DUANE ORPINGTON (1980-1984)
Describing himself as ‘the forgotten man of Grange Hill’, Mark Baxter joined the cast as new first-year Duane Orpington at the beginning of series 3. Afraid of his violent father, Duane teamed up with Pogo Patterson and Tracy Edwards (later replaced by Claire Scott), to usher in a new group of pupils aimed at eventually replacing Tucker Jenkins and Trisha Yates. Becoming involved with Pogo’s schemes, having a crush on teacher Miss Lexington and helping to defeat Gripper Stebson, Duane was central to Grange Hill. However after five series, the character of Duane suddenly disappeared from screen. In this brand new interview, exclusive to Grange Hill Gold, Mark Baxter reminisces about his time as Duane and why he doesn’t mind being known as Grange Hill’s ‘forgotten man’.
What lead to you going into acting?
My lucky break! I was seven years old and out with friends, when a single decker bus decided he wasn’t stopping for the people on the zebra crossing. It dragged me about 100 metres down the road. I broke my right leg and was left with a limp. Doctors told me dancing lessons would help, so I went for classes at the Barbara Speake stage school and she said I had a cheeky face and wanted me for her school.
What roles had you played before joining Grange Hill?
I was very lucky early on, I made in excess of 70 TV commercials, films such as The Omen, Barry Lyndon TV classics like Z Cars, Poldark, Fall of Eagles and Crackerjack to name a few.
I then went on to play Oliver in 1977 where another old Grange Hill favourite Paul McCarthy (Tommy Watson) played the Artful Dodger.
I went on to perform at the Royal Variety Performance; what an honour. Then GH came along!
Did you audition specifically for the part of Duane?
I had already been on the set of GH where I’d played football alongside Benny. The director Colin Cant had asked me then about what experience I had. I’d also previously worked with Todd Carty on a series called Headmaster.
When Duane came around, Colin asked me to read for him. He later told me there were no other readers for Duane which was a great compliment.
Was it difficult coming into Grange Hill as the first ‘new’ year group below Tucker & co?
It was extremely difficult. The show had been running for 2 years and the older guys had really established themselves.
I remember my very first morning sitting in the BBC reception area when most of ’the faces’ came through. Peter Moran and myself were sitting there and Terry Sue Patt made a point of coming over to us and welcoming us to the GH family. Fabulous gesture.
Were you similar to Duane at all?
50 – 50 really. Many times Duane’s life mirrored mine. He was a fantastic character to play and would have probably had a lot adventures if my health had not deteriorated.
Who did you get on well with from the cast?
GH was like any other school really. There were people who you were friendly with and not so much. Peter Moran (Pogo) was a good friend we were there on our first day together. Paula (Claire) was beautiful and a pleasure to work with and we are still in contact today. I was lucky to work with some very talented young people. Susan Tully, Amanda Mealing, Mark Burdis to name a few. Great actors.
How did you get on with the adults in the cast?
I learned a lot from all of them. Looking back it really was amazing how they would help with advice to us. But they also knew we would often make a scene much better for them with a bit of guidance.
Did you get much reaction to your character from the public?
It was insane. For the most part an incredible time. But sometimes quite frightening. I remember when we were filming on location at a school in Willesden north west London, during a break a rather large crowd had gathered to see the A team of Todd, Terry, Michelle, George etc ( Peter and I had not been on screen yet ). So the crew set up a small table and the guys started signing autographs. Then out of nowhere some boy thought he would make a local name for himself by hitting Todd, from behind, I might add. That was the kind of thing that happened quite regularly.
But I wouldn’t swap a moment of it.
In your first series you were paired with Mandy Mealing’s character Tracy. What was it like working with her?
Mandy was a dream to work with, very driven, I was disappointed when she decided she wouldn’t come back the next year. Mandy decided she didn’t want to be typecast, a good move in hindsight for her adult acting career I think you’d agree.
However she missed one hell of a ride
Your first series seemed to have a troubled start in production, with lots of new cast; most of whom were suddenly replaced in the next series. What are your memories of this?
