hill?
I’m still acting, but not as much. I’ve just been playing the lead in a short film called ‘Miriam’ based on a Truman Capote short story, which I’ve also co-produced. We’ve been taking it to festivals in America; Florida, New York and California and it seems to have been very successful there. Once we’ve finished the second circuit we’ll probably put it on the air and on-line.
About four years ago I did a play that went to New York and played off Broadway. I’m doing bits and bobs; writing a book and doing voice work. I haven’t been doing telly series in England, but I have been very busy; more behind the scenes than in-front of the camera!
Has Grange Hill been a help or a hindrance to your career?
I don’t think either. Because I had a baby, I wanted to be at home with him for a while so I stopped going away. If you get a series like Grange Hill you can stay at home in London, but mostly you have to go away to work, either at theatres around the country or a lot of the television work might be in Manchester or Sheffield. So, if I wasn’t getting work in or close to London, which to a degree I did, I started doing lots of voice overs and made that my career for a few years whilst I looked after my sons. I don’t think Grange Hill was a help or a hindrance to my career.
How do you look back on your time there?
Very happily. The great regret and sadness is that, as you probably know Anthony Minghella died a few years ago, so because of the association with him and Grange Hill there is an immense feeling of sadness when I think about it, but also of great joy because it was enormous fun and very rewarding, because I think I was involved in a ‘golden era’ for the programme. I met some lovely people. You keep bumping into people who were associated with it. I look back on it with great fondness and affection.
© 2014 Grange Hill Gold
With sincere thanks to Karen Lewis