Michael Sheard is a highly regarded character actor who has appeared in numerous films and TV series. He is probably best remembered for his roles as Adolf Hitler in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Admiral Ozzel in the Star Wars Trilogy and of course, Mr Maurice Bronson, Grange Hill’s legendary French teacher from 1985-1989.
Strict disciplinarian Mr Bronson was a former Latin teacher who arrived when Grange Hill merged with another school. It wasn’t long before his shout of ‘You Boy!’ became legendary. This well rounded character saw a series of strong storylines during his time on the show, including Mr Bronson’s ongoing problems with Anthony Jones and a long running feud with Danny Kendall.
Michael has also written a series of memoirs including ‘You Boy! – Memoirs of A Bum Actor’ which recounts memorable moments from his career, including a special A-Z Grange Hill section. His current book is at the printers ‘as we speak’! Michael kindly agreed to be interviewed exclusively for Grange Hill Online.
How did you get the part in Grange Hill? Was it written especially for you?
Well, its funny you should say that because my wife has her own exhibition, she’s an artist, in Chichester at the moment. The producer, Ben Rea, of Grange Hill came along to the private view. I hadn’t seen him for a while. I’d known him for some time prior to Grange Hill and I got this phone call which went something like this : “I’m looking for a balding actor” and I said “Well, I’m a balding actor” and he said “Yes, I know, that’s why I’m phoning you!” It wasn’t written specifically for me but it was written for a bald man who wore a toupee, and he thought the toupee was superb, but it wasn’t. The problem there is that if you tell a make up department to put a bad wig on somebody then that reflects on the make up department! So in actual fact the toupee that he did get was quite good! But what the heck, everybody knew it was a toup! When it was stolen in the swimming pool by Gonch and Hollo, he did have to wear the spare and that was very bad!
Did the character head in the direction that you wanted?
When I started I was adamant that Bronson would not, and I said this, he would never hit a pupil or do anything like that. He just would not. He was passionate about his teaching, and he could be very kind. There was that time when Roland had overslept and missed his French Oral and Mr Bronson put his job on the line to make sure that he was able to do it. He was so passionate about his teaching. I was very pleased that when they voted for Mr Bronson in TV’s Biggest B*****d that he actually came in at number 4, and not number 1, because he did have that kind side.
Did you feel you took the character as far as you could?
Oh yes. I mean in terms of that, when Bronson first arrived we learnt about him slowly. We didn’t learn he lived with his sister until episode 4 or something like that. The first 8 scripts, I think, had already been written by Barry Purchese, when I started and so the character built up as I started playing the part. It was the way that I played Bronson that then lead, in my second series, to the storyline with Anthony Jones, and that developed the character even more.
Do you think you stayed in Grange Hill too long?
In terms of hindsight, it’s easy looking back and to say that I was at Grange Hill too long. And if I was to do it again, I would like to do the first and second series and then the fifth one that I did, but leave out the third and fourth. As an actor they were the two in which the character developed less.
What was it like working with such a large teenage cast?
Well, actors say never work with children or animals! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Whilst we were filming they were making a behind the scenes documentary and several of the ‘kids’ said that they really enjoyed working with me. And I thought that was very nice. I tried to treat them not like kids, but as smaller actors! However, and it was very rare, I do remember once that I really did lose it with Ziggy! He had held us up by being late for a whole morning, and the whole cast and crew were waiting for him before we could start. So when he arrived I gave him a good telling off, as Bronson. I wouldn’t normally do that, but this was exceptional. I’m very glad that he remembers it, and that he’s not late for work from now on! But yes, I did enjoy working with the ‘smaller actors’.
Do you still stay in touch with any of the cast?
I do. If I’m ever travelling through London I often stop to have a drink with Jonathan (Danny Kendall). The other day I received an e-mail from George Christopher who plays Ziggy. And I still keep in touch with the lovely Gwyneth (Mrs McCluskey). I enjoyed working with her very much. But sadly this year she’s let me down! Every year we always get asked to do Pantomime together. Gwyneth as the Fairy Godmother and me as the villain! And every year we’ve never been able to do it. But then a year or two back, we were both able to do it, but the script wasn’t very good. So we didn’t do that. Then in this year’s Christmas card, Gwyneth wrote that “I’ve got some good or bad news. I’m doing a pantomime this year on my own!”. But yes, we still keep in touch!
At times Grange Hill was very shocking and quite controversial. Do you ever think it went too far?
