Ronald Smedley -PRODUCER (1985-1989)
Ronald Smedley became Producer of Grange Hill at the beginning of its most watched era. As Producer he oversaw storylines such as Zammo’s drug addiction, Danny Kendall’s death and Imelda’s reign of terror, as well as launching Grange Hill in its new home at Elstree. Whilst a Producer might never seen on screen, they oversee every aspect of the programme. Here, in an exclusive article for Grange Hill Gold, Ronald talks about his long and successful career in television and explains exactly what life as Producer of Grange Hill involved!
How Did Your Career in Television Start?
Luck. Pure luck. Long, long ago, when I was earning £300 a year as a teacher of sorts, I was fortunate enough to meet up, accidentally, with a very distinguished BBC Radio Producer, Charles Chilton (look him up Online).
We enjoyed each other’s company and, without much thought, I asked him how I might get a job in the BBC. He took me seriously immediately and said that, if I didn’t have a degree from Oxbridge (the way in), I should look out for vacancies as an Assistant Studio Manager in radio. The BBC wouldn’t expect me to have any experience.
He then suggested that I gave him my address and that he’d let me know when the BBC were looking for ASMs.
A year later I received a letter from that kind and wonderful man. There were vacancies for ASMs. I applied. I was successful. My life had changed (and I was earning £400 a year).
I applied for jobs in production, unsuccessfully, but four years later I was accepted for a three months trial as an assistant producer in a new department, BBC School Television. (BBC School Radio went back to 1922). The trial was successful, my salary jumped to an unbelievable £1000 a year. I stayed with the Department for thirty five happy years. I took early retirement, as Deputy Head, aged 55.
(PS DON’T TRY TO APPLY FOR AN ASM’S JOB. THE BBC’S AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT ESTABLISHMENT NOW)
What Led You to Working on Grange Hill?
The Head of Children’s Television, Edward Barnes, hearing I was retiring from School TV, asked me if I would consider being an occasional Director of Grange Hill programmes. I jumped on a tube for White City (BBC Television HQ) to discuss his offer and made for Edward’s office. During my trip on the Tube things had changed. Ben Rea, current GH Producer, had decided to move to another Department. Edward offered me Ben’s job. I became Producer of Grange Hill.
You Started During Series 9?
Yes. It was a particularly happy time for GH. GH was based at Television Centre. TC was not an easy place to run a series of programmes with such a large number of children. Children and the people looking after them need SPACE which TC could not provide.
With that (and other things) in mind the BBC bought the old ATV studios at Borehamwood, Elstree. At Elstree Studios there was space galore – a dedicated studio for GH alone, plenty of rooms for children to keep up with their school work, plenty of room for the boys to kick a football and girls to sit and chat (and vice versa), Our own changing rooms. I arrived to join in the move.
How Much Did You Change Of GH When You Arrived?
I changed nothing. I had to learn what was almost a new job. I had humbly to learn as much as I could and as quickly as I could. GH was efficiently run by a sizeably large group of people who knew what they were doing.
I was particularly impressed by Script Editor, Anthony Minghella. I’m not sure that he was as impressed by me!
I had brought experience of drama production from my days at School TV; indeed some of the productions for older pupils were retransmitted in evening slots. We had won two BAFTAs and other awards. (Note I say ‘we won’ not ‘I won’. Making a TV play involves the work of many skilled people)
But GH was, partly because of its size, something different!
How did you find working with Phil Redmond?
Phil Redmond was the creator of Grange Hill. No Phil, no Grange Hill. By the time I arrived Phil was visiting once a year for a meeting with Anthony and the half a dozen writers to discuss the next series and now I was included. They were very interesting meetings. Phil had strong views which, of course, he was entitled to.
Incidentally, he was the first person with a mobile phone. We were very impressed.
What Were the Key Jobs of GH Producer?
(these are my views. Others might be different)
Discussing the next series of stories with Anthony
Casting the new adult actors that the new stories might need.
Casting the new young actors for the new stories. Casting young and therefore inexperienced actors is not easy. I might interview up to 40 or so for one part. Perhaps more.
I would get together a short list from the long list of possible youngsters and Anthony, the first Director and others would get together and come to conclusions – and cast. I don’t think we regretted any of our decisions
Scripts would be read by senior members of the Department – Deputy Head and then if thought necessary Head of Department.
Rehearsals begin: Each episode would take a week to produce. The producer would be given a run through on the Friday afternoon. The Cast would make for home while the Producer would discuss the performance with the Director. This was known as The Producer’s Run.
Supervising the Recording – liase with the Directors if necessary. The GH Directors were experienced and good at their job. Producer’s interference would be tactful and rare.
Discipline of the Children: Chaperones are responsible for the Children’s (under 16s) behaviour and happiness. If a child is misbehaving seriously the Senior Chaperone perhaps accompanied by the Senior Tutor would bring the child to the Producer’s Office for a dressing down. The Producer becomes the Headmaster! Happened rarely. And usually with the Supporting Artist.
I remember holding up the beginning of a day’s recording in our Studio:
‘I am shocked, totally shocked, with the state of the boy’s dressing room. I know who’s responsible and if this happens again…’etc (The Wardrobe Supervisor had had a word with me)
The crew were open mouthed with my performance. I seemed to have taken them in as well. I walked out in total silence.
BBC documents show you spent a lot of time getting feedback from School children. What can you tell us about this process?
The School Visit: in my previous School TV days I’d soon found it invaluable to visit a school to see a class who were watching a programme that I had made for their age group, and judge the reaction and, with the teacher’s approval, have a discussion with the class. Sometimes it was disappointing and sometimes the opposite. I would learn a lot.
I introduced The School Visit to GH. With the help of my School TV colleagues I would find a cooperative school.