As I said Mandy decided she didn’t want to return, but only Peter, Myself and Joanne Boakes (Anita) were retained for series 4. Things just didn’t work, they had hoped that by recreating the same format as year one with three male leads including Benny’s brother Michael the same dynamic would occur. It didn’t. That wasn’t Mark Bishop’s fault it was a writer’s issue. Unfortunately public response was not great on brother & sister character from other years. However Paula Ann Bland replaced Mandy as my girlfriend! You could not imagine GH’s legacy without Paula, Mark & Susan.
You were heavily involved in Gripper’s racism storyline. Did you realise quite how ground-breaking the racism storyline was for children’s television?
We had previously set a children’s TV record for complaints during a sex education episode ( thank you Mary Whitehouse ) so when I read the first scripts I knew this was dynamite.
The casting around that storyline was magnificent.
Mark Savage was exceptional as was everyone involved. I was not surprised at all by its reception.
Were there any storylines you would have liked to have covered as Duane?
There was a lot of discussion about exploring the domestic violence issue that really was just surface scratching with Duane and his father, but at the time was considered a bit too heavy for airing time of 5.10. And of course Duane should have had a full blown affair with Sexy Lexy!
Duane disappeared mid-season, which was odd for a lead character. What lead to you leaving? Would you have been happy to stay for longer?
Unfortunately I had secretly been fighting Crohn’s disease for around two years, we were approaching recording episode 14 and my body couldn’t take it anymore. I was rushed into hospital where I spent the next six months.
It was then that I got the news that I had cancerous cells in my bowel and was then faced with the agonising choice of removal or die. I chose removal!
Did you expect your role in Grange Hill to be remembered 30 years later?
In a word ‘No’.
As you’ve seen I have only recently joined the social media thing. But I am both astonished and humbled so many people out there remember us, I am so grateful to all the people on FB that have sent me wonderful messages.
Was there ever a time when you were embarrassed about having been in Grange Hill?
Embarrassed, No. Resentful, yes. For many years I felt let down especially by the BBC who basically dropped me like a stone. People who I’d classed as friends disappeared, the price of fame eh?
I would never be embarrassed though. GH was a major part of my life and I was blessed to be a part of it.
What are your favourite memories from your time playing Duane?
Believe it or not my favourite memories are the clothes he used to wear. In his early episodes he was very lucky; he wore Adidas t-shirts and Levi Jeans. When we went all uniform he wore Farah trousers ; back then he was the mutt’s nuts!
Do you have a favourite episode?
Wow! So many. Would have to say the episode where Duane decides he has to bulk up to win Miss Lexington’s affection so goes to work on a bulk worker. Priceless.
Do you have any bad memories of your time there?
A few. I fell out with Mark Burdis which I regret. We were young and bullish. He was a very funny guy. We worked together again a little while after on a drink drive advert. But was never the same. Fantastic actor though
After Grange Hill, you appeared in a lot of other television roles. Are there any that stand out?
I did go on and work after my illness. One Foot In The Grave was probably one of the most profitable weeks of my acting career! It was shown in airport lounges all over and to this day I still get repeat fees coming through the door ; usually for about £15.20!
I also did a national tour of a show called “Once A Catholic “, very entertaining. I was in the first Batman film, Law & Order, Paddington and a few others.
What did you do after you decided to stop acting?
I’ve been many things. I worked for the very first Karaoke company in the U.K. Compered the Sony karaoke championships twice. Directed countless presenter / Actors show-reels. I’m a qualified London tour guide. Qualified London cab driver. I now teach people how to pass ” The Knowledge “.
How do you look back on your time in the series?
With great affection and pride. I’ve been called the forgotten man of Grange Hill but I’m ok with that. I was there and played my small part in making it what it became.
What do you think Duane Orpington is doing now?
Duane’s out there probably working in banking somewhere hoping his Claire will come back to him soon.
© 2017 Grange Hill Gold – Not to be reproduced without permission.
Thanks to Mark Baxter.