No! No way! I will defend Grange Hill 100% if anyone ever says otherwise. The drugs storyline that we did, which Bronson was only on the edge of, was very good. I mean the younger cast were invited to the White House because of the impact that this storyline and the ‘Just Say No’ song had. It was excellently acted by Lee Macdonald. Very good. I think it was all handled very well.
As an actor is it a help or a hindrance to be so well remembered for a role?
Oh a help, absolutely! I mean I’ve just finished playing Hitler for the 8th time and it’s at the stage now where people say ‘I need someone to play Hitler’ and someone will say ‘Michael Sheard’ because I’ve obviously done it well before, otherwise they wouldn’t ask. I mean in terms of a soap, like Eastenders, that is an actor’s graveyard. They end up there and can never get out, and recently lots of actors have returned there because they just find that they can’t get other roles as they are so well remembered for that part. But Grange Hill wasn’t like that. I mean it went out at 4:30, early evening, or whenever, and it didn’t have that ‘soap’ tag. But it was very popular! I mean every time I am out, there is always someone who will say ‘Were you Mr Bronson?’ Just recently someone on a train asked me that and I said ‘yes’ and he brought his friends over, and they all insisted on buying me a whiskey each! When I was in London recently, a young girl, must have been about six, walked past with her mum and said ‘Hello Mr Bronson!’ In America, because I do a lot of conventions there, I am usually recognised for being in Star Wars, but here it is always Grange Hill. I just finished filming a pilot for a comedy for the BBC and they talked about who they wanted for the role and they were told ‘I want Mr Bronson’ for that part!’ so sure enough the BBC contacted me.
I believe that some of your appearances in Doctor Who have just been released on DVD?
I recently recorded a commentary for some of my Doctor Who work. This was for Pyramids of Mars which has just come out on DVD and I also recorded a piece where we went back to the locations. I went to a signing at Tenth Planet in Barking, with Sutekh and a Mummy from the story, and we signed over 1000 DVDs by the end! I’m the actor who has appeared with the most Doctors, other than, I call him my ‘father’, Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart), so we have a competition going!
Would you consider a role in the new series of Doctor Who?
Oh yes! I will consider any role at all, in anything. I’ve just accepted a film role as a Transvestite Porno movie Producer who decides to go commercial and make a Hollywood Blockbuster. It’s very interesting, but the language! They phoned me up the other day and said that some of the cast think that in a certain scene the language is just too much, but I don’t think so. I shall do it!
Did Mr Bronson live happily ever after?
Oh yes! Definately! When they had the trip to the Isle of Wight, it was good to see him without his toupee. You saw him enquiring about properties in an estate agents, and you were left wondering whether he would be with the lady who had run the course they were on. I was very pleased that they added those bits, which were my idea. I thought it was important that these little seeds were planted in preparation for my departure. I see him living very much as a bachelor, a very definate bachelor, but not a limp wristed bachelor! But looking after bees, maybe teaching some French as a side line! Though of course he had been a Latin teacher, but I had enough problems with the French he had to speak. I speak German, but not really French, so my wife had to help me learn it all phonetically!
Would you ever consider a return to Grange Hill?
I would, but in terms of the character I had probably taken him as far as he could go, but I would say, it could work in a certain situation. It’s strange that you should ask that, as, a few years ago, I had a phone call from the production office. And they said ‘How do you think we should end this current series?’, because obviously the series always used to end with a Sports Day or a fun run. And I said “Well, why are you phoning me? I left about 13 years ago?” and they said “Well you were always quite good at having those sort of ideas.” And I said “Well they’ve never had a school reunion. It would be good to see some of the old pupils and staff gathered together.” It would be nice to see in a panning shot, Bronson call out ‘Hello Jones!’ to Anthony Jones. And to see some of the pupils again. Obviously they couldn’t bring back Danny Kendall! But that is the only way I’d return to Grange Hill.
What do you think about Grange Hill now and the fact that it is no longer a London based production?
When Phil Redmond took the show back, very wrongly I think, and moved it to Liverpool, I was very disappointed. It was always very much a London show and I think that what he did, moving it, was very wrong. There was no need to do that.
Any final thoughts?
Grange Hill was a job that I enjoyed immensely! I go to a lot of Sci-Fi conventions, but I think there should be a Grange Hill convention. The problem is that if you did have one, you’d need somewhere the size of Wembley Stadium to fit everyone in!
(c) Grange Hill Gold 2004. A huge thank you to Michael Sheard for being such an entertaining and obliging interviewee!
Sadly Michael Sheard died on 31st August 2005, having suffered from cancer.