The class and I would talk about the series so far and then I would play a DVD of an episode that they would not yet have seen.
I would then write an assessment of the visit and how the class had reacted and distribute it to my colleagues. I know they read it with interest.
We didn’t just go to local London schools. Over the time we went to rural schools, Scottish Schools, Northern Irish schools. (The Scottish Schools were very different.)
One of my most interesting days was when, in the morning, I went to a large, tough Comprehensive in Stoke Newington: as I went up the stairs to meet the Head I passed signs on the wall saying ‘Hello and Welcome’ in the many languages that the pupils spoke. We had a very lively discussion. I went to a class and we talked about GH and played the DVD. The discussion was lively.
I drove in the afternoon to Eton
A bunch of slightly older boys were in their Housemaster’s room (not specifically for my visit) with their Housemaster. There they were in their stiff white collars and white bow ties, waistcoats, striped black trousers, smart black shoes.
They were familiar with GH.
I played the DVD that I played at Stoke Newington. The reaction was the same – the only difference was the accent and a slightly different choice of words. They obviously watched GH. They were upset when (deliberately) I suggested that people might be surprised to hear that Etonians would watch GH.
(On another occasion I was asked to address the whole Etonian 6th form, to talk about GH. The 6th form is enormous. When they left it was like watching a flock of birds in flight).
Was it hard working with a largely junior class?
Not at all – because of the Chaperones and Tutors. The under 16s were never on their own.
We had a large group of experienced Chaperones and each Chaperone would look after up to ten children each. The Chaperones were kind but firm; mostly London mums. (There was nothing that the Chaperones didn’t know about what was going on! Very helpful.)
The Tutors had a slightly more difficult job – but they handled it well. Before joining the cast of GH permission had to be gained from parents, of course, but then from the child’s school, the child’s GP and the child’s Local Authority. Representatives of the child’s Local Authority had permission to visit the Studios to see that all was well.
The child’s school would have to agree to provide appropriate work that the child would study when at Elstree. So the Tutors job was not to teach a class but to help as necessary each separate child. It needed a special skill from the Tutor and patience from the child.
Sometimes, when the script demanded it, there would be over a hundred children bussed to Elstree – sometimes just a handful.
Of course, the move to Elstree made a great difference.
(There was some other work going on when we arrived at Elstree. A great deal of money was being spent on an exterior set. There was a rumour that it was going to be called EastEnders or something like that. It had better be good, we said to ourselves)
Some of the storylines were quite hard hitting. Was it intentional? Danny Kendall’s death for example. Were the stories meant to be controversial, educational or just entertaining?
This is my opinion. Our young audience had done their days work already when they came home from school. They expected to be entertained not taught. But being entertained is hard to define. Anthony Minghella used to talk about our job being to provide a ‘menu’ of stories – serious, funny, interesting – but above all good tales. Zammo on drugs was a fabulous story and you could say that there was a moral to it. But it was a part of GH because it was a good tale not because Anthony and I had to put the world to rights. Young people who are without stories as part of their lives are poor indeed
If we were worried about the acceptability of the script it was our job to ‘refer up’- that is to pass the responsibility to our senior BBC staff. In GHs case I would be obliged to seek the opinion of Roy Thompson, the Deputy Head of Children’s TV. He might give his approval or ‘refer up’ to the Head of the Department. And so on. In the case of the Drug story we most certainly ‘referred up’.
The story of Danny Kendall’s Death is Interesting in that ‘Danny’ suggested the story himself.
We were sorry to lose him but he had to leave GH because he had to concentrate on his 6th Form work. ‘Kill me off’ was his suggestion. And there were reasons for it. In his character he was an unhappy boy. There was an opportunity for his friends to be moved and so were the audience. But we did make one mistake. Danny’s dead body is found by the opening of a car door and dead Danny half falling out. Some of our youngest viewers found it upsetting. It was a mistake – but not a too serious one
I don’t remember in my four years Anthony or I or Lee Jackson, Anthony’s successor, being taken to task by Management.
Was this the ‘Golden Era’ of Grange Hill?
Yes, I think it was A golden era. We had in Anthony a man who was going on to be a very distinguished Film Director and a very lively successor in Leigh Jackson. We had a very efficient staff and a small group of excellent writers, and a cast that is remembered still.
But so is Tucker Jenkins and friends. There were other Golden Eras
Your Favourite Character?
I didn’t have one and if did I wouldn’t tell you. Lee McDonald (Zammo) made a clock for me when I retired from GH, and he put his name on it and it’s still on the mantel piece. So he’s my favourite
Your Favourite Episode?
Zammo and Drugs. Great script and performance – and it got us the States and the White House as part of The Just Say No campaign
What Led You to Leave Grange Hill and What Did You Do Next?
I was Producer for four years which is more than anyone else ever. My successor Albert Barber was Producer for three years. By the time I left GH I was 60 so I retired for the second time-but not for long. To my surprise I was asked if I would join or form a Production Company which would specialise in making programmes for young people. I formed my own Company called ‘Spelthorne Productions’ which I ran from the same table as I am sitting at now. I was to make mostly programmes for very young people – Year 2 i.e. Second Year Infants. We invented a character called Magic Grandad who takes his grandchildren into the past – I think Magic Grandad is still around. But I wound up Spelthorne Productions ten years later when I was 70! I will be 90 very soon.
How do you look back on your time at Grange Hill?
With great fondness. I only wish I had had such a rich experience earlier in my career.
I was very lucky (and so were they. Joke!)
The only thing that is so very sad is that Anthony Minghella and Lee Jackson were both to die of cancer in their early 50s.
(c) 2018 Grange Hill Gold
Many thanks to Ronald Smedley